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In need of guidance

The future of the guidance system in Scottish schools is one of great uncertainty, with the prospect of 50 per cent of guidance posts being lost by next summer. Raymond Ross reports

As the post-McCrone agreement is bedded in, the disappearance of all assistant principal teacher posts by August next year could mean half of all guidance staff will go, resulting in a situation which is at odds with the Government's social inclusion agenda.

Guidance teachers are often the first port of call for children with the greatest problems at home, from poor parenting to drugs, violence and sexual abuse.

A perceived lack of national policy is leaving local authorities to sort things out within their own fiscal constraints. Whatever reforms are implemented, there is widespread concern that secondary pupils (and their families) should not lose the member of staff who is responsible for their pastoral care.

Alex Edwardson, president of the Scottish Guidance Association and principal teacher of guidance at Dumbarton Academy, says: "We need a national direction, not leaving local authorities to seek solutions entirely on their own. We need a definition of what guidance entitlement means.

"The situation is such that we don't even have a person in Government we can target. There is no one person responsible. They are supposed to be setting up a group to look into guidance but it is not in place yet. We are two years down the line from McCrone and no nearer any solution."

All matters relating to guidance, from the timing of reforms to training, qualifications and resources, should be dealt with at a national level, says Mr Edwardson.

"There is an amazing amount of expertise in schools and to have these professionals sitting there not knowing what they will be doing in a year's time is ridiculous. We could lose half our guidance staff."

His call for a national review is echoed by Hilda Learmonth, former president of the SGA and assistant headteacher at Cults Academy in Aberdeen.

"Guidance is crucial because a pupil needs to be known by one staff member across the curriculum in a whole school way, who also links to the pupil's family and community.

"To put this under threat - and the very fact that we don't know what is going to happen - makes it a very difficult situation to operate under.

"In the short term I can see only angst and confusion and in the long term a need to train new people or to have senior management taking up what guidance teachers presently do.

"All that skill and expertise will be lost. We need a national review," she argues.

The lack of national direction is also reflected at local authority level, says Mrs Learmonth, because there are so few designated guidance advisers across the country. "There are so few people in local government who wear a guidance hat who can help highlight our concerns.

"The SGA is not some kind of rebel army but we are concerned that, for example, those who are at the front of delivering social inclusion, the guidance staff, might not be around to deliver. And no one else will. My concern is that the pupils will suffer," she says.

Mrs Learmonth's local authority is in fact one of the few that does have a guidance and careers adviser, but it has no guidance assistant principal teachers. The posts were abolished under the old Grampian region in 1982 but the time relative to them was spread among principal teachers so that in the reorganised authorities - Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray - they still have that equivalence.

"This was done over a period of 10 years through a natural process of people moving on or retiring," explains Aberdeen's guidance adviser, Terry Ashton.

"I think it is an ideal situation that every guidance post should be a PT post because the workloads and job descriptions of APTs are almost identical but, faced with financial problems, local authorities are going to be unable to do this over the next year or two.

"Maybe the answer is to look at the timescale again," he suggests.

One way to offset the loss of guidance posts might be a multi-agency approach which brings in expertise from social work, health, psychological services and so on, as in new community schools.

Mr Ashton supports this, but not at the expense of losing the expertise of guidance teachers through assistant principal teacher posts disappearing. "The guidance teacher should remain the first point of contact for the pupil, whatever happens," he says.

"I do think guidance departments need to find more effective ways of monitoring all pupils' progress, both personal and academic. You have to monitor everyone's progress and computer systems are making this easier.

"You can't separate the pastoral from learning and teaching. Good pastoral support leads to good academic performance. One of the major functions of guidance is to minimise the barriers to learning," he says.

Mike Hough, senior lecturer in the education faculty at Strathclyde University, asks who is going to replace the lost guidance teachers.

"One answer might be to develop the pastoral role of all teachers," he says. "This would leave principal teachers to manage and support a range of register teachers, form tutors or first level guidance people - whatever they might be termed - who all have a much smaller number of pupils, maybe 20 each, in their care."

While it is often said that all teachers are or should be guidance teachers, Mr Hough believes that the curricular pressures which have built over the past 20 years have led many teachers to reject this role and to see themselves primarily, if not only, as subject teachers.

"Many may be - perhaps will be - reluctant to take on this pastoral role, added to which there is no training in place for them," he points out.

Liaison problems would also develop. "Potentially, you could have a large secondary school where up to 30 teachers will be telephoning the local social worker. This may be an extreme scenario, but it highlights that there will be liaison issues arising.

"In new community schools where there is multi-agency working, this problem will not arise. But it will in the typical secondary which doesn't have these agencies on site," he says.

The dismantling of the present guidance system is an inadvertent result of the post-McCrone agreement, says Mr Hough, not an intentional one.

"Senior management teams say there will always be a place for guidance or pupil support. No school is saying we don't need that. There will need to be some system led by a member of school management. It's what that person is co-ordinating that is now open to question.

"A strong social inclusion agenda demands a strong pupil support structure, which I believe, by and large, is what we already have in place. It is something which should be reviewed, not dismantled inadvertently."

Mrs Learmonth concludes: "Guidance teachers are worried about the future but they have a positive approach to life and work. You couldn't be a guidance teacher without that optimism. It's not in their nature to be despondent or despairing.

"But we are facing a real unknown."

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