Wednesday, 1 February 2012
Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education DebatePage of 8
Chairman: I welcome Ms Eilis Coakley from the Institute of Guidance Counsellors to discuss the institute’s views on the future of the guidance service. It is good to have her and her team here. Like other members, I have met some of them before.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If a witness is directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continues to so do, he or she is entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of his or her evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they do not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Ms Eilis Coakley: On behalf of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, I thank the joint committee for allowing us to come to speak to it about the future of guidance counselling in second level schools. Guidance counselling is about student welfare. Guidance counselling is a front-line service which supports students throughout their second level education and into post-leaving certificate level. It supports students to enable them gain the maximum from their time in the education system. Guidance consists of a range of learning experiences, delivered in a sequential way along the students’ development throughout their time in school. It assists students to develop self-management skills so that those skills will lead to effective choices and decision-making, not just in school but throughout their lives. This is the purpose of guidance and counselling in second level schools in Ireland.
The importance of guidance and counselling is enshrined in the 1998 Education Act. Section 9(c) provides that schools must provide access to appropriate guidance. We are here today to state that without the ex-quota allocation provided for guidance up until this budget, schools will not be in a position to provide access or appropriate guidance for students.
The Department of Education and Science which is now the Department of Education and Skills, produced the document which is a guideline to section 9(c) of the Act. This document shows how guidance should be delivered, based on section 9(c). It stresses the importance of guidance and describes the research which supports the importance of guidance. It indicates elements of the programme and the rationale and planning for guidance. Since the ex-quota allocation was taken away in the budget, this document has no status. All its aims and objectives are now purely aspirational.
The service is envisaged as an holistic service based on the linked areas of educational, vocational and personal guidance. The range covers everything from subject choice for future decision-making to personal counselling which enables and empowers students. The school guidance counsellor is the only trained mental health professional to whom students have direct access on a one to one basis. When one considers the importance of mental health and the various government initiatives to support mental health, school is a very central place for such help to be available. The guidance counsellor supports the student with mental health issues throughout his or her time in school.
The document also refers to vocational or careers guidance. All the information and options are available for students to make career and educational choices as are all the forms which require to be filled out to make those progressions.
I will offer some examples of how guidance and counselling works in schools. Here is a case in point. Sally first comes to the attention of the guidance counsellor when she enters school; in fact, she comes to the attention of the guidance counsellor before she enters school because the guidance counsellor plays a central role in helping Sally to make the transition from primary to secondary level and in particular, she helps her in choices having regard to whether they match her interests and her aptitudes at that stage. This is the work of the guidance counsellor. The guidance counsellor develops a relationship with the student in the early stages of her coming into school in order for her to settle into school. Sally continues through first year and into second year. She makes good progress, and settles in and everyone is pleased with her progress. However, at the end of second year, Sally comes to the attention of the pastoral care team. The guidance counsellor plays a central role in the pastoral care team. Students experiencing difficulties, for whatever reason, are discussed by the team and any interventions are decided upon. It has been noted by her class teachers and by her tutors that her performance and her work is falling off. She is not as focused as before and she has become withdrawn. She is no longer hanging around with her friends. She seems to have lost weight or it could just be that she is growing up. The intervention decided upon is that Sally should see the guidance counsellor and her tutor makes an appointment for her. From the point of personal counselling, the guidance counsellor is the one person in the school whom Sally can see on a one to one basis and confidentially if necessary. During the sessions with the guidance counsellor, Sally reveals that things are going badly at home, Mum and Dad are splitting up. She is upset and she is not sleeping at night, she is unable to focus. She knows her work is suffering and she does not mean for her work to suffer. She does not want to fall out with the teachers and it is difficult for her to speak about it with her friends. As a result of personal counselling with the guidance counsellor, Sally can be helped to cope with these issues and to resolve some of them. The guidance counsellor can also act as an advocate for Sally with the teachers so that they understand some of the circumstances as they do not need to know everything. This can also be done with the parent.
