Axing guidance teachers will create a toll that's just too high

6th May 2011 at 01:00
They are usually the first casualty of cuts but we must not allow it to happen this time

Isobel Smith, known to everyone as Billie, was one of Edinburgh's first guidance teachers and subsequently a long-serving assistant head, in charge of what would now be called "pupil support", in a secondary serving one of Edinburgh's most deprived areas. I spent the first part of my career working with her in that school, latterly as principal teacher of learning support.

In her retiral she has written a warm and witty memoir of her experience, Fancy Being Paid for This. The school's name is not mentioned and the teachers' and children's names have all been changed, but the stories are instantly recognisable: pregnant schoolgirls, child abuse, battered wives, poverty. It's appalling that the same problems have beset schools for at least 40 years.

What shines through Billie's book, however, is the dedication and skill which a wide range of teachers, but especially our guidance colleagues, bring to making relationships in school work for youngsters whose experience of relationships is often horrific.

It is true that there is often a tension between guidance staff and those who deliver the hard, academic curriculum. That's inevitable. The needs of the individual child must be guarded firmly against the needs of the school machine and there is a powerful advocacy role for guidance teachers in ensuring that happens.

On the other hand, the needs of the individual child cannot be allowed to imperil the welfare and learning of the majority. Schools should be delighted that that advocacy role is played by teachers who, however hard they will champion their individual charges, also have firm professional roots in education and understand the bigger school picture. The last thing we should even contemplate is the welfare role in schools becoming a social work responsibility.

The bigger danger today, however, is the impact of the cuts. A leading Scottish politician, speaking against them, recently said that the tragedy of any period of cuts was that it was always the arts and the creative aspects of education which suffered first. He was wrong. They suffer second. It is learning support and guidance which normally take the first hits.

In local authorities and in schools, the commitment to maintaining the best education for all means a more intensive input for the poorest and those whose life experiences have least prepared them for learning. The areas, therefore, that must not be cut are guidance, support for learning and the welfare services. If they are cut today, the costs for schools, not to mention society, tomorrow will be huge. If you doubt that, read Billie Smith's book.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre.

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