Don't let cost cutters loose on guidance

8th June 2001 at 01:00
The annual conference of the Scottish Guidance Association meets tomorrow amid uncertainty after the teachers' settlement. Sean McPartlin reports

Senator George Mitchell said of negotiating the Northern Ireland peace process that the secret was in the detail - "Enough to gain agreement, but not so much as to fuel arguments". As we move in to the post-McCrone era, it appears that the professor may well have been listening to the senator. All over Scotland, there are differing approaches to the areas of the McCrone agreement that were left for "further negotiation".

In the midst of this lies the guidance system. It's impossible to tell if the limited references to'guidance' in the agreement papers were because its contribution was universally accepted, or because its importance was overlooked.

Some local authorities have already announced that they will maintain the role of guidance in their staffing structures. Others look like they have spotted a cost cutting opportunity, and the rest are waiting and seeing.

This is bad news for guidance staff, but also for their colleagues, pupils and parents. The original start-up papers for guidance in Scotland in 1968 stated: "Every secondary pupil has a right to know that there is one person responsible for their personal, curricular and vocational welfare."

This aspiration was made for a very different society from today's. At that time the Children (Scotland) Act and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child had not been passed. It was before the acceptance of the paramount importance of "the best interests of the child". There were far fewer single parent or restructured families. Institutionalised abuse was yet to be widely uncovered. Rates of drug abuse, teenage depression and schoolgirl pregnancies were all far lower than today. If there was a perceived need for a system to support pupils, their families, and teachers over 30 years ago, how much more crucial must that role be today?

The lack of a coordinated campaign in defence of guidance so far has several causes. Where local authorities clearly value their guidance teams, there is a feeling of relief or security. But where there has been no pronouncement, guidance staff are unable to react. There is also a reticence among guidance staff to leap to their own defence because some parts of the educational establishment have long seen the guidance system as fair game.

Of its nature, large pats of the guidance role are part of the'hidden curriculum'. In some cases, the fruits of the guidance teacher's efforts may not become apparent till years later . Such achievements are not easily ticked off in lists of performance indicators or at quality assurance audits.

This is grist to the cynical mill of those who are uncomfortable with emotions (and their link to learning), who shy away from the responsibility for educating the whole pupil, or who have difficulty in recognising the connection between a school's ethos and the achievement and attainment of its pupils.

Of all the inanities voiced about education from those who really ought to know better, the oft repeated "teachers are not social workers, all they should do is teach" reveals the most worrying lack understanding. Are we really to believe that the child's life outside of school has no bearing on how they behave, react and learn in the classroom? Similarly, those who would justify curricular and vocational guidance, but suggest pastoral guidance is better left to 'experts' from outside the profession, are missing the point entirely.

The excellent work by outside agencies in support of school staff at present is based on the ongoing knowledge of pupils and their families provided by the guidance teacher. Indeed, their in depth knowledge of the pupils with whom they work every day, their understanding of the classroom situation and the respect of their colleagues, is at the root of the guidance team's crucial contribution to the ethos of a successful school.

The guidance system in Scotland is admired in many parts of the world. Over 30 years ago it began as a rather 'sixties' concept of protective support. It has become a certificated, audited and evaluated service that supports and challenges not only pupils,but also families, teachers and outside agencies, to make sure that each child gets the chance to develop to their full potential.

Guidance operates as a bridge between school and home, pupils and staff, education and other agencies.

The three spans of that bridge - pastoral, vocational andcurricular - are equally important and interdependent.

Chip away at one span and the whole foundation of the bridge becomes unstable. It's to be hoped those who would diminish the role of guidance are prepared to get their feet wet!

Sean McPartlin is assistant head at St Margaret's Academy in Livingston, West Lothian.

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