Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Educational psychologists

What do they know?

Parents in the United Kingdom seeking to exercise their supposed right to ‘choice’ of educational provision by requesting Conductive Education, face a host of specific problems which together usually add up to their being denied that choice. Along the way this myriad of individual denials has helped curtail the one-time promising future for Conductive Education in that country’s benighted public education system.

Educational psychologists?

These problems for the most part run deeply systemic but at the day-to-day personal level of allocating provision for individual children they often focus around what in the United Kingdom are called ‘educational psychologists’ – roughly analogous to what in most other countries are called ‘school psychologists.

To be fair to the educational psychologists on the ground, their position is an uncomfortable one. They present themselves both as influential figures within the gate-keeping system that allocates desperately short funds for specialist provision, and at the same time as ‘professionals’ of impeccable impartiality and expertise. Their employers, however, the very local authorities that disburse the limited funds and are responsible for planning and providing the often meagre local provision, are very clear that their educational psychologists are ‘servants of the authority’. And of course, the educational psychologists, as they themselves have been complaining for years, are far from adequately trained to undertake the wide range of tasks that they are expected to do.

The educational psychologists’ dilemmas

One might enter two further points in mitigation for the actions of individual psychologists in the day-to-day reality of their work..

First a technical one. Never mind the training, there is little or no psychological knowledge base available anyway, that is practically relevant to the upbringing and education of children with motor disorders, for the educational psychologists to be trained on in the first place. This is a very real problem for professionals claiming specialist knowledge in any field and could make for very poor showing under informed cross-examination in court should the claimed expertise ever be critically examined in such a forum. This technical short-fall is not of course unique to the United Kingdom, since educational psychologists’ claimed ‘scientific knowledge’ extends beyond their native shores, to at least as far as the other English-speaking counties.

Secondly, there is the ethical problem that might arise in giving supposedly independent, technical, even ‘scientific’ professional advise in a situation where there are two parties in dispute (the parents and the local authority) – with one of the parties being the educational psychologists’ own employer. This unfortunate conflict of interest was already obvious more that thirty years ago (Sutton, 1978; 1981) but a couple of high-profile sackings focussed educational psychologists’ attention upon the hopelessness of resistance and, as far as I know, the problem has not been faced up to further over the years since.

One might find both these mitigating points excuse enough for the individuals involved. I have been regularly amazed over the years how parents, seething over the ignorance or apparent pusillanimity of educational psychologists, later ‘forgive’ the individuals in question. They soon spot that their educational psychologists are required to deal with issues that they patently know nothing about, by a ‘system’ that is as oppressive to its employees as it is to its ‘clients’. I have sometimes wondered whether the educational psychologists in question have been aware of this small kindness, and what they might feel about it if they were. One might, however, feel less forgiving for the ‘profession’ as a whole, its organisation and its training bodies, for permitting this situation to persist and exacerbate decade after decade.

‘All professions are conspiracies against the laity’ (Shaw, 1911, Act 1). No insecure semi- or bureau-profession is going to be publicly open about what it does and does not know (i.e. what justifies its claim to particular technical expertise in a given field) – or about the actual ethical situation of its members’ day-to-day relationship caught as they are in the middle between the conflicting demands of their employers and their clients. One could hardly expect educational psychologists to be any different. What might they have to say about such matters, however, in the relative privacy of their own trade journal, and how does this relate if at all to their work with respect to gate-keeping Conductive Education?

By way of a survey

The activities of educational psychologists have been a persistent and often apparently decisive feature of the problematic process of obtaining public-funding support for Conductive Education. This has not yet, however, as far as I can ascertain, received public attention within the emerging Conductive Education literature (I would be pleased to be corrected on this). What, though, might be found on the ‘other side’, in the published literature of educational psychology on the now fast-evolving world of Conducting Education, not least in the United Kingdom?

I have had the opportunity to look through some seven years’ issues of the journal Education Psychology in Practice. This is published quarterly by Routledge on behalf of the Association of Educational Psychologists, the educational psychologists’ trade union in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland, as in many things, likes to do things in its own way but is fundamentally the same). Specifically, I looked through issues from Volume 17, no 4 (November 2001) to Volume 24, no 1 (March 2008).

These comprised 26 issues in all, containing in all 134 articles. The journal also has a vigorous and substantial book-review section (in my view better value than the bulk of the articles) and these 26 issues yielded reviews of 256 books.

This was a ‘quick and dirty’ exercise. I was looking for mention of the ‘big issue’ of dilemmas of allegiance (employer vs client) and for technical matters relating to the general question of how psychologists might arrive at decisions when allocating resources (to use the system’s own ghastly, dehumanising expression, ‘statementing’) for individual children. I was also looking out specifically for technical materials on the development, assessment and education of children with motor disorders (who as far as the local authorities and their educational psychologists are concerned tend to fall under the amorphous, educationally meaningless category of ‘physical disabilities’, or are lost within an even more unfocussed grouping, profound and multiple learning disabililities) – and of course I was also looking out for Conductive Education.

My method for identifying relevant articles was to review the contents page of each issue in turn for titles suggesting the topics that I had in mind, read the summaries of likely-looking papers and then, if appropriate, read the article in question. This was a fairly quick process for the articles but the book reviews took much longer: there were nearly twice as many of them, they had no contents pages or summaries for them, and they were often rather more interesting with respect to both the books reviewed and the reviews themselves – so I was frequently side-tracked into reading them in full!

