Cull of guidance counsellors is a sneaky and nasty budget cut

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

School principals now face a horrible choice: get rid of a subject or a guidance service, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

SEÁN IS 16. His father lost his job months ago and his mother’s workplace has introduced reduced hours. Seán’s mother is desperately afraid the company is still going to fold. Seán and his siblings have grown used to low-voiced, tense conversations between his parents that go on long into the night.

Seán has another problem. There is no way he can bother his parents with it. He really wants to go on to third level, but he is not sure if he can get the points, or the grant he now needs more than ever.

He is also aware that he dossed from first year to fourth year. Is it too late to try to work for the Leaving Cert? On top of all that, he is afraid of slagging from his mates, because they will label even thinking about going to third level “gay”.

This academic year, Seán will have someone professionally qualified to whom he can go. She will talk to him about whether his hopes are realistic, but also listen to what it’s like to be treading on eggshells at home, and advise him how to cope with slagging at school. His school has a guidance counsellor.

By next September, Seán’s principal, a hard-working decent sort, will have to make a horribly difficult decision. He will have to decide whether to dispense with the services of the guidance counsellor, or stop providing a subject that Seán really needs for his third-level course. It is as stark and as simple a choice as that – a subject or a service.

Either way, our fictional Seán loses. But so does every other kid at second level. Some attention has been focused on the loss of guidance counsellors, but the consequences of effectively increasing the pupil-teacher ratio from 19:1 to 19.8:1 have not been fully explored.

The pupil-teacher ratio is not about how many pupils are in a classroom, but how many teachers any school is entitled to employ. Schools used to be allowed to employ guidance counsellors outside the general allocation of teachers, but now they have to be provided from within that allocation.

Sounds innocuous enough, but Ferdia Kelly of the Joint Managerial Body, which represents the boards of management of voluntary secondary schools, has broken down what it means.

On average, from next September, a school with 400 pupils will be forced to offer 17 fewer hours of teaching per week. That’s 26 periods. A school with 600 pupils will have to offer 28 fewer teaching hours, or 42 periods. That’s the equivalent of teaching one class of 30 nothing at all for a week.

It will affect, at first, transition and fifth years the most. All the other years are already under way on exam courses, and they can’t suddenly lose a subject. But lose Spanish for first years, or physics for fifth years, and you are part of the way to solving your problem.

As Eilis Coakley, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors has put it, it’s an impossible choice. Lose a subject or a service – but the presence of that service may make the difference as to whether someone stays in school at all, or gets help for an eating disorder, or makes the right choice at third level.

But principals are legally obliged to provide guidance. The provision of “appropriate” guidance is a statutory requirement for schools under the Education Act 1998. Until the last budget, “appropriate” was easy to define. For most schools, it was 22 hours per week. Who will determine what “appropriate” is now?

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is determined that people who teach subjects like maths will be suitably qualified. Yet he seems determined to smash the profession of guidance counsellor, one that has enviable levels of ongoing development. For example, virtually every guidance counsellor undergoes continuous professional supervision, where practice is examined and improved.

Some believe that the profession might only be a memory within three to five years.

Guidance counsellors are facing a perfect storm. On February 29th, some will retire and most will not be replaced. In June, more will retire.

In September, guidance counsellors in temporary positions will be facing the dole queue. Other schools will be reluctantly asking their guidance counsellors to teach their other subject.

Many guidance counsellors have not taught any other subject for years, perhaps decades. New courses and requirements have been introduced with which they are completely unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the holistic service that they offer will be completely fragmented. It could not happen at a worse time.

Let’s just take one-to-one counselling. Parents who cannot afford private counselling for troubled teens are dependent on the HSE.Unless you are an emergency, which is code for in immediate danger of harming yourself, you will languish on a waiting list for months. When you are eventually seen, you may receive only one or two appointments.

Currently, guidance counsellors take up a lot of the slack. No one else can, because no one has the time or the expertise. Schools will go on trying to support students, but the professional, supervised service in many cases will be gone, just as students need it most in this stressful recession.

But suppose you decide to keep the guidance counsellor. Now you have a different problem. Where or what will you cut? Physics? Chemistry? A language?

This sneaky, nasty budget cut will have reverberations for years. Parents need to make their voices heard.

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