Getting there: Educational psychologist

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This feature looks at the varied and diverse career paths people take within the field of psychology. In this issue, Dr Kairen Cullen talks about her journey to becoming an educational psychologist, writer and media adviser.

Getting lost in order to find my way

My first application to study psychology at Portsmouth Polytechnic was unsuccessful, mainly because of my very average maths results, so my contingency plan was to try either teaching or nursing, and the latter choice won. Although being a nurse was not to be my vocation, I have used what I learned then repeatedly, including as an educational psychologist working with complex additional needs. After nursing I joined the Metropolitan Police, the main attractions being a job that was varied and where I would potentially be helping people, but in reality neither proved to be the case and, on top of this, it was hard being a young woman in what was then a deeply sexist institution.

A need to learn

One thing I discovered about myself, throughout the years of career experimentation, was that I was a quick learner and needed lots of material from which to learn so, after having to leave the Met because I was pregnant, and less than a year after my first daughter’s birth, I resumed my studies, this time at the North London Polytechnic, and gained a Bachelor of Education and a teaching qualification.

The innovative primary curriculum course I took devoted an entire module to the Psychology of Education, and my interest in this field deepened as I read texts by Piaget, Kelly, Chomsky, Bruner and the like. I spent about ten years teaching and, due to the arrival of three more children, had a variety of jobs teaching nursery-, primary- and secondary-aged children in the old Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) and the outer London boroughs of Enfield and Haringey. The last five years of teaching were spent as an advisory teacher in a behaviour support team (BST) in which I visited all types of schools in the borough, offering direct support, advice and professional development input to meet the needs of pupils with ‘difficult behaviour’. I worked with pupils, their families and other involved professionals (e.g. social services, youth justice and voluntary organisations, and school staff). I especially enjoyed the whole-school development projects, and also trying to understand the psychology of troubled and troubling youngsters through work with medical professionals and educational and clinical psychologists.

During this time, I took a part-time year-long course in person-centred art therapy, where I read the wonderful Carl Rogers, Violet Oaklander and Virginia Satir. My desire to study psychology deepened further and I was delighted that my service agreed to me registering for a BSc in Psychology at Middlesex University. This went well and, despite combining studying with family life and continuing work in the BST, I achieved a 2:1. The next development, for which I will always be grateful, was to be seconded by Haringey Council on my full teaching salary to study for an MSc in Professional Educational Psychology at the Institute of Education (IOE), University of London.

Making a difference

When I trained in the early 1990s, educational psychologists (EPs) undertook a one-year masters plus two years of closely supervised practice, rather than the three-year doctoral training of today. Now, all newcomers to the profession must have ‘relevant experience in education’ rather than the previous teaching requirement, plus a good first degree in psychology. I know from the large number of trainee EPs whom I have supervised on placements, and the fact that I have been a part of EP training course accreditation teams, that the academic and personal qualities of newcomers to the profession is of a high calibre.

I spent six years employed by the local authority (LA) as a main grade EP with a mixed school patch of primary, secondary and special schools. In my first year I wrote over seventy statutory advices for what used to be called Statements of Special Educational Needs and are now known as Education, Health and Care Plans, which are the legally protected descriptions of children’s and young people’s complex additional and exceptional needs and the arrangements and provision required to meet these needs. I knew this was important work and made a difference to individual children and those involved with them, as it accessed scarce education resources. However, like many of my colleague EPs – whom I had the privilege to represent when I signed The Inclusion Charter (see references) during my year as Chair of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology (DECP) in 2001 – I considered the system to be flawed and wanted to work more systemically and inclusively.

