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By Dr Michael Faulkner MAPS
School of Education, La Trobe University

In 2007, more than 2,000 psychologists currently work across Australian school systems. Making an accurate estimate of this psychologist cohort is difficult, despite the availability of databases from psychologist registration authorities and accessible information from employing bodies. Most ‘school psychologists’ continue to be tenured government employees in State education departments, and, in recent years, within Catholic school systems across the country. However, not inconsistent with wider workforce trends, a growing minority of psychologists have different employment arrangements in schooling.

Many independent schools employ psychologists on a part time and/or contractual basis. Over the last decade, similar employment arrangements in some public sector and Catholic school systems are evolving, partly due to greater school principal and school cluster autonomies. The growth of part-time work among this numerically dominant female profession, and the availability of short-term contract government and community agency project work to undertake circumscribed interventions with families, schools or communities, are additional factors adding complexity to the parameters of contemporary school psychology work.

Additionally, consulting psychologist organisations and private practitioners undertake portfolio work, including contracted psycho-educational activities with schools. The 2006 Medicare reforms are likely to further fuel these developments. These patterns create a significant challenge to accurately audit psychologist numbers currently working in Australian school education, or indeed, to distinguish who are professional generalist school (or educational) psychologists, from specialist psychologists working with youth, families, teachers or schools as organisations.

Globally, ‘school psychologist’ is the most widely accepted professional designation for specialist-trained psychologists working in education systems. However, across Australia no consistency of professional title applies at all, a situation that reflects the essentially regional character of our geographically dispersed school systems, and echoing the localised character of Australia’s historical national development. Only in Western Australia is the title ‘school psychologist’ officially in use. In NSW government schools, ‘school counsellor’ is the designation, though such staff must be State-registered psychologists.

Elsewhere, ‘guidance officer’ most commonly denotes school psychologists. An epoch-bound early 1950s title with roots in the 1930s, ‘guidance officer’ conveys school psychology’s long association with pupil guidance, and its long professional relationship with teachers and the educational bureaucracy. Generally, guidance officers had double professional certification, as teachers and psychologists, though in some regions, guidance officers are not necessarily registered psychologists. In the ACT and the Northern Territory, ‘educational psychologist’ is commonly used, a descriptor being consistent with the UK and New Zealand terminology, and congruent with the APS College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists.

Historically, most school psychologists were recruited as aspiring career-changing teachers. Over the last 15 years, in some States (eg., WA, NSW, Victoria) this has been gradually changing. Beginning school psychologists now entering the profession after five or six years of university study perceive psychology as their first profession. Accompanying these changes has come an increasing acceptance of the term ‘psychologist’ by State departments of education, and other employing agencies, a reflection of professional psychology’s growing visibility and acceptance within the Australian community.

Origins and history of school psychology

As elsewhere, the school psychology profession in Australia is essentially a post-1945 development. Its origins, however, reside decades earlier in the beginnings of special education needs provision, as part of the early 20th century achievement of universal mass schooling. In 1913, the first Australian special school was established in Melbourne, the inaugural head teacher being a young Montessori-inspired rural teacher. As the title of his 1969 autobiography indicates, Stanley Porteus became ‘a psychologist of sorts’. In his consultation work with both schools and the medical profession, Porteus’ adaptation of the Binet-Goddard intelligence scale was used to identify and make recommendations for children with suspected mental retardation. In Victoria, from 1923 specially trained educators, including the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) inaugural director Ken Cunningham, were employed as ‘mental testers’ and educational advisors to schools.

Similar developments occurred elsewhere. The first Australian psychologist appointment to work in schools was made in 1922, with Henry Parker joining the fledgling Tasmanian special education system. In 1924, a Doctoral student of Charles Spearman, Constance Davey, was employed as a psychologist in the South Australian Education Department Medical Branch. The following year, psychologist Ethel Stoneman commenced with the Western Australian Education Department to establish a psychological clinic to support the education of children with intellectual retardation (Nixon, 1976).

