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'When schools pay for services they demand more – that means we must be more creative in what we do’

Ian Florance meets Dr Will Shield.

08 September 2017

You can argue that educational psychology fills more column inches and provides more soundbites in media debates about psychology's role in society than any other application of the discipline. How psychological input affects or is denied to children perhaps causes more emotion than most other areas of our discipline's application. Yet it's sometimes been difficult to get practising educational psychologists (EPs) to talk about what their role really involves.

So when Dr Will Shield contacted us, writing that he was 'keen to talk about the role of EPs in applying psychology to support schools in financially challenging times', we were equally keen to meet him.

'There is an unprecedented number of applicants wanting to train as EPs, which is great, despite shrinking funds for local authority EP services,' Will begins. 'The government states it is committed to increasing EP numbers, although we're up against an apparent shortage of training placements in local authorities and there's a fear held by some trainees that they will not be able to find a job straight from training.'

Will comments that the move away from local authority-funded services to traded services, where schools, educational settings and sometimes parents pay for EP support, is changing how the profession works and what skills practitioners need. 'Most local authorities maintain an educational psychology service to complete statutory work, although some now commission outside organisations to carry out all statutory work as well as offering other services. Schools can buy in these other services, but the pot of money is shrinking and schools have other priorities. Many schools still don't understand the breadth of what educational psychology can offer to children, young people, families and organisations. If truth be told, EPs haven't always been very good at telling them! But the result is EPs working with increasing creativity – offering training, therapeutic work and research with schools. They are adapting to a more business-like model rather than the traditional one of local-authority psychologists. EPs find they need to be more self-sufficient, more confident and more skilled at promoting their skills.'

Will had identified an issue that is obviously affecting EPs profoundly. What can they do about it? 'We need to communicate better and undertake more lobbying, national communication, publishing and conference sessions. As I've suggested, schools and families sometimes don't understand that our role and skills extend far beyond statutory work. I've enjoyed systemic work and helping schools react to organisational change, for instance. In addition, there's a national focus on promoting mental health; EPs are incredibly well placed to help schools and families develop their knowledge and skills in this area.'

Summing up, Will argues that educational psychologists need to be giving elements of psychology away to help people understand what the unique contribution is. 'When schools pay for services they demand more – that means we must be more creative in what we do. This will affect training – every course needs a strong element on ethical trading, alongside business-related and communication skills. At Exeter University our aim is to help students feel confident in publishing their research, for instance. We also stress flexibility and mobility as core requirements for a career in educational psychology – our training placements can be anywhere, giving students a flavour of real EP life.'

There's also a fundamental issue – where is an EP's home? 'We are moving away from local authorities and working increasingly within multi-academy trusts, federations of schools and with the post-16 sector. Given ongoing austerity measures and cuts to vital frontline services, there is a danger we might become all things to all people – family support workers, literacy specialists, behaviour and learning mentors. Turn it around and this "homelessness" is an opportunity to reassert our professional integrity – to say what we don't feel comfortable doing as well as celebrating the huge range of what we can do.'

Will feels that talking to other health and social care professionals has already enriched the profession of educational psychology. 'But we need to extend those conversations beyond casework – which is what they often focus on – to sharing of experiences and cross-disciplinary supervision. Events like "Psychology in the Pub" help us to talk to other kinds of psychologists – occupational psychologists, for instance, know a lot more about structuring portfolio careers, selling services, running businesses. We might be able to swap some of our knowledge in areas such as complex educational systems for their advice. In my view, this is a fantastic opportunity for educational psychologists to raise their profile in areas relating to children, young people and families. Our job is to apply psychology to better understand how schools can support children's learning, emotional wellbeing, mental health and behaviour.'

Will's strong views stem partly from his own experiences and the fact that his career mixes many elements and places of work. He did a psychology A-level and enjoyed it. Although he'd intended to study law, he ended up doing a degree in psychology at UWE Bristol. 'I quickly realised how sheltered my upbringing had been, living in a small Staffordshire village. In my first year at university, I worked in an inner-city school in Bristol, and one of the cases at a staff meeting concerned a family who were living in unimaginable poverty. It motivated me to want to work with families who had developed such strong resilience in the face of adversity. It also suggests to me that getting used to diversity and understanding issues in different cultures must be a key element in the training of any EP. You should be helped to understand your own upbringing and therefore the preconceptions you carry with you. Maybe I was naive at the time, but things haven't changed too much – I live in Bristol, an incredibly diverse and exciting city, but one where there are clear divides between affluent areas and pockets of extreme poverty.'

Will worked in inner-city Bristol schools after graduating and thought about applying for a PGCE, but his experience made him realise that he 'wanted to work with children individually and holistically, rather than in a classroom teaching role'. He says he was – and still is – 'passionate about applying psychology to understand how children make sense of their world'.

He'd been advised to consider educational psychology by a university careers adviser and by his godparents (also careers advisers), but there were no opportunities for undergraduates to shadow a working EP or see what the role entailed. Once working full-time as a teaching assistant in a secondary school, Will made contact with the school's EP and arranged an afternoon of shadowing. 'After this', he explains, 'I applied for the Doctorate in Educational, Child and Community Psychology at Exeter University.' Will is prompted by his memory of the course to think about one of the two issues he'd raised when he wrote to us – experiences prior to applying for courses. 'Several of us on my training course had worked in support roles within both mainstream and special schools. We had had similar experiences. Since EP training changed to a three-year professional doctorate in line with the clinical psychology training route, we see a more diverse range of people coming into training. It was and is a huge jump for teachers to retrain – not least financially – but now many applicants do not have a teaching background at all. This is allowing for a broader range of knowledge and skills within the profession, with some people coming from health, social care or even commercial backgrounds.'

During the course, Will discovered a love for consultation as well as individual casework with children who have experienced trauma, abuse or neglect. 'I still feel immensely privileged to work with children and their families,' he says, 'hearing their most personal stories and supporting schools in understanding how to best offer support. It's always rewarding but can be incredibly tough.'

After qualifying, Will worked for Babcock LDP Educational Psychology Service in Devon, and for the past three and a half years Will has been an EP for North Somerset Council. Since qualifying he has also been involved in some assessment work for local universities. 'I recently worked with a 25-year-old from a challenging background who had struggled at school. Despite being excluded from school and then becoming disengaged from education, he made the conscious decision to be the first in his family to go to university. He completed a higher education access course at college and was then accepted for an undergraduate degree, now with plans to complete a master's degree. These sorts of stories inspire me and other EPs; they show that access to a good-quality education – at any age – can make a notable difference to anyone's life, even if that education follows a different trajectory.'  

In addition to this work, Will undertakes several other activities. When I interviewed him, he had started a secondment at Exeter University as a tutor on the DEdPsy programme. 'This involves teaching, visiting trainee EPs on placement, providing supervision and co-supervising research projects. Trainee EPs are in a particularly powerful place to help bridge the gap between academic research and "real-world" implications. Fundamentally, we are applied psychologists utilising evidence-based practice.' He is also 'a committed Association of Educational Psychologists rep' (a trade union and professional body) and a member of the BPS/DECP: 'Both organisations are doing a great job at promoting the voice of the profession.'

What else has Will learnt in his career? 'The importance of time spent having lunch with your team! Supervision is essential – to cope with the undoubted emotional strain of work; to keep you focused; to ensure you renew your skills; and, among the sorts of changes we've discussed, it helps me think about the future of a very important profession.'