Psychology helps young people to understand themselves, relationships and how to control their own actions – and even teaches them the importance of a good night’s sleep, says Jonathan Firth, who runs Scotland’s only teacher education course for the subject. “I am passionate about how much students can gain from psychology,” he explains. “There is quite a lot of overlap with personal and social education and mental health and a lot of the things that are increasingly moving into the spotlight in schools and education.
“The pupils can get more of an understanding of themselves. They also learn about the scientific method – the practical research skills integral to the subject can transfer to a great many courses and careers.”
The psychology PGDE started at the University of Strathclyde in 2016 and 16 psychology teachers have now completed their probationary year. They will start delivering their subject in schools as fully fledged teachers this August.
This course could be seen as timely, with pupil mental health rising to the top of the agenda. Government-commissioned research recently revealed that a fifth of people referred to child and adolescent mental health services (Camhs) in Scotland, by a GP or teacher, are rejected – usually without being seen.
The researchers recommended that the government should consider implementing “nationwide provision of schools-based services” to address the “gap in services for children and young people who do not meet the criteria for the most specialist help”.
Becoming ‘psychologically literate’
Some experts argue that increasing the presence of psychology as a subject in school would be a start because it would support pupils’ mental health by making them “psychologically literate”.
As the Higher psychology course specification states: “Psychology provides candidates with opportunities to find out about some of the ways that thoughts and emotions can affect how we feel and behave.”
And the subject is certainly attracting the interest of aspiring educators. Many secondary teacher education courses struggle to sign up enough students to hit their targets: last year 30 per cent of places on secondary PGDEs went unfilled. But in psychology – one of only four subjects to meet its target last year – the University of Strathclyde is having to turn applicants away, with just nine places available for the coming academic year.
Firth says: “We got 40-plus applications for the course. We are having to turn a lot of good candidates down, but we don’t want to train more teachers than there are jobs for.”
However, he predicts that the subject will now blossom and student teacher recruitment targets will rise. Firth estimates that psychology is available in only around a fifth of Scotland’s secondaries. But the subject’s popularity south of the border suggests his prediction of growth could be on the money.
In Scotland psychology was not taught in schools until 1999, whereas in England the subject has been available at A level since the 1970s. Last year, psychology was England’s third most popular A-level subject.
In Scotland last year, 3,666 candidates were entered for the Higher, putting the subject on a par with the likes of French, and religious, moral and philosophical studies; but some distance behind the most popular subject, English, which had more than 35,700 entries.
Firth believes a potential stumbling block for the development of psychology as a subject in Scotland is the limited number of school-based qualifications available. Scottish schools are delivering A-level psychology because there is no Advanced Higher in the subject, he says. At the other end of the scale, there is no National 4 qualification.
“Introducing Advanced Higher as well as N4 – in addition to the current N5 and Higher – would help schools to make the subject available to a broader age range of pupils and allow for differentiation,” he says. “It is not hard to find teachers who have had to disappoint students for whom psychology is not available due to their age or level.”
Psychology can be seen as a subject suitable for older pupils. But Firth believes this is a misconception, and says teachers of the subject are also “a nice fit” for delivering personal and social education (PSE), a subject that has come under fire (“PSE is ‘irrelevant’ and a ‘waste of time’, MSPs told”, Tes Scotland, 3 March 2017).
Firth argues that psychology has a unique appeal. “It can attract pupils to science who may have not enjoyed the natural sciences, and help to address the disproportionate under-representation of girls in scientific subjects,” he has written.
Exam body the Scottish Qualifications Authority says that while the growth in psychology is welcome, it is “a relatively low-uptake subject” and the development of new qualifications is based on a number of factors, “including the expected numbers of candidates and centres likely to be interested”.
A spokesman adds: “Candidates looking to study psychology beyond Higher are able to do so through units in the HNC and HND in social sciences. There are also Professional Development Awards in psychology at SCQF levels 7 and 8.”