Principal Educational Psychologist

Dr. Rob Hart
Principal Educational Psychologist
City of Wolverhampton Council

Q. Sometimes the term psychologist can make families feel nervous. Can you explain what an Educational Psychologist is?

I understand that, and how there can be confusion between ‘psychologist’ and ‘psychiatrist’. A psychologist is someone who is interested in how people learn; how people feel; how people think and how they behave. An Educational Psychologist (EP) is someone who is trained in psychology so they have an understanding of learning, thinking, cognition and behaviour and then apply that in educational settings when working with children and young people.

Q. What is the role of an EP?

Our role is very much to help people who work in schools and other educational settings, and with parents, carers or others, to understand situations if children have additional needs; and are finding it difficult in areas relating to their learning, their behaviour or their feelings. We work with schools to help them apply what we know from psychological research to help children to learn, succeed and enjoy their learning. I am the Principal Educational Psychologist, which means I am the Head of the EP Service for the City of Wolverhampton Council. I also manage a team of specialist teachers and a counselling and behaviourist support worker. Within the LA (Local Authority), our service is part of the Children and Young People’s Service.

Q. Why is there an EP Service?

This EP Service is a service for the City of Wolverhampton and we work with children and young people from 0 – 25 years. We work in all of the schools within the City.

Each LA within the West Midlands has its own EP Service. Whilst we do not tend to do much with schools outside of Wolverhampton, we will be involved with some to support children who live in Wolverhampton but attend a school outside of Wolverhampton if they have got an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) or a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SSEN).

Q. Why might an EP become involved with a child?

One of the reasons that every Local Authority has an EP service is because there is a statutory requirement that when a child is assessed for a SSEN or EHCP, the LA needs to seek a report from an EP, known as ‘psychological advice’ so we will always be involved with children at that stage. We also work at an earlier stage as part of the staged approach to SEN Support as explained in the Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Code of Practice. We help schools and other educational settings identify, assess, plan and review when there are concerns about SEND. So, an EP might become involved if a child has been identified as having additional needs and the school has put in support and feels that further specialist advice is needed.

Usually EPs will go into schools and meet with the Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) on a regular basis to discuss children they feel may need support from the service and to offer advice. Also, within Wolverhampton, the EP Service is involved in what we call neurodevelopmental assessments which are for conditions such as Autism spectrum conditions or ADHD. If a paediatrician, parent or other professional is concerned that a child may have one of those difficulties then an EP may be asked to see the child.

Q. Can you tell us about the assessments that you do with children and young people?

I think people typically assume that an EP assesses a child in isolation and that the purpose of that is to say what is wrong with the child. That is not the case. What an EP assessment is about is trying to understand the situation.

When psychologists try to understand behaviour, we often talk about the interaction between the person and the environment. So when an EP is asked to be involved with a child or young person we are looking at how they are being taught, what the school/home environment looks like and how the interaction between that and the person creates the situation that is causing concern.

Q. In the case that there are problems in the environment what would you suggest?

The first line is to always suggest alternative plans. If we think about the interaction between the person and the environment, there’s no point in just describing a situation because that doesn’t change anything. If change is needed, we either change the person or the environment. There are approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which are about changing the way in which a person thinks and feels for example. On the whole, when working with children and young people, the most successful approaches are about changing the environment. This will consider how the child is taught, or even simpler changes like where a child is seated in class. We can work with the school so they can teach the child particular skills or change how adults might respond to particular types of behaviour if it is behaviour that is causing concern.

The preference is always to think about how the current situation or environment can be altered to promote positive behaviour; promote positive learning; promote happiness and wellbeing. Often, it is not the psychologist coming along knowing all the answers that nobody else knows. Usually we find that the people who work most closely with the child (like family members and school staff) are the ones who probably have most of the answers. The psychologists can help to find those solutions and help to understand the situation a little better.

Q. Would this be part of an assessment process for a report?

Sometimes, for example during a statutory assessment, we have to put our findings into a report. However, we often find it is more useful to feedback our views and findings through meetings with the child and their family and the team around them. It is not about the EP writing a report that says ‘you must do this’, it is more about the EP explaining their perspective on what is happening and working with the people that support the child to come up with an agreed plan that is practical and reasonable.

For some children, an EP may be going in and having discussions with school staff on a weekly or fortnightly basis to define and refine plans. In those cases, the plan would probably be reviewed with everyone on a termly basis instead.