I have another example. Joe is a completely different kettle of fish. He is in fifth year. He is the life and soul of the school. He is bright, bubbly and an extrovert. He is a great athlete and footballer. He is a very bright boy with a slightly cavalier attitude towards school and education in general. In fact, he revealed to the guidance counsellor when picking his subjects for fifth year that he only did transition year because of the variety of activities available. He believes he can leave school at any stage and get an apprenticeship. The guidance counsellor has a lot of contact with Joe during fifth year and Joe begins to reveal that the apprenticeship he had in mind is no longer on the horizon. His Dad works in construction and Dad is now on short time and he might be let go. Neither Mum nor Dad has completed second level education. Dad keeps talking about the need for qualifications and a good job. It is dawning on Joe that he must make sense of the education world, a world with which he is completely unfamiliar and with which his family background has no links. Joe needs extra help from the guidance counsellor as he goes through the guidance programme in fifth year and into sixth year in order to match his aptitudes to courses leading to qualifications which will ensure sustainable employment. Joe is a bit unsure of himself for the first time. He wonders what college will be like and he is curious about what it means to be a professional. Joe requires extra one to one guidance. Because of family background, living in a disadvantaged area on a low income, with parents who have not completed their education, Joe is eligible for the higher education access scheme or any of the other individual access schemes available in colleges. With Joe’s permission, the guidance counsellor also contacts Mum and Dad and offers assistance if required in negotiating the amount of paperwork they will need to deal with in order for Joe to make the transition from second level education to further or third level education. He can then make a contribution to the economy and achieve a successful life for himself. These are just two examples of how the guidance and counselling service works within schools.
As to the future, I question what will happen if there is no ex-quota dedicated allocation for guidance and counselling in schools. The Minister has referred in his speech to the fact that 450 posts will be gone from second level education. Guidance and counselling will bear the brunt of this because the ex-quota allocation must be found from within the general allocation. It is now down to the management of the school to find the hours for guidance and counselling. For example, if a school has an enrolment of between 500 and 599 students, it is entitled to 24 hours per week guidance and counselling. This is the equivalent of a full post plus two hours. A DEIS school is entitled to 27.5 hours. How will the school find those extra hours? The guidance counsellor is back in the general allocation and this means that the guidance counsellor, as of next September, will be back in class teaching subject areas. It is up to the school management to decide between guidance service or subject teaching. From 29 February, some schools will not have a guidance counsellor if that person retires. As of next September, all schools will be over the quota. If a school does not have a guidance counsellor it cannot hire one. When the school is in a position to hire a guidance counsellor, either through natural wastage or because the numbers have risen, it is back to the dilemma of which service or subject to choose. Schools in areas where they nearly have to compete for enrolments with other schools have to keep their curricular commitments in mind.
We have discussed this matter with the managerial bodies, which have already advised schools to do an audit of where they stand in relation to staffing and subjects. I will give an example of what has happened in the last two weeks. A large school in the north east initially had an allocation of 38 hours, according to the schedule. It got extra hours some years ago as a result of the guidance enhancement initiative. Every minute of its 49 hours was being used for guidance and counselling purposes. The principal of the school has done an audit to try to find hours during which guidance can be provided. After looking upside down and inside out, she has come up with ten hours. I am sure members can tell the difference between a ten-hour service and a 49-hour service. The principal will have to decide who will receive the service and how it will be delivered. How can the school ensure there is access to appropriate guidance? Will this measure leave schools open to litigation from students or parents who feel that access to appropriate guidance and support was denied to them?
Ms Eilis Coakley: Research that has been done by the ESRI and Forfás and the guidance inspection reports indicate that we have a quality service. That service belongs in schools because that is where students benefit most from it. Students require this service. The research suggests that more guidance is needed, particularly at junior certificate level. More one-to-one guidance is also required.
EU policy is that these services should be provided. Ireland signed up to Council of Europe resolutions in 2004 and 2008, which refer to the development of managerial skills as a necessary literacy alongside all the other literacies. Such skills allow students to make the transition into education, stay in education and transfer out of education. If we do not provide guidance and counselling services, we will deny our students a basic literacy.
