Sunday 25 February 2018

Why September will be a watershed moment in Irish education

In my opinion... Betty McLaughlin

Betty McLaughlin, president of the IGC
Betty McLaughlin, president of the IGC

There are few tasks in our education and skills system more important than sowing the seed, as early as possible, that higher education is the expectation, not the exception.

It is the role of Government to enable all the nation's children to achieve their potential, by providing a universal, standardised, professional and comprehensive guidance counselling service.

Inequality of guidance service provision hampers inclusion for all young people, impacts on their potential and ill-equips these students to face life's challenges. This is detrimental to our young people, to the economy and to society at large.

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.

Guidance is not merely about helping sixth years fill in their CAO forms. The work of the guidance counsellor must start earlier than that - helping students to explore their skills and goals, to determine areas of study (and the subjects and subject levels they will need) and to consider possible careers, while at the same time trying to appreciate what motivates or, more importantly, what demotivates each student. Guidance counselling fosters a healthy school climate and is a crucial element in improving student achievement.

The decimation of the guidance counselling service in the four years after 2012 saw 168 second-level schools with no time to support students in one-to-one counselling. Audits conducted by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC) and the two teacher unions at second-level, the ASTI and TUI, on the impact of these cuts all found that students in junior cycle suffered the most. There was little or no guidance counselling at junior cycle as schools used the limited resources they had available to them to work with Leaving Cert students in what became a fire-fighting service, even for those students.

After years of cutbacks and real fears that a ring-fenced (ex quota) guidance counselling service that Irish education had enjoyed for many years, would be lost for all time, September 2017 will represent a watershed moment.

Budget 2017 brought the restoration of 400 ex-quota guidance posts from September 2017.

It is gratifying that those in authority recognise the vital supports guidance counsellors provide for our young people. We also ,have assurances that the remaining 200 posts, of the 600 lost in 2012, will be returned over the next two budgets.

Furthermore, for the first time, in September, a new subject area called wellbeing will become a central part of the student experience for first, second and third years, as part of junior cycle reforms.

Wellbeing will incorporate the learning traditionally covered in physical education (PE), social personal and health education (SPHE) and civics and political education (CSPE) and will also include guidance counselling. It will offer a broad and holistic approach to enhancing the physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Draft guidelines on wellbeing, published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), acknowledge that learning and wellbeing are inextricably linked, and identify the central role of school in that.

The emphasis will switch to developing student strengths and capabilities, on building resilience and life-skills, rather than focusing on mental ill-health issues. It will prioritise the importance of wellbeing teams in all schools to support positive student experiences.

The guidance counsellor will be central to supporting students and colleagues in embedding wellbeing in all aspects of school life.

Guidance counsellors know only too well that all day-to-day interactions that take place in school can impact on students' wellbeing.

There is overwhelming evidence that students learn more effectively, including their academic subjects, if they are happy, believe in themselves, and feel that they are being supported in their school. Wellbeing will place the student voice centre stage in classrooms and in all aspects of school life.

Betty McLaughlin is president of the IGC, whose annual conference is taking place in UCC this weekend and is Wellbeing Team Leader, Junior Cycle for Teachers' (JCT) Support Service

Irish Independent

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