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The withdrawl of guidance counsellors from secondary schools was discussed in the Dáil on tiThursday, December 15th by Mick and Fianna Fail TD Brendan Smith with Minister Quinn under time allocated for topical issues. Since raising the issue, Mick has spoken about the effects these measures will have in particular on Gorey Community School, Wexford in the Dáil and on national radio. The loss of guidance counsellors will have a negative impact on our schools in terms of career advice as well as the counselling service they provide to students. You can watch the full exchange here

Mick Wallace: I am sure the Minister is well aware that an ESRI report stated that the scaling back of guidance counselling in schools will be most keenly felt among young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such students are more reliant on advice from their school in making post-school decisions, particularly those relating to higher education entry and educational quality and standards. The guidance teacher is also a counsellor and he or she has an important role in a school. There is little doubt that children from less well off backgrounds are more in need of advice because they do not have the same support at home. The route to successful adulthood can be an obstacle course and those from difficult backgrounds often fail it and opt out. Middle class children very often copy their parents to achieve a good standing in employment and life whereas working class children often have to throw off the role of their parents and aim for something better to find a better way in life for themselves. I understand form teachers originally were allowed four hours in community schools but given the pressure on schools, fewer form teachers are given time to operate. They also acted in a pastoral role. I acknowledge schools have the option of retaining the guidance teacher within their pupil-teacher ratio but that could lead to the loss of another teacher and, sometimes, a subject. The options are poor for the school. Brendan Smith: I appreciate the presence of the Minister to reply to this important question. Following budget 2012, guidance provision at second level will be managed by schools from within their standard teacher allocation from next year. We believe this decision will not only lead to the end of the guidance counselling profession but its effect will be felt most by vulnerable and disadvantaged students. The Government decision to include guidance provision within the standard teacher allocation is an effective increase in the pupil-teacher ratio at second level. Next year, second level schools will be faced with the choice to either let go of up to 1,000 guidance counsellors in 700 schools or to let go other teachers such as science and language teachers leading to reduced subject choice. However, apart from the impact on the pupil-teacher ratio and on subject choice, we are hugely concerned that this decision will result in the obliteration of the guidance counselling profession and about the severe social impact of this decision on young vulnerable students, particularly those with mental health problems. Through parliamentary questions, I asked the Minister if his Department’s guidelines relating to the entitlement to appropriate guidance at second level still remains in force. Under current legislation, students are entitled to appropriate guidance under section 9(c) of the Education Act 1998. Is this still in force? Will the Minister ensure all second level students continue to have access to career guidance and counselling services at some level? For example, will schools be required to provide a certain level of provision? Will these services be provided by fully qualified guidance counsellors only? Does he still believe only qualified guidance counsellors should provide counselling services to students? These are fair and reasonable questions that the Minister needs to urgently answer. Instead, the Minister’s reply to these questions this week avoided addressing any of these issues. He said, “Schools must meet their guidance requirements from within the overall resources provided by the normal staffing schedule.” This would indicate that there is still a requirement to keep guidance counsellors in place. However, he contradicted that assertion when he went on to say, “Individually schools can continue to make provision for guidance and counselling. Decisions on how this will be done will be taken at school level in the best interests of students and to ensure the best use of resources available.” What are the guidance requirements the schools must meet? Ruairi Quinn: The change that has been announced gives schools greater autonomy in how they allocate staff resources to best meet the needs of their students, including how they provide for guidance and counselling. It is a change to how resources are allocated to schools not a policy decision to terminate guidance provision as some may chose to present it. Until now, a specific resource was provided to all second level schools for guidance in addition to the standard teacher allocation. This broadly equates to an additional allocation of approximately one teacher for every 500 pupils. In future, schools must meet their guidance requirements from within the overall resource provided by the normal staffing schedule. Individually, schools can continue to make provision for guidance and counselling. Decisions on how this will be done will be taken at school level in the best interest of students and to ensure the best use of resources available. I am confident school management and teachers will continue to work together to meet the needs of the students in their care. Our schools are caring institutions and I am certain they will provide the necessary supports for vulnerable pupils in their care. In this way, the main teacher allocation