Learning more about the school guidance counsellor model in Ontario

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.

  1. The provision of pastoral support and personal counselling to students who are having problems.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



  1. I think the central issue is that many guidance counsellors and teachers are still locked into the paradigm that career counselling is a decidion about what degree to take at a university. Little or no concern as to whether a university is the right learning environment or whether the work itself will be a good fit

  2. Thanks VIctoria. I’m not sure that that was my experience in Ontario. I thought that the Ontarian system has been working hard to provide some equal parity for different kinds of post-secondary option. However, whether there is a strong enough link to the labour market or source of labour market information to help in making these post-secondary decisions was less clear to me.

  3. This a very interesting article and summary. I work in Ontario and you “hit the nail right on the head” so to speak. In Ontario, Guidance Counsellors focus more on the career development of students, their timetables and where they are heading after high school. In order to work as a Guidance Counsellor in Ontario, one must be a certified teacher and then take three extra course “Guidance and Career Education Part 1, Part 2 and Specialist”. In these courses, there is focus on personal counselling issues, however not much. Many guidance Counsellors will do what they can to help students in the aspect, but once the problem goes beyond what they are trained for, they will refer the student to outside agencies. However, it is without a doubt, trained professional counsellors are definitely needed in Ontario schools. This would free up Guidance Counsellors to do what they do best.

    As for the Careers course, in an ideal world, The Guidance counsellor should be the one to teach the course. I know many guidance counsellors who would LOVE to teach the course – because they know how important it is to students (myself included). But in reality, there is no time for that. Imagine being the sole Guidance counsellor in a school of 400 students, who all want a moment of your time. On top of that, you have duties by admin to do, you’re own duties, timetabling, college/university applications, tracking students, etc…now throw a class in there…it’s too overwhelming. Hence, why administration tends to give it to “any” teacher to fill up their timetable; Definitely not an ideal situation.

    Hope that helps you!

  4. It is valuable to see a UK perspective on guidance in Ontario. Thank you.
    On the topic of separation between guidance counsellors and the career studies course, the separation began with the provincial funding formula for education around 2000. Guidance was funded as a service and separate from classroom teaching. Also the career studies course is a half-credit course with half of the classroom time of most courses. Civics is also a half credit course usually taught by the history department teachers. When the principal determines staffing and who will teach what, often civics and careers is used to fill left over periods in teacher timetables. There are schools where the career studies course does get due respect and is taught by competent, experienced and guidance qualified teachers, but the opposite end of the spectrum also occurs. I believe the guidance counsellors in each school have a responsibility to support the teachers of career studies as much as they can if they don’t get to teach it themselves.

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