Ongoing learning

While employed in Enfield I ran a number of teacher support groups, with EP colleagues, for primary and secondary teachers. I had done similar projects as an advisory teacher with secondary pupils (self-referral pupil support groups) and had become increasingly fascinated by the huge benefits to pupils’ school experience of this relational strategy and the challenges presented by the school system itself. I decided to research this area and, in 1998, registered at IOE for PhD studies with Professor Ingrid Lunt, my previous EP training course tutor, as supervisor. My thesis, ‘An exploratory study about teachers’ views on the involvement of other teachers in their work’, took thirteen years to complete. Defining and justifying the research focus, the methodology and the methods required a lengthy literature review, and the access to data took three years alone. However, I enjoyed developing my academic skills, continued wide reading and the rigour of the PhD process. What kept me going over so many years was the burning interest I had in the topic I was researching.

Real-world application

My ongoing work with the media started when I was press officer for the DECP and, since then, for over twenty years I have offered a professional psychologist’s perspective to national and local press, radio stations and TV. I have also worked with film, stage and television productions through consultation work with production crew staff, TV commissioners, writers and safeguarding work with and for children, teenagers and adults and involved family members. It is interesting and fast-paced work that has allowed me to use my experience and ever-developing knowledge in a pragmatic and culturally relevant way, and I have written about it for the British Psychological Society (BPS) magazine The Psychologist.

To return to my more traditional EP practice history, though; after six years working in Enfield, I moved to Buckinghamshire and took on a specialist senior job in which I led a project supporting pupils’ behaviour. I then moved to Havering where I held another specialist senior post, this time leading a pre-school and Early Years-focused Sure Start project. My last LA EP role was in Islington as a senior with a special responsibility for managing a small team of EPs whose brief it was to help schools with ‘behaviour’. All of these posts involved a lot of travelling, project work with whole schools and sometimes the education authority, consulting with school staff, and also direct work with pupils and their families and other involved professionals. I engaged in some particularly fascinating project work, such as linking with Arsenal Football Club’s community sport project, which was offering coaching to the borough’s pupil referral unit, which I have written about for Educational Psychology in Practice (Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP)) and Educational and Child Psychology and presented at the BPS annual conference.

Throughout these years of LA EP work I continued to read widely and to write, at one time being part of the editorial team of the DECP newsletter ‘Debate’. In addition to serving as Chair of the BPS’s DECP and Vice-Chair of the whole Society’s Professional Practice Board, I have been a member of the Society’s Conduct and Fitness to Practice Advisory Panels, and Media and Ethics Group, as well as various consultations and working parties.

Working independently

After two years in Islington, the competing demands of work, family and PhD studies triggered my decision to start my own practice and, thirteen years later, my business still exists. I completed the PhD and I have enjoyed the flexibility and choice that running my own practice have made possible, although I have to admit to working even harder than when I was working in the LA framework. I spent the first twelve years as an independent EP, mainly offering individual assessment services to children and young people from the whole school range, both state and private, and also to adults engaged in higher education studies. As time went on, I also began to offer expert witness work, mainly for Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) appeals.

My career path has involved many seemingly wrong turns and sometimes I have travelled the same paths more than once, but the golden thread running along it is my love of the process of research, the continuous learning and the act of writing, so it is a natural development now to focus mainly upon writing. Spurred on by the news that my first book, Introducing Child Psychology, is number 3 on Amazon’s 100 child psychology bestsellers list, I am about to start another book project and, as always, look forward to communicating what I have learned as well as learning more.

Further information

  • The Inclusion Charter, Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education (CSIE) (1989, revised 2002): http://www.csie.org.uk/resources/charter.shtml
  • Cullen, K. (2009) If they come for you in the morning … on the benefits and ethics of involvement with the media, The Psychologist, Vol 22. No. 10.
  • Cullen, K. and Monroe, J. (2010) Using positive relationships to engage the disengaged: An educational psychologist-initiated project involving professional sports input to a Pupil Referral Unit, Educational and Child Psychology, Vol. 27. No.1. Published by the BPS, Leicester.

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About Author

Dr Kairen Cullen

Dr Kairen Cullen CPsychol AFBPs has spent decades as an educational psychologist working in local authorities and her own practice to help children, young people and adults achieve educational and personal success. Kairen has written for a wide range of publications and produced two books. See her website at at http//:psychologistthinkingaloud.home.blog for more details.

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