Star role for the bit part
Guidance was once seen as a bolt-on duty, but its importance now warrants distinct recognition, argues Innes Murchie.
Guidance teachers of a certain age and with memory still intact may remember the feeling of being a maiden aunt at the family Christmas party: kind, well meaning and taking part in all the fun but somehow not really an intimate part of the close family circle.
The problem was that, while at the Christmas party the "family" could be nice to "auntie" and try their best to make her feel welcome, the school staffroom could be a place of unkind gibes from "real" teachers about "guidies" who apparently spent their days smoothing ruffled adolescent angst and lending a sympathetic ear to complaints about teachers who "dinna like me".
Those days are long gone. The guidance function must now be seen as an integral and vital part of any school, doing much to encourage high standards and attainment among pupils and contributing to the promotion of a positive ethos.
However, there can be still a lack of full understanding of what guidance work involves. A video produced by the education faculty of Strathclyde University aims to put that right. In following the members of the guidance team at Braidhurst High School in Motherwell through a typical week, it provides an insight into the reality of guidance practice.
Young people are marvellous in their variety and demand infinitely varied and often subtle approaches if they are to shine as scholars and as people. The guidance teacher must have a battery of techniques and tools at hand.
The video's undoubted strength lies in it not being simply talking heads. The producers have, mostly, used a camera technique that puts viewers at the guidance teacher's elbow in their daily round.
And what a round it proves to be as they deal with pupils, parents, teachers, social workers and attendance officers, juggling guidance duties and subject commitments all the while. An air of unflappability prevails, although one competent woman on the team wryly observes towards the end of the week: "I've got to keep smiling or I'd go mad."
The film gives an excellent insight for any teacher considering a move into guidance and there is also much in it that will help established guidance staff to explore new avenues.
Increasingly in Scotland guidance staff are called upon to help th successful introduction of initiatives. Assuredly, the success of Higher Still depends on how well pupils are directed to appropriate levels, charted through individually tailored programmes and monitored as they progress. Who, if not the guidance teacher, can determine the overall position of an individual pupil in the complex web of Higher Still?
Inclusion and New Community schools are other developments which, for obvious reasons, lie within the bailiwick of guidance.
The drop out rates from universities and colleges, and dissatisfaction with first choice courses, point to a need for better advice in the progression to tertiary education. While the school library may be stuffed with pamphlets, booklets, prospectuses, databases and CD-Roms on the hundreds of courses on offer, pupils may make little of the bewildering choice without the assistance of a guidance teacher.
Guidance is important: what Strathclyde University's video serves to emphasise is the key role which Braidhurst High's team plays in the school. But there remain questions about its place in Scottish education. Provision varies across local authorities. Nationally, there is no fixed allocation of time for guidance duties. There is a sense that it is a bolt-on and it has attained its present status in a somewhat haphazard fashion. Most guidance teachers have a subject commitment and, although there may be strong arguments for this, it is debatable whether that is still tenable in the face of increasing demands upon the guidance function itself.
What does the McCrone report offer on some of these points? It would have been reasonable to expect some indication of the central role of guidance from a document that, along with the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act, sets out to reinvigorate the teaching profession. However, while references to guidance and pastoral care may be there, they are among the small print and have to be searched for.
An opportunity has been missed to highlight and recognise the peculiar role of guidance teachers in getting the education system to work. The professionalism of guidance requires a distinct recognition in the promotion and management structure. The danger is that the omission may hoist a signal that it is an optional extra.
As Strathclyde University's video amply demonstrates, guidance professionals stand foursquare alongside fellow educators, ready to march on to the glowing, golden future which should lie ahead for Scottish education. Please give them their rightful place in the column.
Innes Murchie is principal teacher of guidance at Bridge of Don Academy, Aberdeen