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Somebody who knows me

August 29, 2017

I became a guidance teacher  in 1978, 18 months or so  into my teaching career. Having been to school in England, I wasn’t sure what “guidance” entailed, but the headteacher who appointed me assured me that my commitment to the school, and good relationships with pupils, parents and staff, equipped me well for this new sector in Scottish secondary schools.

The “Orange Paper”, which suggested the need for a guidance support system  had been published in 1968, under the name of “Guidance in Scottish Secondary Schools”. Its central tenet was that “that each pupil knows and is known personally and in some depth by at least one member of staff”.

The establishment of the  structure was timely and was put in place relatively quickly. It was a response to changes in society which had impacted on the  stability of family life and the longevity of jobs and residential locations. Teachers realised that there were more “second families” and single parent families, and that there was a greater movement of pupils between schools than there had been immediately post war. Young people reacted to these life changes in different ways, some coping better than others, but all affected by instability, unpredictability, or uncertainty. In some cases, this  influenced their behaviour in school  and the chances of fulfilling academic potential.

The “Orange Paper” recognised that the presence of somebody outside of the family who could maintain a neutral view and support the pupils and their families,  in and out of school, would have a highly positive impact on the education of the “whole child.

The guidance role was one which I loved and maintained through 38 years in the profession, ending up as a Depute Head in charge of Guidance. To me the importance of a pastoral approach in schools was beyond dispute.

The ten year report on Guidance in 1986, called, appropriately, “More than Feelings of Concern”, reflected on the structure’s initial success but correctly stated that there was a need for more professional training for guidance staff – a progression which came to pass.

The need to accept and act on the premise that a young person’s development within and outwith school was something to be promoted and safeguarded generated many initiatives. In the Lothians, the redoubtable Councillor Elizabeth McGiness developed the idea of a “Youth Strategy”. This brought together professionals from Education, Health, Social Services, Educational Psychology, Community Education, and the Police.

At monthly meetings, their brief was to discuss pupils in the school who were considered in danger of losing their place in school, family, or community, through their behaviour or the particular challenges they faced. Early intervention was the key – and the ability for a professional to offer specific support at the meeting, rather than weeks’ or months’ delay in a decision being made, was invaluable. Class teachers and parents also contributed to the discussions and reports so the child’s needs were monitored, and met wherever possible.

Where the various professionals respected each other on a personal level, the teamwork which followed was highly effective and the most vulnerable and troubled pupils, and families, benefited greatly. Young people were offered synchronised support and the reassurance that somebody was looking out for them.

Inevitably, the more effectively the guidance structure operated, the more it identified areas for support. Equally, the more of a demand there was for resources, the more difficult it  became to meet these increasing needs, and the services which were best placed to provide support were on many occasions those whose budgets were being cut.

The McCrone Report: “Teaching in the 21st Century” restructured the profession. It scarcely mentioned “guidance”, and nobody was sure if that reflected its obvious and undisputed importance, an oversight, or a heavy hint that its days were numbered. A Director of Education telling a room full of guidance staff that “the days of ‘touchy feely’  guidance are over” provided a clue to the thinking of some.

Part of the efficacy of guidance was that its structure was flexible enough to meet the needs of different schools, but, generally, the model into which I found myself placed in 1977 would have been common. The guidance group would be a year group of 180-200 pupils. Their guidance staff would be an assistant principal teacher with responsibility for around 60 pupils and a principal teacher with around 120. Neither guidance teacher would have more than 4 or 5 classes to get to know in depth. In most cases they would teach their “guidance classes” Social Education and so would be in class with them for at least one period a week. Somewhere between a half and a third of their “teaching time” would be freed up for guidance matters, meeting pupils, parents, class teachers, partner agencies and so on.

In this model, there was every chance to get to gain good knowledge of the pupils for whom you had responsibility, and the assistant principal teacher could learn from the principal teacher as their partnership progressed. In addition, with two staff allocated to the year group, pupils knew there was an alternative support in cases of personality clashes or unavailability of their particular guidance teacher.

After McCrone, assistant principal teacher posts were abolished and principal teachers became “curriculum leaders”. In subject terms, this meant they had responsibility for two or three departments instead of just one. For guidance “curriculum leaders”, this meant that their “guidance load” could increase to anything from 200 to 300 pupils.

The loss of “subject departments” under a principal teacher meant that weekly “departmental meetings” changed in their content. Certainly the former model, where there would have been a slot for class teachers to bring to the attention of the Principal Teacher the names of pupils whose academic progress was giving concern, became less feasible. This in turn meant that traditional meetings between principal teachers subject and  guidance, to exchange information about “causes for concern”, were no longer viable.

Clearly, the original model for guidance and support was being demolished – not through philosophical and educational discussion, but through the removal of the structures which made the job possible.

It wasn’t long before interviewees for guidance posts were being told their approach was “too pastoral”. A bit like telling Gary Lineker he should stop going on about football.

The decision makers were faced with a number of dilemmas.

Clearly, the idea that every pupil would have a teacher who knew them really well, and had the time and resources to support them, was no longer seen as sustainable. However, an increasing number of pupils still needed additional support.

Furthermore, disruptive and challenging pupils not only hindered their own academic progress, but also that of their classmates, and now that schools were under increasing scrutiny over exam results, this was bad news.

Equally, a number of pupils, especially those who did not “act out” in school, but may still have had support needs, were reporting that they hardly ever saw their guidance teacher – or in some cases, that they did not even know their identity.

The fix for these problems was reflective of the times.

Schools moved away from pastoral care and instituted “tracking and  monitoring”. Computerised school management systems would flag up where pupils were underperforming in a subject. Pupil Support staff were required to interview “flagged up” pupils and set them targets. This would lead to improved academic performance, and headteachers could report that all their pupils were seen by the guidance staff on a regular basis.

If education was simply about exam results there  might be some justification for this “remodelling” of pupil support. However, most would agree that the philosophy of “teaching the whole pupil” serves pupils, their families, and society far better than does an “exam factory”.

Furthermore, the original approach was also geared to improving academic performance through addressing a pupil’s individual challenges or concerns. A happy and supported pupil, who feels valued by others, will generally perform to their academic potential. In simplistic terms, the progression the pastoral system followed was: “You don’t seem happy, your work is suffering, what is wrong, how can we support you, we do understand, here is some support to help. I’m seeing you because I’ve noticed you’re not yourself”.

With the best will in the world and the most conscientious guidance staff, a “tracking and monitoring” model delivers a very different message: “You’ve missed your targets in these subjects, what are we going to about that, how can we get better results, I am seeing you for your bi-termly interview.”  In such a structure, it is difficult for staff to convince the pupil that there is a genuine interest in their wellbeing outside of their academic potential, and, as has been suggested, pointing out to a child that they are  failing does not necessarily lead to them succeeding. A child in need of support will not find it easy to approach a person of whom their chief experience is the  indication that they are failing in class. The opportunity, and time, for class teachers to discuss concerns with guidance staff has also vanished – and nobody pretends that ticking boxes as an “alert” adequately replaces such discussions.

There are, of course, countries and education systems where schools and teachers have no responsibility for the “whole pupil” at all. There is a philosophy that the child’s life outside of school does not, or should not be allowed to, impact on their academic work. Maybe that is the route being taken in Scotland. I hope not because that way lies a horrible mess for society.

Currently we know that there are more teenagers than ever before self harming in Scotland as well as elsewhere. This statistic clearly reflects the increased pressures that our young people have to handle.

Politicians and academics all have their theories as to causes and means of addressing the problem, but most agree that a basic concern is that an increasing number of youngsters feel they have nobody to whom  they can talk: an ironic situation in an age which purports to have us more “connected” than ever before.

Of course, what young folk are seeking is not just “communication” but a meaningful version of it: to know there is someone they can trust, who will listen and empathise, who may, or may not, have solutions to their concerns, but who, ultimately, will help them feel valued, that they are worth the time spent, and reassure them  that they are possessed of ideas and attitudes which are worth consideration. In the absence of this, despair or self hate can set in.

In addition, children who come from unsettled or disturbed family backgrounds often feel unable or unwilling to “trouble” family members with their problems, judging them to be   insubstantial, compared to the daily struggle they witness around them in the home.

The virtual world of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat excels at giving instant feedback, but struggles to promote anything more socially valuable, and can often add to the stress felt by many adolescents.

There is, of course, thankfully, an ever growing awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing amongst teenagers and young people: SAMH, See Me, Penumbra and many other organisations highlight the problem and seek to provide support for those in need.  Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) continue the work pioneered at the former Young People’s Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, but a sentence on the Royal Edinburgh home page reveals the struggle to adequately address the problem: “We have places for 12 patients and are 1 of only 3 adolescent inpatient services in Scotland”.

Not all young people who self harm, have major mental health issues – but they clearly have a need for support and understanding. In short, one means of addressing the situation would be to ensure that every child had someone outside of the family who knew them well and who they felt they could trust.

This is not a requirement met by the new “Named Person” Act: each Named Person will have responsibility for far too many youngsters to get to know them in a detailed way, and, in any case,  the focus of their remit is to promote a  positive connection between families and support services.

However, it does echo a need that was originally met by Guidance back in the 1970s – the availability of someone to support each child –  whom they see on a regular basis and whom they know has their wellbeing at heart.

Would a return to pastoral guidance be expensive? Financially, of course it would be, though possibly not beyond reasonable cost, when balanced with the costs of supporting damaged adults through their lives.

Would pastoral care solve all the problems? Of course not – but it would give our young people the chance of early intervention  in  their troubles and vulnerabilities – and all are agreed that early intervention is vital if we are to have an impact.

Would pastoral care lead to improved examination results? Statistics suggest it would, because well  supported pupils are better able to give of their best, and are less likely to disturb classes and the progress of their classmates.

Another point to be made at this juncture is the store theoretically set on examination results by the “majority of parents”. I can only speak from my own professional experience, but, in 38 years I can remember less than a handful of parents whose first priority was examination results. Generally, and almost uniformly, their priorities were as follows:

Is my child happy at school?

Is he safe at school?

Is he doing himself justice?

Has he got friends?

Is he well behaved?

Parents knew instinctively that, with good teaching and home support, if the answers to these questions were all positive, then  academic potential would have been  achieved when the results were published. What is important in schools is how young people are equipped to deal with their lives in general rather than examinations specifically, though academic success is obviously one of a school’s aims.

You don’t make pupils happy, valued and successful by ensuring they get good exam results, you make sure they get good exam results by ensuring they are happy, valued  and successful. And a good guidance teacher supports their colleagues as well as the pupils, and  their families.

Anyone who has retired is always open to the charge of nostalgia or old fashioned thinking: “You don’t know what it’s like today!”

Fair enough – but some successful approaches fit all times, and a child who feels known and supported will flourish, and the way to tackle current concerns is to prioritise support for young people in our schools – support for the pupils, not the examination system.

Last Friday night I met up with some of the pupils from that original guidance group in 1978. I was touched that they wanted to see me again after all these years, and excited to discover what life had brought them.

In those individuals, all over 50, I could see the children I had supported, and I could see how they had taken that support into life. Some had fared better than others – such is life, but all were recognisable, emotionally speaking, as the 12 year olds I had welcomed to secondary school that day nearly  40 years ago.

In their varying ways they thanked me for the differing support I had given them, the confidence they had received from knowing someone knew them and was looking out for them.

Obviously it was an affirming moment for me, and hugely gratifying to know that they appreciated the concern I had shown for them – even as adults all this time later. I was greatly moved by that.

However, that meeting of some of our guidance group, 33 years after they left school, was more than an illustration of mutual affection, it was pretty strong evidence that pastoral support is effective, and it resonates far beyond school days. It is needed in our schools more than ever, and if we try to ignore that fact, our children, and our society, will pay the price.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Cummins permalink
    August 30, 2017 10:09 am

    Looking back you must feel a great deal of satisfaction Mr McPartly. If you can do that you’re very lucky.

    • August 30, 2017 10:54 am

      Yeh – I feel lucky – but frustrated that the structure has been demolished. Thanks for reading!

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