Q. Do EPs decide which school is best for each child’s SEN/disability?

According to the SEND legislation, if there is an EHCP, the right to express a preference for a particular school or setting, is the parent’s (or the young person’s if over 16). The LA has to consider that preference and examine if the preferred school is able to meet the child’s needs. The EP’s role is to advise on what support a child may need, not necessarily where they should go to receive that support, because often the child may be able to receive their support in a number of different settings, whether it be a mainstream or more specialist school.

Q. Do EPs become involved in home life?

Yes. The way we become involved may vary but EPs in Wolverhampton have long been involved in integrated or multi-agency working alongside colleagues from other services. There are EPs who work with children who are looked after, those with the Youth Offending Service and through processes such as the Early Help planning process or child protection/social care interventions.

We will input into those plans and can provide advice and support. We also have some EPs who work with children at pre-school stage and often we will be involved in helping parents understand what might be different about their child’s development and how best to support them.

Q. Since the Children and Families Act 2014 has the role changed?

Yes. I think one of the most obvious changes is because the Act covers children and young people from 0 – 25, the age range of children and young people that we work with has extended. Where we were previously involved with children who were at school age, we are now involved with an older age group.

The other distinction is that with SSENs, the focus was very much on what support a child needed to engage in education where as now, the focus is more around what support a child needs to achieve outcomes that are meaningful and reflect the aspirations for that child and their family. Obviously, engaging in education is part of that but it focuses more on the individual and it is also more holistic in terms of how we help to equip children and young people with skills that they need to live independently and to make successful transitions into adulthood, rather than simply how to keep them in school. I think EPs would have always said that their job was to provide advice and support that was independent and focused on the child’s best interests and, I think, that has remained the case but is probably further clarified through the Children and Families Act.

Q. There are lots of types of schools now, such as academies and free schools. Does it make a difference to the support available from the Local Authority EP Service??

No. All types of schools have the same access to the service. It was the case that money was automatically removed from school budgets in what was called a ‘top-slice’ to fund our service to do non-statutory work. Now all schools (maintained, academies and free schools) retain that money and are able to buy into the LA EP Service and/ or commission another EP service. Schools have to use their own resources to identify, assess and put in place support for children and young people at SEN Support before they get to the EHCP level.

If, for any reason, the school isn’t fulfilling its duties to a child or young person as outlined in the SEND Code of Practice, the best thing to do is to take it up with the school and consider using the Information, Advice and Support Service who can champion the parent’s interests and challenge the school.

Q. What training do EPs have to undertake?

All qualified EPs will have an undergraduate degree in psychology and a postgraduate qualification in Educational Psychology. Since 2006, all new EPs have been required to complete a doctorate in Educational Psychology which involves 3 years of combined study and working as an EP under supervision. Prior to that, they needed to take a masters level training course. As EPs are registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), there is a requirement for them to undertake a range of continuous professional development (CPD) activities. This is to ensure they keep up to date with current developments in Educational Psychology and that their knowledge and skills are up to date.

Q. What do you wish you could change about your role?

I suppose I wish there were more EPs to go around. That would enable us to be more involved at an earlier stage, in a preventative way and in developmental work with schools to really champion inclusive practice.

Q. How many Educational Psychologists are there?

In our service we have got 11 EPs, six assistant psychologists, four trainee EPs and one counselling psychologist.

Q. What is your favourite part of the role?

There are a lot of favourite parts. I suppose anyone who works in children’s services gets a lot of pleasure from seeing things change for a child, seeing a situation improve and helping people to solve problems. I think where I get even more pleasure is when there is a knock on effect that doesn’t just change things for one child but changes things for a whole group of children. I like the variety. I work with children and young people of all ages and work in lots of different settings and schools – no two settings are the same, no two schools are the same and no two children are the same. This means it is endlessly interesting and I always have to learn more and think more.

Q. Did you always want to become an Educational Psychologist?

I’m not sure I always wanted to be an EP but I always wanted to be a psychologist. After university I became a teacher for a few years and among other things I taught A level Psychology. I got to a point where I spent a long time talking about what psychologists do, but not doing what psychologists do, which was why I studied psychology in the first place. So that’s when I decided to become an EP and I haven’t looked back. As much as I loved teaching, I really love being an EP.