Through the 1930s and 1940s, child guidance clinics were established in NSW and elsewhere, a response to growing government and community expectations that suitable educational arrangements were needed for all children in an age of universal compulsory schooling. The 1930s economic depression delayed the attainment of the goals for universal secondary schooling until the early 1950s, and, as part of the Wyndham reforms, by 1936 all NSW Year 6 students were administered intelligence tests to aid secondary school selection (Hughes, 2002). The establishment of the ACER in 1930 provided much impetus for psychometric testing practices in schools.

Sixty years ago, there were few school-focused psychologists in Australia. A 1948 UNESCO report of educational psychology services in 41 nations estimated that just 20  psychologists were employed across school systems in Australia, most NSW-based (Korniszewski & Mallet,1948). This same survey noted an emerging specialisation of applied educational psychology in Australia, summarising its directions within three broad areas: the detection of ‘backward’ children, educational guidance involving the testing and adaptation of educational methods, and the use of pre-vocational guidance.

Roles and functions of school psychologists

Contemporary Australian psychologists provide a range of direct and indirect services to the school population. School psychologists’ work is guided by the APS professional competencies, and the Codes of Ethics of either the APS or the Australian Guidance and Counselling Association, and by the administrative framing of work role expectations by employing bodies. These alternative managerial and professional allegiances can generate significant ethical dilemmas for school psychologists.

The roles, functions, and responsibilities of school psychologists can vary considerably, both within and across States. Key differences also exist in public school systems with respect to work locations, employment conditions and in the nature and extent of support services they provide.

A comparative review of Australian public-sector school psychology services by Armstrong et al (2000) identified the common major professional responsibilities across schooling systems as follows:

  • individual and group counselling of students;
  • psycho-educational student assessments and report writing;the provision of consultancy advice on effective behaviour management programs;
  • consultancy regarding psychological service to schools and communities;
  • liaison with other government or non-governmental welfare agencies or medical specialists;
  • parent counselling, undertaken individually or in small groups;
  • response teams for critical incidence management and support in schools.

Service emphases across school systems also vary, depending on the school system’s charter guidelines for school psychology and guidance work. These emphases included:

  • student advocacy;
  • assisting schools to develop more effective policies and practices of a whole school nature (e.g., anti-bullying practices, encouraging proactive student behaviours, or improving school ‘safety net’ practices for students at risk);
  • training and development activities with teacher groups;
  • in-house team work with other professionals: special educators, speech pathologists, social workers, or early childhood educators;
  • participation in specially funded innovative ‘lighthouse’ projects with a small number of schools.

School psychologists use a variety of psychological assessment tools, and usage varies according to State and region. The ACER offers a wide range of intellectual, school achievement, behavioural, and social and emotional functioning assessment measures for school-age students, and American and British publishing houses augment this range, offering a bewildering choice for school psychologists. While psychological testing is just one strand of school psychology work, it represents a significant time component. One ethical issue arising from this is that given the range of psychological measurement instruments available – many premised on recent evidencebased psychological knowledge – psychologists can be discouraged from up-dating their knowledge because some State government employers prefer the use of particular instruments in special education assessment work.

A 2001-2002 international survey of school psychologists (N=1,039) from 11 nations (Jimerson et al, 2007) provides a snapshot of the status and the issues of the profession worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century. Though broadly similar in demographic characteristics, qualifications and their depiction of prevailing professional issues, the Australian sample (N=212) characteristically differed from most others on their reported competence in one language only. Given Australia’s school population includes many from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, this is an ongoing issue of concern in school psychologists’ professional training.

The same research reported the ‘most liked’ and the ‘least liked’ aspects of school psychology work. Australian school psychologists reported working with children, families and teachers to be the most enjoyed aspects of their work, particularly when they could effect positive changes. The flexibility and autonomy of the work was also especially valued. On the other hand, the administrative burden, the overwhelming workload, the limited time available for prevention and intervention work, in addition to their perceived low salary and professional status, were cited as the least liked aspects of the work. That ‘professional burnout’ as a challenge jeopardising effective service delivery was reported so frequently by this cohort of Australian psychologists (more so than most other nationalities) is also a concern. With some employer organisations leaving professional supervision and professional support to the individual or to outside agencies in contemporary workplace cultures, there are some new issues emerging for the profession.