Realising early on in the process that I was going to find very little on the specific topics that I had in mind I went back to the beginning and started again, extending the search to answer the further question: ‘If educational psychologists don’t concern themselves with motor disorders, what developmental disorders do concern them?’ I also included ‘dynamic assessment’, as will be commented upon further below.

Scores for relevant topics represent the number of relevant articles or reviews identified, utilising the terminology used in the titles of the articles or the books reviewed. The scores were then grouped to generate some coherence.

Well, what do they know?


The ‘big issue’ (conflict of loyalties) 0
Decision making to allocate resources 0

Motor disorders 0

Deaf 1
Hearing-impaired 1

Autism 2
Autistic spectrum disorder 4
Communication difficulties + autistic spectrum disorders 1

Book reviews

The ‘big issue’ (conflict of loyalties) 0
Decision making to allocate resources 0

Motor disorders 0

Autism 4
Autistic spectrum disorder 4
Asberger’s 9

Dyslexia 11
Dyspraxia 3

Complex learning difficulties 1
Intellectial disorders 1
Down’s 2

Deaf 2
Tourette’s 2

Dynamic assessment 2

I had been assured by the educational psychologist who lent me this run of journal issues that ‘dynamic assessment’ is the big new thing in educational psychologists’ assessment practice, by which seems to be meant specifically the work of Reuven Feuerstein and David Tzuriel. There is close theoretical approximation between this work and Conductive Education, which has its own dynamic assessment processes in-built and central to the pedagogic process in the form of conductive observation. I wondered, therefore, that it would be interesting to see what educational psychologists have to say of their own experience in such activity. Nothing. The only mentions at all were through two book reviews.

All sorts of other topics were of course raised, some of which may reflect obliquely across motor-disorders, Conductive Education and allocation of resources through ‘statementing’ but if they do it is at best obliquely. Many articles were highly self-regarding but this is understandable in a trade union’s own internal publication (we can make no comparison for conductors since there is no analogous publication). I cannot resist, however, quoting the summary of one article (whether the author’s own summary or provided by the editors, it did not say). The article, it said, would outline

… a future in which educational psychology occupies a position of central importance in society’s affairs’ (MacKay, 2002)

Are we any the wiser…?

This survey was a trivial distraction during a quiet weekend in the middle of August. What have I learned? Not a lot, other than that, by the index used here (and I acknowldge that there may be other indices), for this group of bureau-professionals at the heart of allocating scarce resources for ‘special educational needs’ across the major part of the United Kingdom, Conductive Education and motor disorders are off the radar, below the horizon. Where developmental disorder does occupy their attention, it is in other fields. No surprises there.

Sad but equally unsurprising, there seems no heart-searching about the big issue of divided loyalties. Sad, and politically naïve beyond belief, because over precisely the period covered by these seven years of Educational Psychology in Practice the whole probity of the assessment system in which the practice of these educational psychologists is embedded has been called into question by the media and by the politicians. Whatever the Government proclaim the bar public opinion has formed the definite opinion that the system is discredited and inherently unworkable – to the degree to which the Conservative Party is being urged from within towards radically re-engineering the whole assessment system, including the employment base of educational psychologists (Balchin, 2007). It really does sound the sort of thing that a trade-union publication ought to be reflecting, especially if people really do dream of ‘a position of central importance in society’s affairs’!

After all, David Cameron, the Leader of the Conservatives, might be Prime Minister within two years. He has a disabled son and, when he was just a local Member of Parliament and no one could foresee his possible future position. he had his own personal dealings with the local authority assessment system Never mind what official information and advice or whatever lobbying he receives in future years, he now ‘knows’ about the obduracy of the system in as does any parent who has been through the mill. I suspect that he will remember…

In mitigation (again) perhaps the 'academic', learned-journal template that is appropriate to publication by Routledge might act to direct the contents of Educational Psychology in Practice in directions away from what might be very real concerns in the daily professional life of educational psychologists, hardly a situation unique to educational psychologists! Perhaps such concerns are all matters of active analysis elsewhere, from the possibly forthcoming political overthrow of the way of working established for generations to how to deal with yet another awkward family that rejects the allocated special school, doesn’t want ‘inclusion’ as she is spoke, and is threatening to go and get a lawyer to fight for Conductive Education..

Differences apart, in common is that the Conductive Education movement and the educational psychologists may not be able to do much about the major forces that shape their worlds. Many members of both camps might prefer the ship of fools just to sail on notwithstanding, like tomorrow will never come. This does not mean that people should not try to influence their futures, and just perhaps it might help if the two groups knew just a little about each other and could fabricate some common front…

Beats me how, though.

Are conductivists’ experience of school psychologists any different outside the United Kingdom??


My thanks to the educational psychologist who lent me her copies of the journal. She has declined to be named.


Association of Educational Psychologists

Balchin, R. (Chmn) (2007) Commission on Special Needs in Education. Second Report. London: Conservative Party

Educational Psychology in Practice

MacKay, T (2002) Discussion paper – the future of educational psychology, Educational Psychology in Practice, vol. 18, no 3, pp. 245-253

Shaw, G. B. (1922) The doctor’s dilemma

Sutton, A. (1978) The psychologist’s professionalism and the right to psychology. In B. Gillham (ed.) Reconstructing Educational Psychology. London: Croom Helm, pp 144-160

Sutton, A. (1981) Whose psychology? Some issues in the social control of psychological practice. In I. McPherson and A. Sutton (eds) Reconstructing Psychological Practice. London: Croom Helm, pp.145-164

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