Educational psychologists are “well placed” to help schools spend money earmarked for closing the attainment gap wisely, according to Vivienne Sutherland, Fife’s principal educational psychologist (EP) and the new chair of the Association of Scottish Principal Educational Psychologists.
EPs can assist in setting up projects; interpret national research so that schools can apply it to their own contexts; and help to scale up small projects that appear to be working, Sutherland tells Tes Scotland.
If something is making a difference, EPs are able to help schools figure out why it is working. And they can support them to tweak things that are not having the desired effect. They can also advise schools when it is time to “stop and do something different”, she adds.
Sutherland’s invitation to headteachers to tap into the research and development skills of EPs comes as questions continue to be asked about how effectively the £120 million Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) money is being spent.
The cash was handed directly to headteachers by the Scottish government for the first time last year, to be spent on projects that will boost the attainment of disadvantaged pupils. Schools received £1,200 for each pupil claiming free meals.
However, last week in the Scottish Parliament, a charity became the latest critic of the way that some headteachers were using the PEF. Martin Canavan, policy and participation officer at the Aberlour Child Care Trust, questioned if spending the cash on “campus cops” – as is happening in North Ayrshire – would improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils.
Previously, Tes Scotland has reported on fears that the money is simply replacing cut resources (“Headteachers ‘plug gaps’ with Pupil Equity Fund”, 27 October 2017) and in March, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, said “serious questions” needed to be asked about the way the funding was being spent.
Sutherland says: “It is action research that headteachers are being asked to take forward through the PEF, implementing projects and feeding back.
“Many headteachers will take to it really well because that is what they have always done. But for some, it will be very, very new and they may not have had much experience of that way of working up to now.
“That way of working is well matched to our professional skills. EPs are well placed to be able to advise schools about how best to set up, design and implement projects for effective impact.”
However, schools might well question how likely it is that stretched educational psychology services will be able to accommodate requests for support on spending the PEF.
In Fife, where Sutherland is based, a full-time EP is responsible for roughly 15 schools, including secondary, preschool, primary and additional support needs settings. The school population that each EP covers is about 7,000 pupils.
Only the pupils with the most severe issues receive direct support from EPs. They also advise schools about pupils and work with them to upskill teachers.
“In a way, the job could be infinite and we need to find a way of making it finite, because we are a finite resource,” Sutherland says. Fife has been trying a new approach: this year, schools have been using their PEF money to buy in additional educational psychology support. However, the extent to which they have been able to do this has been limited because of the shortage of EPs.
At the moment there are not enough EPs being trained to fill even the reduced number of posts that now exist as a result of local authority budget cuts, Sutherland says.
Tes Scotland recently revealed that there had been just 45 applications for the MSc educational psychology course due to run at the University of Dundee later this year (“Pupils ‘failed’ by educational psychologist shortages”, 25 April). In 2010, when bursaries of £49,000 over two years were in place, the course attracted 127 applications.
The EIS, Scotland’s largest teaching union wants the bursary to be reintroduced. General secretary Larry Flanagan says that pupils with mental health problems are not getting the support they need.
Sutherland is optimistic that a funding deal will soon be reached. If the government is serious about having a sustainable workforce, that is what needs to happen, she says.
Sutherland, who celebrates 20 years in educational psychology this year, continues: “We are not looking to grow the profession. We know in the current climate that is not realistic but we need to fill the posts we have, otherwise the bottom line is less expert advice for schools, and children and families seen less frequently.”