Evolving professional forms and practices

Traditionally, entry to Australian professional school psychology has been via teaching. Most school psychologists commenced their professional postgraduate preparation in school psychology as registered teachers with some classroom teaching experience. Some making mid-career changes, were able to effectively ‘trade on’ their prior teaching experience in schools. Conversely, contemporary younger school psychologists are likely to locate professional psychology at the centre of their professional personas.

In the 2000s, school psychologists typically provide services to a cluster of primary and/or secondary schools, and in some States to pre-schools. A varied blend of services are provided: individual psycho-educational assessment, student and parent counselling, teacher consultation, teacher in-service programs, critical incident de-briefing work, committee work on behalf of schools and districts, and liaison with other government or non-government health care professionals. Most States mandate the reporting of suspected child abuse that involves liaising with government social workers and child-care workers in addition to the usual school-focused work.

Themes emphasising school effectiveness, school improvement, school renewal, and effective leadership gained stronger political traction internationally from the 1990s. This was associated with increased systemic valuing of principals’ educational leadership skills and charter school arrangements, whereby schools were encouraged to work systemically to become more effective learning and wellbeing organisations. Such developments provide exciting opportunities for school psychologists to have greater involvement with the ecological maintenance of school communities, to collaborate on schoolwide approaches to curriculum development, student welfare and discipline, and to participate more in proactive student wellbeing programs (Prescott, 1996).

Organisational complexities and professional

On its numerical growth from 20 psychologists nation-wide in 1947 to achieving a current psychologist-student ratio between 1:1,500 and 1: 2,000 across most school systems, the Australian school psychology profession looks healthy. However, we live in an epoch within which demonstrable accountability and consumer choice about spending drive school organisations. Increasingly, psychologists need to demonstrate their psychoeducational and value-adding qualities.

While the scope of effective school psychology work is much more varied than the psychometric functions that were its origins, some employing bodies as well as teachers can have difficulty appreciating such possibilities. Achieving a balance between updating and re-framing teacher knowledge and respecting the domain-specific wisdoms that derive from teachers’ occupational world views is for psychologists always a delicate exercise, and inevitably, an ongoing process.

School psychology everywhere has a longstanding symbiotic relationship with educational
bureaucracy. Australian school psychology is no exception. For a low-incidence profession in school sector organisations that have been historically shaped by governments, administrators and teachers, school psychology’s relationship with schools, teachers, students and parents is influenced in an ongoing way by the periodic transformations in educational philosophy, the eternally restless organisational restructuring that inevitably accompany these changes, and the funding shifts following new policy initiatives. Much can be learned from where the profession is strongest across Australia. Where tenured school psychologists have been able to maintain strong networking links across all levels of educational bureaucracies, where they have achieved a mandated and valued voice within systemic decision-making processes, the profession has flourished.

Related to these considerations, is the perennial ethical (and political) issue for school psychologists. The question, ‘Who is my primary client here: my employer, the school as an organisation, the teacher or parent of the child, or, the child him/herself?’ does not go away. With emerging new contractual employment arrangements, as for example in purchaser-provider splits on contractual professional services, teasing out the implications of novel challenges to maintaining ethical practice may well become more insistent.

In the next 15 years, the ‘new wave’ of first career psychologists will gradually replace ‘second career’ psychologists in schools. For professional associations and registration bodies, this presupposes some different training modalities and professional supervision requirements. These developments may bring professional associations such as the APS into unprecedented dialogues and negotiations with employer agencies as they advocate for their members in areas such as persuading employing bodies to better provide for quality ongoing professional supervision. Already in some regions or school systems, there are low morale problems among school psychologists when managerialist organisational cultures ensure that supportive professional structures and practices remain under-developed (Thielking, 2006).

