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The rise of whole school psychology: a shift in priority or understanding?

Across all types of settings, we’re seeing a huge increase in the amount of systemic work or ‘’whole school psychology” that our team are doing. We’re really excited to see the way this is developing and what it means for the future of our work and of the use of psychology in education. What is interesting from our perspective is that whilst we’re changing the way schools use and think about psychology, schools are also changing the way we work as a service and making us better in the process. That’s true synergy and we’re grateful to all our schools for that.

What’s changed?

Despite years of budget cuts, schools are using limited financial resources to commission purely systemic work. This means service level agreements dedicated to staff training and development, Appreciative Inquiry (AI), whole school projects, policy change and building communities.

Some of the Applied Psychologies team running a Solution Circle

In recent years we’ve seen an increase in schools using their time with us systemically, despite the pressing need to support individual children and young people remaining. Our initial thoughts are that the shift seems to come from a better understanding of the full range of the educational psychologist’s (EP) skill set and the value that they can bring.

An EP is often seen as a child psychologist, so yes, they understand young people and their development, particularly in the context of the four areas of the SEND code of practice. But they are also trained to work in consultation with adults drawing on elements of counselling, reflection, therapy and as a ‘critical friend’. They are skilled mediators, coordinators, meeting chairs, problem solvers, and they are often very creative – just give them a pack of coloured pens and see what they can do!

I spoke to the team to get their views on the shift toward systemic working and here’s what they had to say:

Dr Francesca Heffernan: “I always actively promote systemic working in my planning meetings and discussions with SENCOs, but some schools are honest about their limitations in terms of EP time. I feel in primary schools particularly, there is a move towards wanting to use EP time to increase staff capacity, skills and knowledge and recognising that this is often better ‘value for money’ in terms of how many children benefit compared to casework alone. I also feel that building up a relationship with schools over time and being friendly and approachable has meant I’m seen as a valuable resource – in many of my schools, staff regularly stop me to ask if I have 10 minutes to talk about an issue. This has helped schools to change their views of my role and realise the potential for systemic working.”

Francesca has been working in a school in the North West developing an entirely new behaviour policy after completingcasework with a number of children who had difficulties managing their emotions and behaviour. Using an attachment-based and relationship focussed approach in these cases had such a positive effect on those children and subsequently a whole class, the SENCO felt it should be implemented for all children! Francesca has conducted significant amounts of reading and research to ensure that any work completed, or advice given is evidence based.

Dr David Lamb:

Schools are coming to us with challenges higher up the chain; staff development, unmet training needs, bringing teams together, things like that. It seems that schools are starting to recognise that solving problems at a whole school level can have a huge impact across the rest of the school. In terms of the shift into systemic or whole school thinking, there is a clear difference between the schools we’ve built relationships with and those who are new to our service – most new schools who join us have a large number of children to discuss, but schools who have been with us for a while have built systems of working at the three levels of our service and so we can do more.”
Our team around a school - 3 levels of service
Our team around a school - 3 levels of service

One of David’s schools in Burnley, came to us last year to talk about staff training across the four areas of the code of practice. We ran an Activity Theory session with their Inclusion Lead and SpLD teacher. From that, we established that whilst some staff training would be helpful, we could do more. Parental engagement and the need to reach out to certain communities was explored, but the main focus became staff teams. How could we address a number of challenges across a year group – by building team cohesion and addressing the needs of individuals and groups of staff. So, we’re now holding Solution Circles with every year group team, allowing each team member to present their ‘problem’ or ‘hot issue’ and discuss in a safe, supportive and positive space. The effects so far have been more profound than we could ever have hoped for.

How can you get more value from your EP service?

We know that supporting individual young people will always need our focus and that will continue to be our core service; however, we believe that working across all three levels of our service model can drive bigger change and more value from your investment.

Our team are enjoying their work across all our settings but the opportunity to work at all levels of practice is often a driving force in their application to work with Applied Psychologies. We’re hugely proud of our team and the skills they bring but it’s worth remembering that most of all they trained to be great listeners, arguably it’s their most valuable skill. So, in your next planning meeting, talk to your EP about the wider context of your setting as well as the immediate challenges and see how you can drive more value from your service level agreement.

For more information on how whole school psychology could benefit your setting, get in touch 01482 643458.

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