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Column: Why we need career guidance counsellors - and why all the stereotypes are wrong

“The double-jobbing teacher”, “the leaflet pusher” – student guidance counsellor Pamela O’Leary has heard all the stereotypes about her profession but says cuts to the service will hurt vulnerable children most.

Pam O'Leary

IT’S NOT ALL about the CAO.

There has been little media or public interest in the recent Government decision to cut guidance and counselling services from second level schools. This is in sharp contrast to the frequently aired and much publicised condemnation of recent cuts to special needs assistants, language support and traveller support teachers, which unified teachers unions and parents in a rare show of solidarity. It seems fair to derive from this seemingly apathetic response that guidance and counselling has been reduced to the poor relation of frontline services being provided to our sons and daughters.

Minister Ruari Quinn’s decree to subsume the compulsory allocation for guidance and counselling into the general allocation of hours per school means that this coming September, secondary school principals will be forced into a veritable Sophie’s Choice – provide a guidance and counselling service or provide a subject such as Biology. In the points-obsessed education system, you’d find it hard to imagine any other winner than the academic subject.

The real losers here are not the counsellors but the students. I find myself scratching my head in disbelief wondering why more educators and parents have not reacted with vitriol. Why is our profession regarded so negatively?

As a recently qualified guidance counsellor I do feel that the role is fraught with many misconceptions. The most common refrain offered without invitation when I tell people my occupation is “my guidance counsellor was crap”. Usually, the many stereotypes are rattled off – the double jobbing teacher, the unqualified counsellor, the leaflet pusher. When remembering our school days, this misguided vitriol is often kept in reserve for the most undervalued yet vital service provided in our schools.

A lot of this misunderstanding stems from the prescriptive nature of guidance in the past. However, there has been a seismic shift in the delivery of guidance and counselling in our secondary schools because the needs of students in modern Ireland have changed irrevocably. It’s not all about points and the CAO.

I  have taught and counselled students with ADD and ADHD, OCD, Autism, Tourettes Syndrome, students with drug-addicted parents, foster children, students who have been bereaved by suicide, who have anger issues, who are under anti-social behaviour orders, children who bring a wide range of behavioural and emotional problems into the classroom.

They need a dedicated school counsellor to give them a chance in life – and that is under severe threat

Most of these students require learning and behaviour supports. Above all, they need a highly trained, dedicated school counsellor to help give them a chance in life – a chance that, thanks to these short-sighted plans, is now under severe threat.

I work in a disadvantaged DEIS school so perhaps my experiences would be more extreme than your average secondary. However, having spoken to a large number of colleagues across the country in the past few weeks it is very evident that these issues are not confined to disadvantaged areas. Without guidance counsellors to provide the support and direction needed, there is a very real danger of these issues spiralling out of control.

A typical working day for me can involve arranging a scribe or reader for a student with specific learning difficulties to enable him to sit his Junior Cert exam. First I need to get him assessed by an educational psychologist, the next step is to meet and explain the process to the student and their parents, then I let  the relevant teachers know if this has been approved. I also need to follow up on the recommendations of that psychological report, e.g. student needs a laptop, student needs speech and language therapy, student has an underlying anxiety issue that requires immediate counselling. It is the school Guidance Counsellor who facilitates and implements this essential process.

There is also a holistic aspect to the guidance and counselling service. You must assess the students situation from several different angles – their own perspective, their parents, teachers and any outside agencies or professionals. You must involve everyone in the decisions, you must feed back to everyone on the outcome, you must make sure that the recommendations are followed through and that this is all carefully recorded and evaluated on behalf of the school.

So herein lies the problem – who exactly will perform these critical tasks once the guidance counsellor is cut or on reduced hours?  Most of a guidance counsellor’s work comes with a strict confidentiality clause attached due to sensitive information for students and their families.  It is the only free face-to-face counselling service that teenagers can avail of without a referral. It is often the first environment where child abuse is disclosed, or where self harm and suicidal ideation is revealed.

Of course a guidance counsellor does not work alone in providing support services to students; we supplement the work of pastoral care teams, youth workers, social workers, volunteer agencies, industry, colleges, educational programmes such as LCA and LCVP, the TY year, mentoring, psychologists, speech and language therapists and the gardai.

Despite all this, despite the intensive, wide-ranging service provided by highly trained counsellors, the current government would have us believe that academic teachers can simply fill in the gaps left after the termination of the guidance and  counselling profession. This is not only infeasible, it is foolhardy and inherently dangerous.

I doubt that anyone would deny that there is room for improvement in our profession and I would be fully supportive of reform in the way it is delivered in schools to maintain efficiency and relevance.

Instead of being given that opportunity, around 800 guidance counsellors and more importantly, countless more students all over Ireland face a bleak and unsupported future.

Pamela O’Leary is a guidance counsellor and member of the Cork branch of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

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Pam O'Leary

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