The cornerstone of a positive advantage

24th November 1995 at 00:00
The policy of guidancefor all has been a force for good throughout the school, argues Sean McPartlin, but the journey towards excellence is not over yet. When the Scottish Office set up "guidance" in Scottish secondaries, nearly 30 years ago, it was in the expectation that every pupil would know that there was one identifiable member of staff who had a particular interest in their welfare and progress, be it pastoral, curricular or vocational.

However, by the early 1980s it was still possible for a school leaver to reflect: "I saw a guidance teacher once a year, but as most of the time I had no problems, these meetings were short." (The Best Years?, edited by J M Hughes.) Guidance teachers had been readily accepted in most Scottish schools as supporters for pupils with school-based difficulties, their teachers and parents. But this placed them in a "crisis management" role, serving a minority of pupils, rather than in the broad-based service originally envisaged.

What of those pupils who viewed school positively, or who drew no attention to themselves, or who would have increased their potential had they received regular positive reinforcement? The idea of guidance as proactive rather than reactive, and as a positive force rather than an "Elastoplast" for those in difficulty, gained currency and, in common with other regions, Lothian began to resource "guidance for all".

Lothian's Youth Strategy initiative was the cornerstone of this development. Its chief principles are that, through inter-agency work and early intervention, pupils with schooling difficulties should be helped to maintain their position within family, community and school. The increased, formalised co-operation and communication between school, the various agencies and parents that this provided, meant that, progressively, the causes of disruptive behaviour, truancy and underachieving were being addressed, rather than the symptoms. Thanks to extra, targeted resourcing, guidance was moving towards the ideal of a more proactive role leading to enhanced equality of opportunity for all pupils.

Guidance work has become far more analytical than previously. Constantly improving links with primaries as part of the Scottish national 5-14 development programme, mean that strategies can be in place for pupils from the start of secondary school, or earlier, if warranted. The idea of early intervention has also led to a blurring of distinction between the various in-school support areas. Many pupils adjudged to be "disruptive" are reacting to specific learning difficulties; close co-operation between guidance and learning support can do much to ameliorate this situation, so much so that, in many schools, the functions of these two "departments" have become interlinked in one "extended learning support and guidance service" Guidance staff recognise that, curricular adjustment can often be the key to improving attainment and attitude. This would apply not only to "troublesome" pupils, but to all who are seeking to maximise the effect of their schooling. A classic example of such co-operation would lie in the provision of paired reading clubs, where senior pupils spend lunchtimes helping younger pupils improve their reading skills, in a programme with immediate and obvious benefits on both sides.

The widening content of personal and social education programmes, for which guidance staff have responsibility, reflects the increasingly positive role being played, with work experience, skills in learning, thinking and study, and assertiveness training, all supporting the broad mass of pupils seeking to reach their potential. This is backed up with continual profiling and recording of achievement for each pupil, which leads to increased knowledge of each pupil's strengths, as well as weaknesses, ambitions as well as shortcomings.

The contribution of guidance to the ethos of the school, especially through the work of "first level" guidance staff, who have evolved from the traditional "register teachers", can be immeasurable, with all pupils, even in the largest school, knowing that someone is available to support them, is taking a daily interest in them, and has the knowledge and expertise to back up that interest. This reinforces the ideal that "every teacher is a guidance teacher".

Lothian has encouraged the evolution of a guidance system in which the opportunity for attainment and achievement, and the support necessary, is in place for every pupil, including those with special needs, whom it seeks to integrate into the mainstream.

Guidance staff themselves, appropriately trained and qualified, and with the support of school senior management, have progressed from a reactive force, seeking to keep the lid on school-based difficulties, to become what Professor John MacBeath, of Strathclyde University's education faculty, has called "supportive challengers": providing support to pupils, parents and colleagues where there are difficulties, but also challenging the student body, parents and those who design the curriculum to ensure that the young people in our schools are given, and encouraged to take, the best of opportunities for full educational and personal development.

It is undoubtedly true that "quality is not a destination but a journey". The policies of Lothian Region have ensured that all those who have travelled the guidance road within its borders have received a most favourable following wind: the journey continues.

Sean McPartlin is principal teacher,guidance, at St Kentigern's Academy, Blackburn, West Lothian.

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