Into the dark zone with Higher Still

21st August 1998 at 01:00
THE FIRST Higher Still exams are not for two years, but there are probably only five months before guidance staff get to grips with Preparation for Entry to Higher Still. The grandiose-sounding concept of a "guidance entitlement" was introduced in autumn 1995 in the Higher Still Development Unit's consultative Guidance Arrangements. This document was also noteworthy because it assigned careers education to an appendix of one and a half pages - an astonishing aspect of an initiative relating to post-16 education.

Early this year, it was reported by HSDU staff that the contents of the Guidance Arrangements document had undergone radical revision, with careers education now considered separately in a much extended format, and with a conscious effort made to bring together "guidance" and "personal and social education". However, almost 32 months after the end of the consultation on the original proposals, I have not received the revised documents, and so I am unaware of the precise nature of what I should be planning to undertake by early next year.

The decision by the development unit to encourage a more rigorous link between guidance and PSE first became known at training seminars for guidance staff in spring of last year. I attended one in the west of Scotland, and my impression was that the proposal was met with substantially less than universal acclamation.

As further proof of the guidancePSE linkage which the unit is seeking, subsequent training programmes have not included "guidance", only "PSE", but participants have then been surprised to be told firmly that the programme referred to PSE only, and not to guidance. This approach has aggravated earlier concerns.

HSDU staff have attended locally arranged in-service training programmes,and encouragement has been given to teachers (and guidance managers) to prepare for Higher Still by investigating the existing responsibility and workload boundaries with other staff and with other agencies, to determine where tasks currently undertaken by guidance staff might be ended or transferred.

The unit's advice derives from a myth begun by the Inspectorate two years ago in Effective Teaching and Learning - Guidance. This expressed the need for more effective management of guidance staff, greater prioritisation of tasks within a more effective management of time and for guidance staff themselves to "stand back from involvement in areas which are the responsibility of one or other of the caring agencies".

Since 1995, much effort has been directed towards toning down the meaning of the "guidance entitlement" to the point where it now appears to consist of a list of supportive tasks to be undertaken within the constraints of whatever guidance resource can be made available by the individual school or the education authority.

It was timely therefore that in March the General Teaching Council issued a consultation policy statement on guidance which concluded that "the original guidance complement is now out of date" and "guidance teachers must be given adequate time to meet the present and future needs of the school and its pupils effectively", as well as making detailed proposals for what has been in some areas a scandalous lack over many years of staff development.

The GTC's document confirmed the findings in a study by Cathy Howieson and Sheila Semple that guidance is unable to meet existing needs and may well buckle under the considerable additional demands of Higher Still.

In some cases guidance teachers were not issued with copies and in others they were given no opportunity to make any input into the authority's response. I can think of no other group of principal teachers and assistant principal teachers in secondary schools who would be excluded from such a relevant consultation.

In 1996, Ron Tuck, then chief inspector for the 14-18 curriculum and now chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, stated: "The role of careers and guidance staff is absolutely crucial . . . It is going to be important that the guidance staff understand progression opportunities and that they are supported by databases and training that we provide." Since Mr Tuck made that statement, I as a principal teacher have received only a few hours of genuine training (as opposed to presentations). In June, I received my long heralded in-service on the Plan IT and Progress databases. The facilitator was extremely pleasant and helpful, but made it clear that the training schedule involved opportunity for "hands-on" experience only and would not involve any other consideration. I am still unaware of how to convert these databases into a practical support system for pupils.

Therefore at the start of the new session the long-standing myth on which the HSDU chose to base its whole approach to guidance - that overall provision was adequate and merely requiring better management of the resource - has been exposed. The GTC report confirms earlier research findings that existing guidance provision is unacceptable, and in need of substantial resources. My own impression, confirmed in conversations with colleagues, is that training for Higher Still has been totally inadequate.

There are more than 2,000 guidance teachers in secondaries, a significant number of votes in the anticipated union ballots on Higher Still. I suspect that many will be swayed by long-standing frustrations and concerns as well as by more recent perceptions about Higher Still and the state of readiness for meeting the additional demands on guidance staff.

Peter Dickson is a member of the executive council of the Educational Institute of Scotland and secretary of its guidance network. He writes in a personal capacity.

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