The best example of the success of guidance and counselling can be found in Finland. An allocation is made there. Finnish guidance counsellors must be professionally trained. The holistic service that is provided in Finland covers all aspects of vocational, personal and career guidance. It plays an important part in the delivery of mental health initiatives and education in that country. Guidance counsellors in Finland provide the guidance and counselling service. They have access to psychologists to whom they can refer students. That can happen in a case of severe need.
I suggest that some Irish students will not receive any guidance in the future. The guidance that will be given will not be governed by a standard and will not be uniform. That is unacceptable for our young people. I thank the committee for its attention.
Deputy Brendan Smith: I thank Ms Coakley and her colleagues for their presentation. The pack they have provided to us contains a great deal of valuable information. I will not delay the meeting as I have had an opportunity to speak on this issue in the Dáil on a number of occasions. The Minister has said that the Department will issue a new circular on the implementation of section 9 of the Education Act 1998. Does Ms Coakley know whether that has been issued yet? According to the Minister, some 42% of second level schools do not have a full-time dedicated professional guidance counsellor. My understanding is that a school with 200 enrolments is allocated six hours for career guidance. If there are more students in the school, an increased amount of time is allocated. Do I understand correctly that the overwhelming majority of schools can avail of the services of a professionally trained guidance counsellor on a shared or part-time basis? The career guidance counsellor might be teaching another subject as well.
One of the examples given by Ms Coakley related to two or three students. A friend of mine recently returned to the classroom as the deputy principal of a second level girls’ school. She had been working elsewhere for approximately four years. She told me that the disciplinary problems she encounters do not arise in the classroom, but are caused by pupils bringing family problems with them to school. That dovetails with the examples that were given by Ms Coakley in her presentation. The experienced teacher to whom I refer has told me that without the professional services of her school’s career guidance counsellor, the competence would not exist in her staff room to deal with the complex issues that many of our secondary school students are having to face.
Ms Eilis Coakley: I agree with Deputy Smith that schools have become far more complex places as society has increased in complexity. Schools have to deal with societal problems. One cannot expect a student to leave whatever is on his or her mind outside the door when he or she is participating in education. All members of staff provide support to students. The pastoral care team can bring issues to the attention of those who need to deal with them. The guidance counsellor is the only professional in the school in the sense that no one else has a professional qualification in the field of guidance and counselling. The guidance counsellor cannot exist in a vacuum, however. We work with the pastoral care team, our teaching colleagues and the school management to provide a whole-school guidance programme. We identify issues that are appropriate for being dealt with under the social, personal and health education programme. Issues that emerge from social, personal and health education classes can be passed onto guidance counsellors. If a year head or tutor identifies a student who is having particular difficulties, and the normal disciplinary approaches are not having much of an effect, the student can be referred to the guidance counsellor to see whether further support can be offered.
The Minister has said that 42% of schools do not have a full-time professional guidance counsellor. That may be so. Up until now, the schedule set out in the circular made an allocation of hours on the basis of the number of students in a school. The allocation does not increase in even increments. A school would need to have 500 enrolments in order to have a full-time guidance counsellor. Some schools with fewer than 500 enrolments benefitted a couple of years ago from the guidance enhancement initiative, which promoted science in secondary schools and helped students to make the transition from primary school.
The circular mentioned by Deputy Smith has not been issued yet, unfortunately. We made a submission to the effect that the circular should preserve and guarantee an entitlement to service under section 9(c) of the 1998 Act. We said the circular should allocate hours for the students in a school on the basis of the size of that school. If that is not done, the arrangements will be unworkable.
Ms Eilis Coakley: Yes. Students who come from areas that are designated as disadvantaged, and whose schools therefore have disadvantaged status, present with different scenarios. I work in such a school. I remind the committee of the case of Joe that I mentioned. A person from that type of background will have a different attitude to, and limited information on, matters like higher and further education and the world of work. If a student is depending on his or her family, community and friends for advice, he or she will receive advice that is based on their experience. If they have had a narrow and limited experience, through no fault of their own, that will have an impact on the student. Disadvantaged students will suffer greatly as a result of the reduction in the provision of the guidance and counselling service in schools. As the service diminishes, the need for it will grow and it will be delivered privately. That is what we think will happen. That is okay for middle-class families who can afford it, but what about families who cannot afford it? These cuts will increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots. When a young person goes to a private guidance counsellor, he or she will usually see the counsellor once or twice and get a report on that basis. The private service does not offer a continuum of support as the student progresses through school. A student does not have to see the guidance counsellor continually. He or she can pop into the counsellor to check something out or get information. That continuum of support means students can be assured that somebody is there when they need something. We help the students in that respect.
