With A-level reform on the cards and psychology still struggling to be acknowledged as a ‘proper’ science in some circles, the subject is under threat, writes Marc Smith. This is from the Guardian…
Back in the late 1960s an academic named John Radford hatched a plan to take psychology out of the university and into the school classroom. The result of his efforts was the establishment of A-level psychology. While only a handful of candidates began their studies in 1970, today more than 50,000 are entered for the exam each year, making it the fourth most popular A-level.
Radford, now professor emeritus of psychology at the University of East London, says that one of the motivating factors behind his efforts was to bring more females into science. He certainly succeeded in this, for around 70% of all A-level psychology candidates are girls. Girls also outperform their male psychology classmates by a considerable margin year on year.
Despite its success at A-level, there remains a reluctance to view psychology seriously – at least within schools. Despite its designation as a science, psychology is usually to be found attached to humanities or social studies and GCSE psychology has never really taken off in the same way as A-level (only a small number of schools offer it). This would suggest that schools tend to adopt psychology because it’s popular and not because it’s useful.
More recently, psychology in schools has taken a bit of battering from government with the massive reduction in funding for the training of psychology teachers (while other sciences like biology, physics and chemistry have been viewed more favourably). Neither has psychology been included as one of the EBC (English Baccalaureate Certificate) science subjects, despite some psychology topics being taught as part of GCSE biology. The decoupling of AS and A-level will also, undoubtedly, have a major negative impact on the study of psychology in schools.
It’s certainly not that government doesn’t respect psychology, it’s just they often prefer to call it something else. Take, for example, Michael Gove’s new favourite education guru ‘cognitive scientist’ Daniel Willingham – cognitive scientist? That’s psychologist to you and me. Take the government’s Behavioural Insights Team (or ‘Nudge’ Unit), populated with ‘behavioural economists’ – yes, they’re pretty much psychologists too.
So why would we want to see psychology included in any replacement for GCSEs anyway? Psychology provides an alternative route into science, one that pupils (particularly girls) might find more relevant to their lives. Certainly its popularity can’t be ignored and this can only be seen as one of its major strengths. Psychology is also a critical science, it is not only critical of itself – it is also critical of science generally and places emphasis on the need for evidence in the process of knowledge construction.
Evidence is perhaps so important in psychology because psychological evidence is often more difficult to obtain due to the nature of its subject matter (and psychology has always been aware of the necessity to be accepted as a ‘proper’ science) – the methodology, therefore, becomes just as important as the theory because if that’s wrong, the theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. This is difficult for many younger pupils to understand but the acquisition of such skills is vital if we are to produce the scientists of the future.
So, what does the future hold for psychology in schools? Its popularity is perhaps its greatest strength (at least at A-level) but its popularity has also led to the view that it’s less worthy than the more traditional sciences – if it’s popular then it can’t be worthwhile. This is despite studies that have found psychology to be comparable to other sciences in terms of the demands it places on candidates and considerably more demanding than some of the subjects that will be included in the EBC. Nevertheless, the media’s often negative view of A-level psychology and its absence from the Russell Groups list of facilitating subjects will no doubt lead to many parents dissuading their children from opting for a subject that is often seen as undemanding and of little use (even for undergraduate study in psychology).
The British Psychological Society is due to publish its report into the future of psychology in schools shortly – a report compiled with the help of teachers, academics, the Higher Education Academy and the National Science Learning Centre. It remains questionable, however, whether government will even read it, let alone act upon it. Ironically, the next five years could witness the demise of A-level psychology altogether, due to many young people deciding against committing two years to a new subject that they might not enjoy and opt, instead, for the new style AS. This itself would no doubt put pressure on many schools to do away with an undersubscribed full A-level in psychology.