Guidance needs a Higher profile

21st March 1997 at 00:00
The guidance system in Scottish schools is creaking at the seams. To cope with Higher Still, we need a new structure and full-time posts, argues David McLaren

Guidance appears to have come a long way since the Green Paper of 1971. Major changes to the promoted-post structure were seen as necessary by the (then) Scottish Education Department for a number of reasons: more pupils were staying on at school; the curriculum and exam system were changing rapidly; the number of larger schools was falling; and the "technological field" was expanding. The proposed system of promoted posts in guidance and curriculum subjects was designed to take account of these changes.

Twenty-six years ago, St Andrew's House recognised the need for change and acted upon it. But if there was a case for change then, how much stronger is it now?

A new guidance structure is required to deal with cross-curricular provision and bring together areas such as learning support, the needs of able pupils, and behaviour support. Above all, we need to consider introducing full-time guidance staff.

Higher Still offers little hope. One of the recurring themes of the Higher Still document is that everything can be dealt with by re-shuffling and "reprioritising". Guidance will not have to change much, although "there will be some need to adjust guidance systems and current practices''.

This means only two things, according to the Higher Still development unit: staff will require more information (which can be provided by CD-Roms), and some might need additional training.

There is no attempt even to consider overhauling a system that is already creaking at the seams, or to deal with the concept of cross-curricular provision, which is inherent in the remit of guidance. There is a hint of a suggestion that there might be a problem with time. But the answer, of course, is to prioritise.

The Higher Still document admits that there will be "significant implications for the planning, management, resourcing and delivery of guidance''; that "there will be some need to adjust guidance systems and practices'' to meet the challenges; and that "time will need to be set aside''.

But attempting to solve a problem by reprioritising merely creates problems elsewhere. Should guidance staff really be asked to prioritise like this, knowing that quality elsewhere will suffer? It is a strange argument from an inspectorate justifiably concerned in the last few years with "quality'' provision.

The most recent document on guidance, Effective Learning and Teaching, makes it clear that Her Majesty's Inspectors do recognise the difficulty of time and the fact that subject commitment is suffering. But rather than admitting there is a shortage of time, they identify time management as the root of the problem. Their advice, too, is to prioritise guidance tasks "in a coherent attempt to manage time effectively''.

Even if effective time management were the issue - and guidance staff might be forgiven for feeling aggrieved at this suggestion - what is to be prioritised?

Higher Still is obviously intended to be a priority for guidance staff. Perhaps less time is to be spent on S1 and S2? But no, a subsequent HMI document, Achievement for All, makes it clear that "de-prioritising'' S1 and S2 will not be acceptable. Readers are advised that "a greater role for guidance in monitoring the progress and achievement of all pupils in S1 and S2 may require a reappraisal of existing priorities within many secondary school guidance systems''.

One can understand why guidance staff reach for the Prozac. Higher Still is a priority, but so are S1 and S2. Are S3 and S4 to be de-prioritised? It is certainly dubious how much shelf life there is left in Standard grade, given that Higher Still seems to provide a suitable exit point for all in S5.

Just to muddy the waters even further, Effective Learning and Teaching identifies a large number of guidance areas which are in need of development (most notably, personal and social education) and specifically prioritises, among others, counselling and negotiating skills, expertise in profiling, assessment and recording, and knowledge and skills in first-level guidance activities.

The messages from HMI are both confused and confusing. They often recommend that systems and procedures in guidance be "adjusted'', provided of course that nothing fundamental (like time allocation, the promoted-post structure or commitment to subject teaching) is affected.

Particularly interesting and revealing are the comments of the former senior chief inspector of schools, Nisbet Gallacher, who observed recently that we should be "less hidebound by past practice and attitudes'' and that a review of the promotion structure in secondaries is urgently needed.

Directors of education are even beginning to mutter publicly about the rigidity of the promoted-post structure, and the General Teaching Council is to conduct a national review of guidance.

Is it too much to hope that the inspectorate might make a meaningful contribution to the debate? The more we ignore (among other things) the idea of fully trained staff with a fuller time allocation and a wider remit for guidance, the more entrenched we become in the past.

At the moment it is quite difficult even to discuss these issues with the powers that be, because there have been precious few opportunities for guidance staff to consult with the Higher Still development unit. The so-called "biggest consultation exercise in the history of Scottish education'' - a term used with some pride by a senior figure involved - has been restricted largely to curriculum subjects, to the exclusion of guidance. As a result, Higher Still looks like being yet another missed opportunity to examine some major issues in guidance.

Quite properly, teachers expect HMI to consult them fully and to provide a clear lead, not to avoid the issue by prioritising everything in sight and diverting the argument into the area of effective time management. Optimists will pin their faith on the General Election. The rest will just keep taking the pills.

David McLaren teaches in the department of educational studies at Strathclyde University

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