Like so much in Ireland, it all comes down to what school you’re in. Perhaps you’re lucky to be in a school that has more than one guidance counsellor and provides more than enough time for every student to work their options.
But this is relatively rare. Not everyone will have an equal amount of time with their guidance counsellor and, even in the best-resourced schools, the guidance counsellor will still only have a limited amount of time to dedicate to every student.
Trish Harrington is a guidance counsellor at St Patrick’s Cathedral Grammar School in Dublin 8.
“A guidance counsellor is about so much more than careers,” she says. “We take a holistic approach to our students. We look after their personal, social and academic wellbeing. We deal with transitions from primary to secondary school and from secondary to third-level. We help with study skills, subject choice and career progression.”
Cuts made to guidance counselling allocation hours over a decade ago are slowly working themselves out of the system, but the discretion provided to school management means that the guidance allocation will vary at each school. That said, every class should have some allocation.
“I am lucky with the allocation in my school,” says Harrington. “Generally, however, senior cycle gets a lot of the allocated guidance hours. Personally, I do a needs assessment at the end of every year to see where the needs will be for the coming year. But most sixth-year students will get a slot with the guidance counsellor some time around October. It might be for an hour, or it might be for 40 minutes. So it’s important to be as prepared as you possibly can when your slot comes around.”
A majority of schools now offer a transition year (TY) programme and, in some schools, it is mandatory. Many schools with a TY programme will have developed a careers class, where students will have group sessions on subject choice and, perhaps, have filled out psychometric tests for building their career profile.
Then, in fifth year, the focus shifts to open days, effective questioning, looking at alternative pathways such as further education post-Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships and traineeships. This is teased out further in sixth year through careers appointments and careers class, Harrington says.
The psychometric tests can help students to identify and narrow down their interests. One of the most familiar for guidance counsellors is the Cambridge profile test which assesses abilities and interests in different areas. If you’ve done them in transition year, it’s easy to forget the findings and insights they’ve given you, so don’t be afraid to take them again in fifth or sixth year. You’ll also find interest assessments on Qualifax.ie and CareersPortal.ie.
While every school will be different, and every student will have a different experience — particularly depending on whether or not they’ve done transition year — every guidance counsellor is there to help.
Harrington, along with guidance counsellor Betty McLaughlin, who is based in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, says that it’s important for every student to avail of this time and make an appointment.
“An effective guidance programme should empower students to feel in control of their own pathways,” Harrington says. “It’s important that they use this time well, and go into the appointment having done as much as much research as they can on the courses that interest them. I urge them to look at all pathways including levels six through to eight, and to understand that a level six or seven course can lead on to a level eight.”
McLaughlin says that she asks students to focus on their interests, including their favourite school subjects.
“Some courses require particular subjects, such as chemistry for a veterinary medicine course, or higher-level maths for some engineering courses,” she advises.
With this in mind, it’s also worth looking at what is required on the course. It might sound really interesting but, for instance, if they’re not that interested in maths or science but the course is heavy on those components, it might not be the right fit. (That said, bear in mind that while many courses have an element of maths or statistics that you might not have expected, many colleges have maths centres that will help students to get through this potentially more challenging element of the course.)
Harrington uses a profile sheet which looks at student achievements, work experience, summer jobs and programmes, as well as their interests.
“In this hour, we use a collaborative approach to tease out ideas, helping the student to clarify their options and build their confidence,” she says. “The student owns the process but the guidance counsellor can help the student to build up their knowledge.
“We look at patterns in their life in school, what is involved in studying a particular course across every year, and what modules and accreditation will be available. And, ultimately, it is about helping students to be motivated and get supports they may need, including with stress, mental health or finances. We are trained to be here for all of this, so use us.”
What to explore with your guidance counsellor
Sounding board Sometimes, what really helps the most is simply having someone you can bounce ideas off — and this is particularly useful if that person is a trained guidance counsellor. Talk to them about what courses interest you. Why? What modules do they have and will you enjoy them? Is this really what interests you, or what your parents would like you to pursue?
Talk through your research You should have done some research before talking to your guidance counsellor, perhaps through YouTube or Ted videos, or browsing online courses. The YouTube videos that you watch may also be a guide to what you find interesting.
Apprenticeships The number of apprenticeship options has grown substantially in recent years, moving beyond its traditional area of crafts such as plumbing, motor mechanics and bricklaying, with newer options including arboriculture, auctioneering, bioengineering, finance, ICT, insurance, recruitment, sales and more. Unlike college courses that involve high fees, apprenticeships pay the learner. They run from levels six to eight (higher degree) and now even go as far as level 10 (PhD), and many of them involve some time on campus, giving students a chance for that all-important “college experience”.
PLC and traineeships The Post-Leaving Cert course can be a qualification in its own right, or a bridge to college. Traineeships, meanwhile, prepare students for specific roles in companies that need specific roles filled.
Practicalities How will you get to college? Where will you live? Might you be eligible for a student grant? Do you qualify for the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) for students from disadvantaged backgrounds? Or perhaps you meet the criteria for the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) scheme?
It’s up to you Your guidance counsellor can’t make the decision for you — and neither should they. Beware any guidance counsellor that you feel is pushing you towards an area that you’re just not that interested in (they’re few and far between, and most are experienced and sensible enough not to do this). Ultimately, if you are taking part in career classes, filling out aptitude tests, going to open days and having conversations, your guidance counsellor’s job is to empower you to make an informed and confident decision for yourself.
A four-point plan for career guidance
Róisín O’Donohoe, vice-president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and a guidance counsellor at Belvedere College, a fee-paying school in Dublin city, says career guidance in her school centres on four main aspects.
1. Know yourself Be aware of what motivates you: is it money, or creativity? What interests you? Use the free resources on CareersPortal.ie to help you figure this out.
2. Explore your options Your career guidance teacher is a useful resource, as is the Higher Options conference, college open days, and websites including Qualifax.ie, Apprenticeship.ie and FetchCourses.ie, as well as the websites of individual third-levels and colleges of further education.
3. Focus Going into sixth year, O’Donohue sits down with students and asks what they hope to achieve. One-on-one guidance follows, with a look at how they are doing in school, a study plan and a list of options
4. Action Make applications for CAO, UCAS, Eunicas, Hear or Dare. Check eligibility for the Susi grant.
Róisín O’Donohoe is a graduate of DCU’s MSc in guidance counselling