Deputy Seán Crowe: Ms Coakley said that public surveys conducted by the ESRI, Forfás and the National Guidance Forum suggest that more time, rather than less, should be provided for career guidance in schools. At the same time, the 2012 budget will cut career guidance services with a requirement for schools to implement the relevant section of the Act. The Minister says that schools are statutorily obliged to provide this service. If guidance counsellors are no longer regarded as ex-quota, how many guidance counsellors will take the retirement package? What is the age profile of guidance counsellors? What will happen to those in training to be guidance counsellors? The website, euobserver.com, has suggested that in Ireland there is one job vacancy for every 50 people unemployed. The figure in Germany is three vacancies for every person unemployed. This must be as a result of some of the money we are paying to bondholders which is a help to Germany’s economy. Last week, Michael Taft referred to a ratio of 26:1. There must be even more of a demand for guidance counsellors to help students choose a career path. This is the difficulty we have with this budget cut. Decisions must be made about a career path or further education. What can this committee do to help safeguard the position of guidance counselling in schools? The Minister is on a path and he suggests the onus will be on the schools to supply this guidance. How can this gap be filled?
Ms Eilis Coakley: I could not agree more with Deputy Crowe. Students need more guidance and counselling than ever in order that they can find the correct match to their own aptitudes and skills and be open to the jobs of the future and jobs in the knowledge economy. They need help in making the transition from second level education into training opportunities or further and higher education which will lead to growth in the economy. Any mismatch will result in a further drain on the economy, with increased drop-out rates and more expense for those who need to repeat. The statistics which Deputy Crowe requires are being gathered. We will know at the end of February how many guidance counsellors have left. As yet, the Department of Education and Skills cannot provide a breakdown of those figures.
The directors of training in the universities have committed that guidance and counselling courses will continue to be available. Over the past two years, almost all the graduates, a total of 80 to 100, have found employment. However, those working in second level are initially employed on a temporary contract and would not receive a contract of indefinite duration until the fourth year. Any graduate in the past three years working in a school which is over quota, will not have a contract and could well be let go. Schools which may have employed a new energetic guidance counsellor in the past three years may well lose that person.
As regards the age profile of the profession, the current cohort of guidance counsellors is older so I would expect more retirements in the next couple of years in spite of the disincentives to retirement currently in the public sector. If the Minister says he supports our students in schools and he wishes to achieve reform, how will these reforms be supported? Students will need supports in the transition to these reforms and education will need to become more progressive to develop the student who is incapable of independent learning and the student capable of critical thinking. I am not sure where the Minister can get the funding for the measure but the measure is essential. It will result in the diminution rather than the improvement of the educational experience for students. At a time when we are on the cusp of educational reform, this is a very regressive move.
Deputy Tom Fleming: I thank Ms Coakley for her presentation. What she has told us is alarming with regard to the examples of the two pupils. Such examples will become the norm, especially considering our society. They reflect the difficulties for many of our fragile and vulnerable pupils and such difficulties are becoming more common. We are going against best international practice. We have come a long way since the 1960s when there was no career guidance or counselling in schools. It is difficult to fathom how the system that has been built up will be reduced to such a low level. This will pose particular problems for every school.
Deputy Tom Fleming: The DEIS inspectorate recommended in two whole-school evaluations in the past two years in Kerry that arrangements should be made for guidance to be delivered by a qualified guidance counsellor. Therefore, this measure ties the hands of school principals. There is a need to revisit this matter as it is a serious issue and the committee will need to give it more thought in order to bring forward solutions.
Ms Eilis Coakley: Guidance counsellors have an extra qualification compared with other members of staff. If that expertise is available to a school, I question why it should be wasted. It is ready and waiting to be used and now it will go to waste and students will be the ones to suffer.
