Our mission - make psychology accessible to everyone
Who is Spencer Education?
Spencer Education develops tools specifically for schools, nurseries, parents and the workplace. We work internationally with customers in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
Spencer Education started with the creation of Spencer, our online tool for the assessment and management of common mental health, learning and developmental problems in children and young people.
Spencer was developed in partnership with a multidisciplinary team including Carol Milnes, Educational Psychologist, Mary Cunningham, Occupational Therapist, Dr. Joanne Harrison, Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Stefan Peart, Clinical Psychologist, Anna Cartwright, Assistant Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Emma Peart, Clinical Psychologist, Jo Forrest, Educational Psychologist, Eleanor Walters, Education Consultant, Seda Mansour, Education Consultant, Sheena Wilson, Occupational Therapist, Deborah Coleman, SenCo and Shauna Walsh, Speech and Language Therapist.
Why we developed Spencer
In my role as a clinical psychologist working with children and young people I have had the pleasure of visiting hundreds of schools to meet with teachers, pastoral care and of course the pupil. Little old ones tucked away in a Cotswold village to a big shiny new one that looks like an office block on a business estate in north London. As a rough estimate I would think that is about 760 schools in 20 years of practice.
One of the best things about going into schools is having the challenge of the unexpected. It usually comes with the preamble ‘I know you are here about X but I wondered whilst you are here could I pick your brains about Y’. The second part of the preamble is ‘we’ve tried getting them help but they didn’t meet the threshold, we’ve tried CAMHS but they said no’.
Along with like-minded colleagues in health, education and even social care I set about building a tool which I felt would mimic the ‘X and Y’ conversation and one that would match up to any consultation I might have had with a teacher when I was working in CAMHS. In particular I really wanted teachers and other professionals working in education to move away from ‘getting the label’ to believing that they could use their expertise and experience to problem solve. I recognised that they had little or no time, they sometimes felt they didn’t have the skills, but I also felt passionately that mental health and child development was something for all of us.
Spencer developed out of this and by working with some amazing colleagues we were able to build a tool that was written for teachers, designed to accommodate the reality of busy school life, but also a resource that would help schools manage common mental health and developmental difficulties.
The identity ‘Spencer’ came from wanting to focus on the whole child, thinking about the Strengths, Physical needs, the Environment influences, Neurodevelopment and Cognition, Emotional well-being and Relationships.
Early in the process one of the Headteachers I spoke to said that they had access to all sorts of things that told them ‘what the problem was’ but nothing that told them ‘what to do about it’. Spencer was built for teachers, SenCos, teaching assistant, pastoral care, and we are indebted to the many of them who gave us their feedback as we took the project forward.
Spencer is a tool that you access online, you set up a Pupil Profile, answer 15 minutes worth of questions about a pupil in primary or secondary school, you then generate a simple visual report of the pupils strengths and areas of difficulty. These areas of difficulty, such as panic or inattention, then come with a definition of what we mean and most importantly evidence-based recommendations about how you can make a difference. It is designed to be school friendly.
Spencer.education is on a mission. We are forever working on improving Spencer for primary and secondary schools. It has been so reassuring to get feedback from schools such as ‘it has been revolutionary’ and to hear that it is used routinely in managing mental health and developmental concerns with pupils. We are looking to move forward with input from schools. In response to requests we are now developing a Spencer Early Years and parent versions.
More than getting the ‘right label’
My own profession of clinical psychology is as much to blame as anyone else. Psychologists aren’t really into ‘diagnoses’ but it is hard to get away from the reality that we often end up ‘labelling’ as much as our colleagues in psychiatry or nursing. However we appear to have contributed to a culture whereby getting the ‘right label’ has become almost the norm. Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASD) or Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Conduct Disorder (CD) to name but a few. It is possible that this has happened because there is a limited financial pot for meeting need and the thresholds for accessing treatment are becoming evermore precious.
As a practicing clinician it is heart breaking to see the look at a parent’s face when you tell them that their child does not meet the diagnostic criteria for an Autistic Spectrum Condition. It used to seem really perverse until you realise you have just closed a door for them and their child in being able to ‘access the right level of support’ because as they see it they ‘don’t have the right label’. Writing a report that describes the child as having ‘neuropsychological difficulties that are most likely caused by pre-natal exposure to alcohol’ is classic of the type of report that parents of adopted children have said ‘gets you nowhere.’ Accessing Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) for pupils has become an experience for many professionals working in education is turning into as much a reality as winning the lottery.
Having an understanding of why a pupil might be behaving in a particular way or getting to grips with why they cannot master a developmental skill is important. What we often see is the behaviour and focus on that, for example a pupil who can’t concentrate. The temptation for some is to jump to a label, perhaps ‘ADHD’, whereas when we understand that the child has major sleeping difficulties, or is chronically constipated, or having to cope with a drunk step-father at home, our take on the ‘concentration’ changes.
Psychologists prefer to call this ‘formulation’. A process whereby we look at the whole child in the context of their development and the environment. Using the background of psychological theory we construct a path of understanding, from which we can then set about plotting an intervention in partnership with the child, parent and teacher. We can test out whether our treatment has an impact and then revisit (reformulate) as we refine our understanding or set new challenges. It is a process that we are passionate about and want to bring into education as a much as we have ‘labels’. We know innately that educators are not naturally ‘labellers’ and would probably be more at home with formulation. The challenge for all of us is to change the thresholds we set for ourselves away from ‘Labels’ to being one of ‘Need’. For example a child with a non-verbal learning difficulty (NVLD) who is experiencing panic in loud and unstructured parts of the school day, fares far worse that the pupil with a diagnosis of ASC who is thriving but is ‘in the system’ because they have the diagnosis. The ‘panic’ is the issue and the target for help, not the ASC or the NVLD.