I’ve always been interested in the school guidance counsellor model that you find in the US, Canada, Ireland etc. It is a very different model from the one that we have been used to in the UK and so it is difficult to get a feel for how it works from the outside.
I’ve written about school guidance counsellor’s in Canada before, but after visiting some schools in Ontario and talking to guidance counsellors here (including the local professional association)I feel that I didn’t get it quite right in my previous post. Or at least that the way I described it doesn’t fully describe how it works in Ontario.
So I will have another go at describing it and anyone who is reading this in Ontario can explain why I’ve got it wrong.
In Ontario ever secondary school has a guidance counsellor. In fact secondary schools are funded to have 1 counsellor for every 385 students. In practice this means that most schools have more than one guidance counsellor, often situated as part of a broader student support department. Guidance counsellors seem to be involved in three main activities as far as I can see.
- The provision of pastoral support and personal counselling to students who are having problems.
- The provision of support for students educational choice making. In Ontario students have the opportunity to choose from a range of course options. This includes balancing different subject, academic and vocational track subjects as well as taking advantage of work-experience (co-op as it is called here). The counsellor supports the individual in these choices, but also support the school to manage its response to student demand. This essentially means that the counsellor has a major role in building the timetable, which in turn has implications for things like staffing and the general ethos of the school.
- The provision of career and transition support.
My understanding has always been that one of the problems with the school counsellor model was the draw to deal with accute problems leading to the excessive focus on (1). However, during this visit it seems clear to me that, in Ontario at least, counsellors are spending most of their time on (2). This gives counsellors a very important role in the school, in fact Ontarian schools would not be able to function without this role as the process of choice making and ensuring that students don’t pick strange or unhelpful combinations for their post-secondary destinations is absolutely critical. This is appealing as it builds counsellors right into the heart of school life and the school ethos.
However, there are also tensions in this approach. Firstly there are dangers that counselling becomes an arm of the timetable. The counsellor serves the dual masters of the individual student and the effective running of the school’s timetable. Secondly this constitutes a considerable administrative load which inevitably takes counsellors away from directly working with students.
The links between educational choice making and career are very close, however, the activities of supporting educational choice making and career building are not the same ones. I’ve actually got a strong sense that counsellors in Ontario are actively involved in working on career with students, but it is also clear that this is secondary to supporting educational choice making. One place that this could be addressed would be in the compulsory Civics and Careers course that schools in Ontario have to offer. However, it is clear that counsellor involvement in these courses is patchy with the courses often being taught by other members of staff. This leads me to think that career education (in the UK sense of education about career development) is not as well developped as an activity in Ontario as you might expect given its compulsory place in the curriculum. I find it difficult to understand why guidance counsellors (who are all trained teachers) aren’t keen to own it.
I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen so far in Ontario. I’d be interested to hear whether people feel that my summary is accurate, or whether I’ve missed the point.