Senator Feargal Quinn: I have found this presentation to be very educational. I had assumed almost until I read the submission that guidance was solely to do with career guidance but the story of Sally explained to me the much wider concept than I had previously imagined. This day last week I was in Drogheda where six schools get together to provide a career guidance session. The meeting was attended by 600 students and a couple of hundred parents. There were at least 50 stands providing advice. The Seanad had a debate on education yesterday. It is fairly clear that the Minister will not be getting extra money. As in Drogheda, could guidance counsellors come together in a town to share their advice with other schools? For example, if the number of guidance counsellors in a town is to be reduced, is there a possibility of sharing the counselling service in order that students can be given advice from guidance counsellors in another school? At a time of financial constraint, it appears unlikely there will be money available. Would a solution be to share or combine with other schools to provide the service?
Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Any cut in the education budget will hurt. The constraint under which we operate is that 77% of the education budget - pay and pensions - is protected under the Croke Park agreement, and I support this agreement. If class sizes are to be protected, it is a case of how to make other savings. Anything that is touched will be difficult. I met a number of guidance counsellors and have tried to identify alternative funding for the €9 million spent on chaplains. In DEIS schools, there has been a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio to 18.25. However, some DEIS schools say they will not be able to absorb the change in the guidance counselling system with that reduction. Do the delegates agree? That was the motivation behind it.
Regarding the overall service provided by guidance counsellors, I refer to a letter from Gay + Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, supporting the Institute of Guidance Counsellors’ position. How bad is homophobic bullying, is it getting worse and how are guidance counsellors addressing the issue? This is not necessarily related to the main topic but I ask for a brief response on how it is being addressed.
Ms Eilis Coakley: Regarding Senator Quinn’s point, guidance counsellors co-operate with the careers event to which he referred. We have 17 branches throughout the country and the guidance counsellors of a particular area come together and host careers events and careers exhibitions every year. We also work on CPD for guidance counsellors in their individual practices. There is room for co-operation and guidance counsellors are sometimes shared between two schools in a VEC. All the co-operation in the world will not substitute for service on the ground. When students come to a career fair, they get information and they can discuss it with someone. The students needs help to make sense of that and the guidance counsellor needs to check in with an individual on how much sense the individual is making of it. Whether the individual is going into a tunnel or keeping options open is a matter for the professional on the ground. This is opening the door wide for guidance counsellors to set up a private practice and I am sure they will be inundated every weekend. It is not the same as it would be in school where there is someone to approach. We co-operate and we combine information evenings with events for parents and a number of parents can come together to get the information they need. We discuss this with the National Parents Council Post-primary.
In response to Deputy Ó Ríordáin, the DEIS school of 500 will have a minimum of 27.5 at the moment. The 0.75 increase by the Minister is the equivalent of one post in a school of 500. One post is the equivalent of 22 hours so, even if the extra allocation for DEIS was used entirely for guidance counselling, there would be a shortfall of 5.5 hours in that school. Members might consider that not bad compared to no service but there would still be a shortfall. DEIS schools may already have a guidance enhancement initiative, which is an additional 11 hours. That school will lose 16 hours. The DEIS provision cannot substitute for what exists at present. There is no stipulation from the Minister that the extra allocation to DEIS schools in this budget should be used for anything in particular or, specifically, for guidance and counselling. Other support areas will look to make inroads into the extra allocation. That is how the DEIS schools are affected.
Mr. Gerry Flynn: I am the vice president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. Following up on Senator Quinn’s point, providing information at career events is one aspect but there is a 32-page application form for students who wants to take the higher education access route, HEAR. There is an 18-page application form for students applying for the disability access route. Without one-to-one attention with a guidance counsellor, that will not happen. Schools are busy places and staff do not have the time or expertise to facilitate students in the completion of application forms. The guidance counsellor is part of a school team and has a guidance plan, which is delivered in co-operation with other members of staff such as year heads, learning support people and deputy principals. It is a collaborative effort but the key person driving the delivery of the guidance plan is a professionally trained guidance counsellor.
Ms Eilis Coakley: The second matter referred to by Deputy Ó Ríordáin was homophobic bullying. Guidance counsellors have been to the forefront in tackling this issue in schools. We had discussions with GLEN on how to do this and came up with guidelines for guidance counsellors, ways of highlighting it and ways of tackling it. The National Centre for Guidance in Education produced these guidelines for guidance counsellors and brought in management to discuss how schools could tackle it. It remains a problem but is becoming less of a problem. Students who may be victims of homophobic bullying know that the guidance counsellor is there if they need to talk to someone. Collaborating with tutors, SPHE and the whole schools, education is available to students on gay and lesbian issues.
Deputy Nicky McFadden: I thank the Institute of Guidance Counsellors for its presentation. I have met my local guidance counsellors and I was very impressed with their presentation. One of them presented me with a letter from pupils who were upset to lose their guidance counsellor. The ESRI and the OECD have recommended that we have guidance counsellors. We are in a constrained situation because we have no money and our country is bankrupt. That is the bottom line. I have serious concerns about young people. I am aware of two students who had no money and could not apply to the CAO. The guidance counsellor in the school made sure the money was made available and counselled the young people. There are 700 pupils in that school and at any given time, the guidance counsellor has ten young people queueing outside the room to speak to her. I do not know what to say to the delegates. The Minister has made the decision. We are in government and we must put the country first and fix it. That is the bottom line but I really appreciate the work of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.
Deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor: I pay tribute to the work guidance counsellors do. When the Minister spoke, he asked the institute to meet the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. The Institute of Guidance Counsellors will have to make the same argument to principals. I was a primary school principal and I know that parents will inform the principals about the importance of guidance counsellors.
The delegates talked about the pastoral team. Are they ex quota or within the quota? How is it managed? My children have gone through secondary school and, to be honest, I heard more about year heads, deputy principals and assistant principals. I wonder how these elements of the school staff work. Guidance counsellors used to be ex quota but will now be within the quota and will find major difficulty. How come the principal sees the importance of the group of year heads, deputy principals and assistant principals but guidance counsellors are afraid that principals will not see the importance of guidance counsellors?
Mr. Gerry Flynn: We also had a meeting with the managerial bodies. They told us we are trying to divvy up a smaller cake to provide all the services, which is not possible. We will continue to work because we believe in the service and how essential it is for students in our care.
Pastoral care teams involve subject teachers and it is an additional duty. A pastoral care team might meet during one period a year. It brings items to the concern of the team and refers identity appropriate professionals within schools. They are not ex-quota. Guidance counsellors are the only people who are professionally trained to deal with the issue. I speak as someone who is chairperson of a board of management in a school. My concern is that there could be potential litigation in future from someone providing inappropriate advice because he or she was not professionally qualified. Such a situation would expose a board and school to potential litigation. There are some very serious issues.
Ms Máirín Nic Sheanlaoich: I would like to discuss how the country should deal with budget constraints. In 1982 and 1983 there were serious cuts and at that time there was an allocation of one guidance counsellor to 250 students, ex-quota. It was changed immediately to a ratio of one to 500 students. Other cuts happened at the time. A comment used by a colleague at the time was that we were using the children of the country as collateral. If we cannot afford this service, our young people will suffer the consequences.
We are seeing young people in personal crises, trying to deal with difficult applications and trying to find their way to a career. Even some exceptionally well-qualified students who are very bright but, because of financial constraints, are having difficulty preparing for their future will suffer. If the country wants that, this is the right way to go about it. We would not recommend such an approach.
We are dealing with five or ten students queueing outside our doors. Sometimes three or four students are trying to make an appointment for a variety of issues such as school refusal, mental health issues, grief, bereavement, parents separating, eating disorders and self harm. These issues come on top of all the other subject choices, possible career options and work experience. We do not know what is coming in our door from one minute to the next. These are all real issues for the students we are dealing with every day. They will lose out and be used as collateral against the Government’s debt. That is not what the people want. It is not what parents want. Parents are telling us they cannot manage without the service.
Deputy Michael Conaghan: I welcome the delegation. I have great admiration for the work it does. I taught for about 35 years. Every individual teacher considered himself or herself a guidance teacher. I remember the principal in the first school I taught was sharp in his reminder to teachers who thought otherwise.
One thing which made a significant difference was the creation by the City of Dublin VEC of an after-school psychological service, similar to what Senator Quinn described. There was a central resource in a place called Winstead in Rathgar. All the qualified guidance counsellors could come into schools if there were particular needs or requirements. I found pupils very readily approached individual teachers because they knew them and had built up a relationship in the classroom with them, which was a very big plus.
Things have changed now, but sometimes career guidance counsellors are seen as very remote figures sitting in offices. Their disposition has changed. I am speaking from experience. The issues and problems young people presented with were not neglected and were dealt with. Groups of teachers talked about individual students who came to them. Knowledge was shared.
As some of my colleagues have said, ideally we would not like to see the work of guidance counsellors being diminished and their professional status being in any way undermined, but we are in far from ideal circumstances. We have to do more with less. We must find ways of being smarter with the resources we have. Individual teachers and guidance counsellors have huge resources and we must find ways of utilising those resources in a smarter way for a period of time until the more ideal situation returns.
Deputy John Lyons: I agree with a lot of what Deputy Conaghan said. I thank the delegation. As someone who has worked as a secondary school teacher for about 13 years, in many ways I am all too familiar with the potential of guidance counselling.
It would be wrong of me just to be positive. The room has been full of positive comments, and rightly so. It should be full of the professional work guidance counsellors do. I would be wrong if I did not say there are examples where one must question the role of guidance counsellors in particular schools. That has not been said here today. I do not want a response but I wanted to mention it. If we had enough time for everyone to speak about their experience of guidance counselling in schools, I am sure it would vary greatly. I say that with no disrespect to the delegation and those in the profession who do more than they are paid for. I know of that side but I wanted to let people know about the other side.
Like more recent commentators have said, the reality is we are in a tough space and the delegation knows that. It does seem that the service is taking a hit. Some absorption measures have been put in place. Other services are available. We need to consider solutions. Deputy McFadden mentioned a letter which outlined why we should not have the guidance counselling service removed. Autonomy has been given back to principals and they need to address some of the issues raised today. They have a remit to offer guidance counselling services. I would like to think if they believe guidance counselling services are worthwhile they would reflect it as much as possible in the allocation they give over the coming years.
I want to focus on solution-based issues. Many schools use integrated resources from external forces. For example, some schools avail of counselling services through the school completion program. The National Behaviour Support Service has provided an additional allocation of teachers to some schools to deal with some of the social and emotional issues. In terms of the more formal sector of the education sector and progression into third level, there are many good examples where local area based partnerships are using their local education officers to deal with CAO applications. I am not saying that is how things should be. Circumstances are really tough. While I acknowledge what is happening, there are other ways of proceeding that we need to consider. I wish we could turn around and retain existing resources, but we need to consider other approaches in these tough times.
Deputy Brendan Ryan: In the context of the very difficult budget and choices being made across all Departments, the Minister for Education and Skills had to make certain choices within his budget and remit. I met guidance counsellors a couple of weeks ago in Skerries and was certainly impressed by the case they made. The case the institute is making today is the one they made to me. If the institute’s representatives were not present today, we could well be talking to another group which could have been hit. Does Ms Coakley accept that, in the context of the difficult education budget, savings had to be made generally? I am not in any way putting down the institute in asking whether there are other areas within the education framework in which savings could have been made and which were missed by the Minister completely. Do the delegates believe there is some low-hanging fruit he could go after on the next occasion?
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I, too, have had a lot of contact with guidance counsellors and they have been to see me. I am familiar with the very important work they do. I have been disturbed by some comments made by the institute’s former president, Mr. Brian Mooney, whose knowledge I respect. He stated cuts to guidance counselling services would lead to an increase in youth suicides. I do not know of any causal link between the provision of a guidance counsellor and the prevention of youth suicide. What is Ms Coakley’s view , given that I accept guidance counsellors have a unique skill set?