can be maintained at 19:1 for schools generally, while schools will have discretion to balance what they allocate for guidance against all other competing demands. Moving to a more general allocation by integrating stand alone allocations like the one that has existed for guidance is how many other countries resource schools. In other words, we trust the principals to deploy the resources made available to them in a manner they think is most appropriate. It is about devolution and liberation within management at school level and I fully support it. Many principals have been seeking that flexibility rather than a one size fits all direction by way of circular from the Department. The Government’s protection of schools serving disadvantaged areas is further underlined by the maintenance of €13 million in enhanced funding for DEIS schools, €2 million in school book funding for DEIS schools, as well as a €26 million investment in the home-school community liaison scheme. We will communicate with schools in early January regarding the guidance issue. There are two components to this. The first is counselling for students who are distressed or who are coping with difficult circumstances in their lives and the second is career guidance. It may be that we can examine ways in which both those complementary services can be provided. I assure the Deputies that we will communicate with schools indicating to them how they may interpret this devolution of power and responsibility. Principals have been looking for this. Deputy Smith will recall that many principals said there needed to be more devolution of responsibility. The countries we wish to emulate, which are achieving good educational outcomes, such as Finland and Australia have schools in which principals have much greater discretion. It is not the case that career guidance will disappear or that counsellors will not be retained. Mick Wallace: There is nothing wrong with the notion of giving more responsibility to the schools themselves but I have spoken to teachers from two different schools who feel they are under more pressure to deal with the children’s problems. I do not know whether that is down to the principal not allocating the resources in the most efficient manner. I accept there have been cutbacks and everything is more difficult. I also understand there is not as much money around as we would like but I am glad the Minister will communicate with the schools in January. The feedback from schools is that they are under severe pressure. Children are under more pressure than they ever were and the classroom is a more difficult place to be than it ever was because children are so insecure and there are more issues at home. They are bringing more problems to school and teachers have fewer resources to deal with these additional problems. Brendan Smith: The ESRI said yesterday in its report, Improving Second-Level Education: Using Evidence for Policy Development, that the removal of guidance counselling in schools will impact most on young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are more reliant on advice from their schools, particularly in regard to going on to third level. Better-off households can afford to buy particular guidance at different times. We want to ensure that vulnerable young people will not lose out when the changes are made. I am sure the Minister shares that ambition, as we all do. Will section 9(c) of the Education Act 1998 be clarified in the circular that is due to issue from the Department in January? In the parliamentary question reply I quoted, which the Minister might check when he has the opportunity, it was stated that the schools “must” meet and then, subsequently, it was stated that the schools “can”. Clarification is badly needed. We do not want to see section 9(c) of the 1998 Act changed. We are all aware of the importance of the Act and we want those requirements adhered to. Ruairi Quinn: Let me respond very clearly. Section 9(c) is not being changed. It stands, and the schools have an obligation to adhere to the 1998 Act, including section 9(c). Second, school guidance is not being eliminated from the schools and guidance counsellors are not being eliminated. That is scaremongering and it is simply not the case. I accept the advice and findings of the ESRI on this matter. Deputy Wallace referred to the role models that might exist in some households as against others. There is a major distinction between guidance as to how best to deploy the talents of young people as they move into the adult world and counselling for young people, from whatever background, who are encountering real difficulties - sadly, there is much evidence of this. This is not uniquely the function of the guidance counsellors. Every school teacher will say they have to deal with that in their own classroom. I agree the counsellors have professional counselling skills, which are essential additional skills that are needed for particularly troubled young people. What has been said to me in the last three years in Opposition by principals in primary and secondary schools is that they want more autonomy in how best to deploy resources in their schools, not the kind of one-size-fits-all circular that has characterised the Department of Education and Skills in Marlborough Street. I am changing that. I am giving them that discretion. If some guidance teacher said that they fear their principal is going to get rid of them, they must ask themselves the question, “Is that because I am not valued in the classroom or in the school?” I can understand the uncertainty that might be there for some people but, in the communication I will have with the schools in January, I will clarify that along the lines Deputy Smith referred to, and I will ensure the sort of concerns that were conveyed to Deputy Wallace will be properly addressed.

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