Minister's thinking is fatally flawed


LEFTFIELD:THE ROLE of the guidance counsellor in our second-level system is a complex one. While appreciated by students and their parents, this role can cause resentment among teaching colleagues and school management.

Having your own office and seeing students on a one-to-one basis – alongside delivering career guidance classes – seems an attractive option to teachers with groups of up to 30 students to motivate and control.

For school management, having a staff member who provides confidential counselling to students who raise issues which are troubling them during careers/college options interviews, may give rise to unease. Just what is the guidance counsellor doing when working with students?

For these reasons, there will be many hard-pressed teachers and principals who will welcome the reallocation of guidance counsellors in the budget which will force many to return to subject teaching.

Instead of increasing class size, Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn has opted to bring guidance counsellors under more strict control.

From September 2012, a 500-pupil school will be allocated 26 teachers, plus a principal and deputy principal. There will be no allocation for a guidance counsellor. The result? The State saves €32 million in a full year.

At first glance it appears that the only change is to give principals more control over the guidance counsellors’ work. What could be more reasonable? This was probably the thinking behind the Minister’s move.

There is one flaw in this argument: what we will see over time is the total loss of the skill set of guidance counsellors. At present, teachers who wish to become guidance counsellors apply for a place on a full-time postgraduate course or a two-year part-time course. A full-time course requires you to forgo a year’s salary and pay fees of up to €5,000. The part-time option costs €1,000 in fees.

As there are no longer any specific guidance posts, no school will ever again be in a position to appoint a qualified guidance counsellor. When a teacher retires, the school will seek a replacement with the subjects to meet its needs. Without advertised posts there will be no demand to train as guidance counsellors so courses will collapse and, within a short time frame, professional guidance and counselling will be a distant memory.

Schools may request a subject teacher to handle the distribution of CAO forms and information on college open days, but there will be no specialist to advise students on subject choices or transition year, etc.

There will be no one to administer and interpret “Aptitude and Interest Inventories” which assist students in identifying their correct choices of Leaving Cert subjects. There will be no one who has a specialist understanding of the changing needs of the labour market and their implication for college course choices.

Most seriously, there will be no one with the skills to spot the signs of distress which students with personal problems often exhibit. There will be no one to provide moderate counselling needs to students to get over their problem, and to organise referrals to support services of those with life-threatening problems.

There is one step the Minister could take to solve this problem: specify that a minimum service, based on school size, has to be delivered by a qualified guidance counsellor within the overall teacher allocation.

Postgraduate training courses would continue, teachers would acquire the skills required, and our children would have an appropriate level of guidance counselling.

Brian Mooney is a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors