The Cinderellas of the profession

7th December 2007 at 00:00
Lorraine Traylor recently retired as principal teacher of guidance at my school. When she retired, she was nominated by a group of students for the Radio Forth Teacher of the Year award. She won it. She was described as "the bedrock of the department, with a warm and thoughtful approach to her work". It was a wonderfully justified award.

The day after she won it, I was at an event with headteachers from south of the border. I was reminded that one of the many differences between the Scottish and English secondary schools is that we operate our unique guidance system. Guidance is often seen as the Cinderella of the Scottish system, a hybrid between teaching and social work, a refuge for the soft-hearted and the "do-gooders". (I wonder what those who criticise others as "do-gooders" would prefer: "do-badders"?)

We should count our blessings. Our job is to educate children, small but substantial minorities of whom leave home underfed, with little encouragement to learn and with only a limited introduction to what many of us would take to be the most basic of social skills. Engaging with them is the job of every teacher, but how much more difficult would that be without the support, advice and Herculean efforts of guidance staff? How many teachers would like to repeat the well-meaning, but impractical, experiment of "first line guidance", where every teacher, irrespective of skills, was expected to pursue a pastoral role and deliver a formal personal and social education curriculum?

We are pushed into increasing engagement with the enterprise curriculum. Who have been doing that most insistently, year-in, year-out, but guidance staff, supervising work experience, careers guidance and external placements? At its most basic, who else has the broad expertise which guidance staff accrue, to advise children on courses and course choices and to do so from an unbiased and child-centred perspective?

In our complex and socially atomised age, regular contact with families, let alone with the myriad agencies which support children and their families (social work, medical services, residential homes, the police, youth and community services) is essential if schooling is to be maintained and made as effective as possible.

The role of guidance staff is becoming more systematic and is moving towards an entitlement model, where every child, not only the disadvantaged, has the right to support, advice and guidance. Our schools are more warm and humane institutions because of the commitment of guidance teachers.

There will always be a tension between guidance staff and teachers whose main focus is in subject departments, but that tension itself can be a healthy thing. Unless the rest of us are willing to take on the multi-tasking function of our guidance colleagues, let's be enormously thankful we have them. Indeed, let's all try and emulate some of their "warm and thoughtful" approaches.

The alternative is that their tasks might be carried out by professionals who are not teachers. That would be a Trojan horse we should not manufacture.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh.

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