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The trouble with guidance posts

One area where heads deserve to have more discretion is pupil support, says Douglas Osler.

The provision of guidance posts in schools is one of the significant features of Scottish education that I used to trumpet abroad. Other countries envied a system designed to bring directly to youngsters, in school, the extra support they might need to enable them to push problems out of the way and get on with learning. That was the intention when guidance posts hit the scene more than 30 years ago.

Times have changed, pupils' problems - if they have them - are more complex and the solutions require different professional skills. The question is whether our guidance system has developed to cope with this new world.

I remember vividly the morning assembly at which the rector of the school I was teaching in announced the new appointments. In that authority, it had been decided that the new posts would attract only half of the principal teacher's responsibility payment and that, for the first round of appointments, the headteacher would invite nominations internally and make the appointments unilaterally.

As a result, the applications came largely from the time-servers, stuck in their teaching posts with little prospect of promotion to head of department in that school or anywhere else. I remember vividly the tidal wave of derisive laughter that surged forward from the senior pupils at the back of the hall, enveloping the youngest pupils and lapping at the shores of the stage on which the solemn-faced staff were marooned.

The method and quality of these appointments did nothing for the reputation of guidance. It wasn't helped either by the later publication by HMI of the report on guidance with the pious and banal title More Than Just Feelings of Concern. Guidance needs to have more backbone than the title suggests.

Many subject principal teachers resented the fact that for their job they needed a specialist qualification, but for a guidance post being a teacher was enough. That problem persists. While an increasing number of the holders of guidance posts have undergone training, usually after appointment, it should be a requirement prior to eligibility to apply and should involve the acquisition of a completely new skill.

When guidance posts were created, the problems passed to guidance were largely disciplinary and related to seeking a job or university place. Some involved interviews with parents but few self-respecting parents were likely to accept an interview with the guidance staff as enough. There was an image problem which has not been entirely overcome. These were problems which could be handled by a well-meaning adult with the advantage of a qualification in and experience of teaching. It worked well, but it is no longer enough.

The existence of guidance posts in Scotland's schools is a matter of pride and it should be guarded jealously. These posts are potentially much more significant to the welfare and education of individuals and the health of the school than subject posts but they should not be guarded so exclusively. A qualified, practising teacher should expect to be doing a "guidance" job as part and parcel of the process of teaching.

Many pupils prefer their advice and support to come from the class teachers they get to know well day by day. That source of help is enough for most youngsters. We all used to expect that until guidance seized the monopoly on advice. When the problem is more complex, it takes a professional to handle it and that professional is unlikely to be a teacher unless the teacher has acquired an additional qualification - and that is why the nature of training for guidance staff is so important.

Guidance posts should be a facility open to school managers to staff in ways that suit the particular school. It is an important opportunity to introduce a range of full-time expertise on the permanent staff rather than imported from outside. That is an acknowledgment that teachers, however good they may be, cannot do everything for all their pupils.

It is important, too, not to see the introduction of varied professional skills into the guidance system as an attempt to solve family problems in a school setting. On the contrary, this would be an attempt to solve the problems in the way of learning by bringing in the right help at the right time.

The range of professionals on the guidance team would vary from school to school. There are schools where a full-time careers adviser would be needed. In others, one or more qualified behavioural counsellors (whose first trade could be teaching) would be effective. A social worker, community education specialist or child protection officer might be other needed skills. Imagine being able to appoint an educational psychologist to an individual school or shared between two schools rather than waiting in the long line to access the existing overstretched service.

These are the skills needed to resolve the complex problems today's pupils bring to school or develop in school. It is patronising to other professional groups to pretend that a converted teacher can do them all.

It will be a deeply unpopular idea with teaching unions to suggest that their jealously guarded posts might be opened up to other professionals - but who is guidance for? After all, if giving powers to heads to staff guidance with skills the pupils need leads to a reduction in behavioural and learning problems, all teachers will be better off.

Douglas Osler is former head of the education inspectorate.

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