In defence of pupil guidance

18th December 1998 at 00:00
Calum Stewart's article "No time to teach" (TESS, November 20) was a useful contribution to a debate which must be carried forward in the context of the Millennium Review and specifically of school management structures relating to guidance.

The dilemma he describes, that of balancing teaching duties and commitment to the work of a subject department with the responsibilities of a guidance teacher, is well understood by all in secondary schools, none more than the guidance teachers themselves.

It is clear that Mr Stewart is sympathetic to the situation in which guidance teachers find themselves and, to an extent, to the guidance function itself. However, I am disappointed by the narrowness and negativity of his definition which he sees in terms of truancy, misbehaviour and what he calls "petty" bullying.

This, and other assertions he makes, suggests that he regards guidance in terms of a deficit model: if pupils came to school on time, behaved properly and were model students there would be no need for guidance. Furthermore, and crucial to Mr Stewart's case, good teachers would stay in the classroom and wouldn't be wasting their time on guidance.

It is on this final point that I disagree fundamentally. The principal, if not the only justification for a guidance system in schools is to enhance teaching and learning and to support all pupils in obtaining the maximum benefit from their time there.

The child's school experience is not limited to the classroom and, by the same token, the talented teacher does not cease to have a profound influence on pupils' educational development when she or he steps out of the classroom.

There is, of course, a degree to which guidance support is about helping children when they most need help. The pupil who is absent or consistently late, or who is the victim of bullying (whether the child would consider it "petty" is another matter), or who is underachieving is not best placed to benefit from the high quality classroom teaching whose virtues Mr Stewart extols.

Experts providing specialist help are an invaluable resource but that is not what guidance is about. For most pupils, most of the time, the problems are not acute enough to merit "expert" intervention.

Indeed, it is often the intervention of guidance teachers when things go wrong that allows effective classroom teaching to continue. Many of Mr Stewart's colleagues must feel supported by the intervention of guidance staff.

The strongest feature of our Scottish system of guidance is that the teachers do just that: they are not social workers, counsellors or psychologists, but teachers who understand the teaching process, the pupilteacher relationship and the dynamics of the classroom as an insider.They have the classroom (and staffroom) credibility of teachers. They know the pupils, their backgrounds and their families.

This is important from the pupil's point of view and it is equally important to their colleagues that guidance is integral to the life of the school. As a proactive service it operates to the benefit of all pupils who can access curricular and vocational advice as well as personal support when necessary.

In this respect, the considerable skills of good teachers are used to even better effect when their influence extends beyond the classroom to supporting pupils as individuals and contributing to the establishment of a caring ethos throughout the school.

Most importantly, and because pupils are cared for and their emotional needs addressed, guidance contributes to the main current agendas in Scottish education - raising standards and social inclusion.

Despite my criticisms Mr Stewart makes some very important points. It is important to remove the tension that exists between guidance and subject commitments, tension which results in frustration for all and stress for guidance teachers who have divided loyalties.

The further development of "first level guidance" should be seriously considered (but how long before someone points out that first level guidance takes good teachers away from their teaching duties?). Guidance teachers do need help with administration and basic clerical functions. Perhaps the time has come to consider having full-time guidance teachers whose teaching is in the area of personal and social education. Perhaps they should continue to teach a subject but with a greatly reduced class commitment.

Mr Stewart's most important assertion is that it is time for a major review of guidance and its impact on teaching and learning. To omit to take the opportunity to restructure guidance in the context of the wider Millennium Review of management and promoted post structures in schools would be to miss an opportunity which will not present itself again in the foreseeable future.

While disagreeing with much of what Mr Stewart has to say I acknowledge that his are the views of many committed teachers and he has reopened the debate because he cares about standards in education.

I would welcome a continuation of this debate if it results in guidance assuming its rightful place in schools, within a management structure appropriate to the 21st century.

Loretta Scott is adviser in guidance, Glasgow City Council.

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