As others have said, the Education Act stipulates that a school must still provide a guidance counsellor service. This puts it up to the principal to protect the service. It is a teacher cut in a different form. We are not actually hearing all that could be heard from the teachers whose jobs may be cut because the guidance counsellor has to be protected within a school. Will Ms Coakley comment on this?
With regard to solutions, Ms Coakley is correct that it is a case of matching a child with a course or possible career. This could prevent a student from dropping out of college early, which problem has a price.
Chairman: We have about five minutes in which to wrap up. It is important that some solutions are highlighted by the delegates because we will be making suggestions to the Minister after today’s meeting.
Ms Eilis Coakley: Let me refer to some of the points raised by the last three Deputies. The Minister claims he will save €32 million. This is a very small price to pay for retaining the existing level of service for students. Students deserve the €32 million. I cannot say from where the Minister can get the money; I do not have access to the information he has available. All I know is the consequence of what he is doing.
Deputy John Lyons referred to rationalisation and external services. It has been proved that external services in schools are far less effective than those based in them. Partnership services come in at CAO stage. What happens prior to that stage is more important than what happens during it. The services are very busy in their local communities and many have taken hits. I know guidance counsellors employed by the services who are now seeking positions elsewhere.
I could not agree more with the point on guidance counsellors who are not up to scratch. There are mechanisms to deal with every such employee. There is a variety of reasons anybody in the education sector may be underperforming. There are mechanisms available to management to ensure employees deliver to students the service they are employed to deliver. Achieving this is but the proper use of public funds.
On Senator Fidelma Healy Eames’s points, every individual is entitled to his or her opinion. The statement made by the individual in question on suicide does not reflect the opinion of the institute. We do not believe getting involved in an emotive debate or using emotive language will help the cause in any way. We would not want to be seen to be exploiting students in any way either. We have all heard of suicides in our schools and intervened on occasion in regard to suicide ideation. None us can forecast whether a case will become a suicide statistic in the absence of intervention. It is a fact that we have all dealt with the issue of suicide ideation, but we do not claim that we can prevent all suicides.
On the point that management must deal with the problem presented by the cuts, Ferdia Kelly of the Joint Managerial Body states, “It is not acceptable for the Minister to suggest that the decision as to the allocation of teaching resources in a school lies with school management.” Irrespective of the Minister’s view on devolving power and decision-making capacity to schools, he should have a conversation with managerial bodies on how this devolution will work in practice. To give somebody power and responsibility at the same time as taking resources from him or her is totally unacceptable. It is like telling Derval O’Rourke that she has qualified for the Olympic Games and then shackling her two ankles together. How is one supposed to jump the hurdles? Effectively, that is what the Minister has done.
Mr. Gerry Flynn: I thank members for their time and attention. Deputy John Lyons referred to underperforming guidance counsellors. The institute does not support underperformance. We have spent considerable time and resources on continuing professional development to up-skill our members. We have worked closely with the Department of Education and Skills to provide supervision for guidance counsellors to ensure best practice. Therefore, our role as a professional body is to continue to up-skill our members to ensure there is a comprehensive and professional service available. That this may not have obtained in the past is due to a variety of factors, including the amount of time allocated to the provision of the service and the combination of counselling and subject teaching. There were individuals delivering a guidance service in schools who were not professionally qualified. There was a range of issues involved. We will continue to do more to enhance the professionalism of the service.
Ms Eilis Coakley: To come back to the point I made at the beginning, guidance and counselling services are about students. They are about the quality of education that students experience and added value to the education service. The proposed measure will ensure no uniformity and no standards across the board. It will increase the level of disadvantage and have an effect on inclusion and retention in, and transition from, schools. The economy cannot afford to pay that price.
Chairman: On behalf of committee members, I thank the delegates for their presentation. It was a useful discussion. We will be in touch with the Minister. He was present last week to discuss the issue. We talk about a range of issues at this committee. Naturally, we will focus on what the delegates have said today, but the circular will also be very important, certainly in the shorter term. We will work on it also. I again thank the delegates for their contributions and we will be in touch with them again. No doubt this topic will feature for a while and we will keep working on it.
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