Helping S1 pupils adapt to secondary school ways and seeing S6 off to university or college; dealing with parents and the personal crises of pupils; advising on subject choice; contributing to personal and social education - these are just some of the jobs that come under the title "guidance". They are so central to school life and to the creation of the right ethos that it is hard to imagine that formal guidance structures are only a quarter of a century old. It is also not surprising that aspiration and outcome do not always match and that inspectors can point to weaknesses as they study guidance in the schools they visit.
They have now brought together their concerns in a report (page three) within the Effective Learning and Teaching series. Lack of time to carry out duties is the main stumbling block. The HMIs portray that as ineffective management although they recognise the pressure on teachers. Whether "prioritising" tasks and managing time "coherently", as the report recommends, would solve the problems is debatable. The load is probably too great for every pupil to get the range and frequency of attention which would be ideal and which the report points to.
The report suggests that guidance staff stand back from day-to-day commitments and review their use of time. Other caring agencies, it is suggested, should be taking on part of the load. But the amount of time and depth of commitment needed to help a pupil in difficulty or trouble can throw out of kilter the best of plans, and there is often no way in which a teacher's involvement could be reduced. It is little wonder that the majority of pupils who avoid crises receive too little attention, or that it is confined to key moments such as the S2 season for subject choice.
The HMIs' own conclusions mirror those of the research study published earlier this year by Cathy Howieson and Sheila Semple. Their work in six secondaries was funded by the Scottish Office and identified the same shortcomings as the inspectors. But their summary was more outspoken: "The system may not be maintaining minimum standards of provision for all pupils." Following interviews with hundred of pupils and parents, some of the weaknesses were characterised as "unacceptable".
The HMIs' recommendations amount to better management by individual teachers, senior management and the local authorities. Although time could no doubt be used more efficiently and effectively, a more fundamental question must be asked. Based on the HMIs' own list of responsibilities allocated to guidance staff, is an acceptable level of help and advice possible? Or are there simply not enough hours in the school day? Resource issues - that is, the money available - are debarred from HMI reports, but education authorities and teacher unions will regard the guidance recommendations as a starting point for discussing better funding.