An investigation by Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology found that only half of pupils who were questioned were prepared to go to guidance staff with problems. None of the schools in the study gave all their guidance teachers the minimum allocation of 40 minutes a week for every 15 pupils.
Cathy Howieson and Sheila Semple, who undertook the study, warned: "The system may not be maintaining minimum standards of provision for all pupils."
Poor management by schools and a mounting caseload are underlined in the report. This will now cast serious doubt on the feasibility of the "guidance entitlement" proposed for senior secondary pupils, which is seen as critical to the success of the Higher Still programme.
The researchers carried out their work, which was funded by the Scottish Office, during 1993-94 in six secondary schools across four regions, each representative of differing approaches.
They conducted 110 interviews with guidance staff, other teachers and careers officers, 193 interviews with pupils from secondary 2 to secondary 5, and 300 interviews with parents of secondary 3 and secondary 5 pupils.
The report concludes that while the existence of a guidance system is strongly supported at school and national levels, "pupils' experience and opinion of guidance varied to an unacceptable extent depending on their guidance teachers".
Teachers were accused of being "reactive" and responding to pupils who had particular problems at the expense of the others. Too heavy a workload is said to make nonsense of the principle of "guidance for all".
Pupils' needs are not being systematically monitored, most guidance teachers are not clearly accountable for their work, and clear priorities are not being set despite increased demands.
The researchers add: "Although there are national priorities on certain initiatives such as work experience, they have been set independently of each other and without consideration of guidance staff's overall remit.
"This piecemeal setting of priorities relating to single initiatives was perceived by schools to be part of the workload problem."
Tensions within schools were also evident, particularly over the long-standing issue of guidance time clashing with subject responsibilities. Guidance teachers felt that subject teachers could be more active in referring pupils to them other than on disciplinary matters.
Pupils themselves contrasted the help they received in making subject choices in their second year compared with the limited advice that was available in the fourth and fifth years.
Guidance in Secondary Schools, by Cathy Howieson and Sheila Semple, Centre for Educational Sociology, Pounds 15.