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Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Psychology's delusions of equality

The Association for the Teaching of Psychology has written to the Secretary of State for Education to express their concern at what they take to be the marginalisation fo their subject in teacher training.  Recent announcement fro above have made it clear that psychology is a 'non-priority subject', and so would-be psychology teacher trainees will not be eligible for a £9,000 bribe-I-mean-bursary to do so.

This is what they've said:
Future trainees will in effect be penalised for choosing psychology, as they will need to find up to £9000 for fees on top of living expenses in order to train.

Psychology is the only science subject not to have been designated a priority subject, and therefore not to attract a bursary. We are unclear as to why this is the case, especially at a time when the uptake of science subjects by young people in the UK is a concern. It is now the fourth most popular A-level subject with over 56,000 sitting the psychology exam in 2011 ...
Personally, I think psychology is a great subject.  I could easily be persuaded that it ought to be a part of the National Curriculum: what could be more important that encouraging young people to learn about and reflect on their mental lives?

But this letter from psychology teachers is crazy.

Most school subjects are not top priorities.  So it is ridiculous to equate exclusion from a small group (just physics, mathematics, chemistry, modern languages) with being penalised.

The government is absolutely clear about its criteria for a subject being identified as a priority: there is a shortage in recruitment.  That is it.  There are no hidden meanings, nor elitist hierarchies.  Some subjects are prioritised and their potential teachers financially rewarded because they find it difficult to recruit.

To some extent, the Association for the Teaching of Psychology are victims of their own success.  It is a wildly popular subject as school, and equally so at University.  The places are awash with serious-looking young people trying to make sense of their shattered lives after the existential depth charges of Freud, Jung or Milgram.  Consequently, there is never a lack of applicants for psychology teacher training programmes.  It is too popular.

Finally, the claim that "Psychology is the only science subject not to have been designated a priority subject" is simply untrue.  I will skip past the thorny question or whether or not psychology is, in fact, a science!  But a casual consultation of the Training and Development Agency for Schools' (TDA)  website reveals that General Science (the clue is in the name),  Applied Science (no idea what this is, apart from the evidence fact that is it a Science), and Social Sciences (see comments above) also receive no bursary.

So, this letter is misleading in a number of ways, and I have no doubt it will fall on deaf ears.

More importantly, it seems to me, is that there is a much more urgent role for psychology in teacher training that is not mentioned at all.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher culled psychology - along with philosophy and sociology - from the standard curriculum for all trainees, teacher education has progressively deteriorated from a intellectually stimulating course of study towards a series of how-to-teacher modules; in which compliance rather than engagement is the measure of success.  I know, as I was among their number, that University staff struggled against their slide.  But I also know that such resistance was always going to be doomed in a system in which some providers immediately did what they were told, and in which there was the ever-present threat of removing teacher training from Universities completely and putting them in schools.

So topics like the psychology of learning, motivation and child development suddenly became squeezed around the edges of the new competencies, like 'Be aware of the policies and practices of the workplace and share in collective responsibility for their implementation'.

In this context, I suppose, any backlash from teachers is encouraging.  But surely psychology teachers have aimed too low.  We don't need a silly outburst of physics envy.  We need a serious and sustained call to move psychology back to the curriculum of all teachers.

I have no doubt that this strategy would prove difficult.  But it will be no less difficult that trying to persuade the government that psychologists are as thin on the ground as physicists.

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