Future trends for school psychology

Psychologists in education need be open to new proactive servicing opportunities in a country where the wealth gap continues to expand. For example, Australia’s status on funding early childhood education compares poorly with other comparable OECD nations, and we are just beginning to realise this. Early childhood education, as economists seem to have recently discovered, is a domain of potentially rich outcomes, based on effective long-term investment in human development. This is a fruitful area within which education-focused psychologists, drawing on exemplary evidence-based research, can make timely contributions to foundation parenting and teaching skills, particularly in communities at social and economic risk. In such socially transformative work, psychologists can also substitute some of their traditionally reactive ‘just in time’ work into pre-emptive forms of professional activity, generating longterm positive outcomes for individuals, families and communities. Similarly, most OECD countries currently grapple with increases in immigrant and refugee numbers. Working with schools to maximise the educational opportunities for young people from CALD backgrounds, while hardly a new challenge for Australian psychologists, is becoming a more insistent one (Frisby & Reynolds, 2005).

The expansion of web culture technologies will continue to influence psychological services in schooling networks in diverse and sometimes unforeseen ways. One visible direction lies in the use of online resource material for school psychologists developed from nationally funded ‘lighthouse’ projects such as the Mindmatters Plus program (mmplus.agca.com.au). For those in hard-to-staff rural and remote areas, such programs offer working ideas to supplement professional supervision by phone, web and videocam support from colleagues geographically far distant. Less obviously, as the dialectical relationship between organisational health and individual teacher and student wellbeing has become increasingly acknowledged, school psychologists find themselves working in an old area that has evolved into a new form, the cyber arm of student bullying.

The 2006 Medicare initiative builds on existing private sector services developments in some States (Victoria, South Australia), where ‘niche market’ psychologist organisations now provide specialised services to schools. In the last decade, the competitive tendering of special education assessment services to the private sector, while managerially neat and enabling government employed school psychologists to use their valuable sought-after time in other areas, nonetheless generates new ethical concerns. For assessment is not just about the child or eligibility for funding. It should include sound knowledge of a school’s organisational capital, parental resources, and possible pedagogical options. Psychologists familiar with school contexts may be in a better position to work in this way. However, under Australia’s growing ‘market and consumers’ model of psychological services – a departure from the ‘public service school psychology’ model of most nations – we can expect school administrators to want to utilise psychologist expertise under Medicare in ways hitherto unconsidered.

Underlying these developments lies a conundrum at the centre of the profession: Should school psychologists primarily be community-focused psychologist educators having a sound contextual knowledge of schools as learning community organisations? Or, should specialist highly skilled professional competencies be the school psychologist’s principle platform, to be utilised for particular purposes at particular times? Looking to the future, the answer I think is ‘yes’ to both questions. Australian school psychologists, as well as psychologists in schooling, already assume many forms. The profession began as an educational specialism, and decades later, while primarily institutionalised within public bureaucracies, has at the same time, paradoxically, diversified in its function, roles, and affiliative locus. As families, schools and educational organisations change, we can expect that school psychologists as well as psychologists engaged in Australian schooling (or education settings) will continue to need to re-invent their profession.

The author can be contacted on m.faulkner@latrobe.edu.au.


Armstrong, S., Kelly, P., Phillips, J., Royle, B., White, J., & Yates, K. (2000). The status of school counselling and guidance in Australia: A summary report. Australian Guidance and Counselling Newsletter, 2, 20–25.

Frisby, C., & Reynolds, C. (Eds.) (2005). The Handbook of Multi-cultural School Psychology. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Hughes, J. (2002). Harold Wyndham and educational reform in Australia, 1925–1968. Educational Research and Perspectives, 29(1),1–65.

Jimerson,S., Graydon, K., Curtis, M., & Saskal, R. (2007). International School Psychology Survey: Insights from around the World. In S. Jimerson, T. Oakland, & P. Farrell (Eds.), The Handbook of International School Psychology. California: Sage Publications Inc.

Korniszewski, P., & Mallet, J. (1948). A survey of educational psychology services in 41 countries. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Nixon, M. (1976). Education psychology in Australia. In C. Catterall (Ed.), Psychology in the Schools in International Perspective, Vol. 1. Washington DC: Library of Congress.

Prescott, K. (1996). The teaching pro-social skills to adolescents project. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Employment Education and Training, Quality Schools Program.

Thielking M. (2006). Perspectives regarding the role of school psychologists. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 16(2), 211-224.