Principals must deliver on extra guidance counselling hours
In my opinion... Betty McLaughlin
This Saturday, more than 450 guidance counsellors will meet at the University of Limerick for the annual conference of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), to celebrate what will be the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the institute. Minister Jan O'Sullivan will address the conference at 9am, her last official appointment before she heads to the election count centre.
Against this backdrop of celebration, guidance counsellors have very little to rejoice about. Given that professional guidance counselling is a specialism that requires a specific qualification, expertise and experience, the esteem - or lack of it - in which guidance counsellors have been held by the Government since the cuts of Budget 2012, is in inverse proportion to the influence they hold over young people's lives and prospects.
These changes decimated the service and, four years on, guidance counselling is on its knees, with guidance counsellors in 2016 struggling on a daily basis to cope. This is outrageous! We now have one-in-five Irish second level schools with no guidance counsellor at all - none.
As the theme of the conference 'A Guiding Light: Care, Education and Wellbeing for All' suggests, offering guidance is far more than just conveying information.
Guidance counselling clarifies and inspires, and offers understanding and enlightenment - a prerequisite of empowerment.
The IGC is absolutely clear about two things. First, that there are few tasks in our education and skills system that are more important than sowing the seed as early as possible that post-school education is the expectation, not the exception, and helping students to understand the full life implications of the choices they are asked to make.
Second, that it is the role of Government to support all children to achieve their potential, through providing a universal entitlement to guidance counselling support.
One-to-one guidance counselling is of critical importance, particularly for those young people who do not possess the wherewithal to connect them to inspiring figures in different occupations; or who come from families with a long history of unemployment; or those with learning difficulties or disabilities. Many young people do not lack aspiration, but what they do lack is the means to achieve their goals. This is where guidance counsellors come into their own, where face to face guidance helps move students onto the right path. This is the difference between information and advice, between data and providing understanding.
The IGC is unwavering in its position that delivery by Government on the issues central to securing the restoration of the dedicated guidance counselling service for young Irish students, and consequently an improved future for all, is non-negotiable.
Budget 2016 promised the restoration of two extra hours a week for every 100 students in every school/college of further education (an average of 10 extra hours a week across the system), to be used as determined by each school principal. While the IGC welcome these additional hours from Minister O'Sullivan, it has major concerns: it will be left to school principals to decide how these hours are used, and how much they put toward restoring a fully functioning guidance counselling service.
From the IGC's perspective, what needs to happen is for the new Minister for Education and Skills to require principals to use these hours to ensure that a meaningful guidance counselling service is put in place for all students.
In the long term, the IGC's objective is for a full restoration of ring-fenced guidance counsellors' hours, to the pre-Budget 2012 position, so as to ensure a dedicated fit-for-purpose service is available throughout the country, in the very near future.
Betty McLaughlin is president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors