Thursday, 13 April 2017
Education (Guidance Counselling Provision) Bill 2017: First Stage
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to make provision whereby the Minister for Education and Skills shall publish an annual education impact study on the effects his or her decision to continue with the provision of guidance counselling within the standard staffing schedule on schools; such study to include details of the names of schools that have reduced their guidance counselling provision as a direct result of this arrangement, with particular emphasis on those schools that have DEIS status and the impact of the reduced provision of guidance counselling on those schools including the impact on student’s wellbeing and progression to further education and training.
I wish to introduce the Education (Guidance Counselling Provision) Bill 2017. This is a very simple and short Bill, the purpose of which is to seek to compel the Minister for Education and Skills to conduct an annual educational impact survey for every year that guidance counselling provision is provided from within the staffing schedule for second-level schools. The Minister will contend that 400 guidance posts have been restored outside of the staffing schedule and that the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced as a result. This contention is disingenuous. While I acknowledge that the pupil-teacher ratio has been reduced by 0.4 at second level, there is no clear requirement that this reduction must be used to provide guidance.
The concern is that second-level schools may use this reduction to provide an additional teacher for other subjects in the curriculum or other posts within the school. Sinn Féin believes that schools must be given a specific allocation of guidance hours based on levels of enrolment. This was the norm in previous years before the system was changed on foot of budget measures in 2012. The Education Act 1998 requires that students have access to appropriate guidance to assist them in their educational and career choices.
Removal of ex-quota guidance counselling hours has put the responsibility on principals to determine appropriate guidance and effectively forces principals to choose between subject provision and guidance counselling. Given the many cuts to education in recent years, it is little wonder that guidance counselling provision has reduced as a result. Figures from the Institute of Guidance Counsellors show that there has been an overall reduction of 24% in guidance counselling, with a massive reduction of 59% in time for one-on-one counselling. In a study by the National Centre for Guidance Education on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, it was recommended that the ex-quota allocation for guidance to schools should be restored as a priority. Sinn Féin supports this call.
Research by the ESRI shows that those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more reliant on the supports and guidance at second level and that these supports play a more significant role in the choices made by these young people. It also found that the cuts to guidance counselling provision impacted most in disadvantaged schools and that the provision of guidance counselling was not equitable across the board. DEIS schools report a 30% decline in guidance counselling compared to 26% in non-DEIS schools. However, fee-paying schools showed an increase of 1.7% in guidance, which clearly shows that not only is guidance important and valued by schools, particularly as they are willing to spend funds on the service where such funds are available, but also that vulnerable students fully reliant on the public system are losing out and being disenfranchised by such a move.
This Bill will require the Minister for Education and Skills to comprehensively analyse the educational impact of the decision to retain guidance counselling provision under the current arrangements and publish the findings. Such a study would examine the impact on disadvantaged schools, the effect on progression to further education, which has become very topical and is an issue of great concern, training and details of schools that have reduced guidance provision as a result of the policy decision. While I recognise that, in itself, this would not solve the problem, it would provide the hard data to inform future policy decisions in this area and, hopefully, would improve accountability for all decisions that have such a profound impact on our students and give every student a fair chance to achieve his or her potential. I commend this Bill to the House.