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Students' embarking on their career journey – Is Féidir linn

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Posted by Francis O' Toole on May 20, 2015

New doctoral research from St. Patrick’s College DCU shows that the educational cutbacks to guidance allocations in schools have had an unequal impact across school types and that in-school counselling has been the biggest casualty.


The research entitled “From ex-quota to in-quota: An analysis of guidance counsellors’ perceptions of the impact of 2012 budgetary cutbacks on their care work across different school types” was a two-phase Doctorate in Education study, which was carried out in 2013. It consisted of an online survey of 273 guidance counsellors, followed by 12 one-to-one structured telephone interviews. The research was conducted by Dr. Liam Harkin, a Guidance Counsellor in Carndonagh Community School, Co. Donegal, under the joint supervision of Dr. Maeve O’Brien, Coordinator of Human Development, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Co-Director of the MA in Human Development in St. Patrick’s College DCU and Dr. Claire Hayes, Consultant Clinical Psychologist.

The backdrop to this research study was a fundamental change in how guidance[1] resources were allocated in Irish schools. For forty years, national Government policy was that the Department of Education (and Skills) allocated these resources centrally, but this changed as a cost-saving measure in Budget 2012. The former ex-quota guidance allocation system was centralised, standardised and based on student enrolment. One full-time guidance counsellor[2] was allocated per 500 students. It was separate and in addition to teacher allocations. The new localised (in-quota) arrangement from September 2012, stipulated that guidance hours had to be provided from within a school’s teacher allocation, where it became the responsibility of individual school principals / Education and Training Boards (ETBs) to decide on the appropriate guidance allocation required.

Findings (14)

1. Overall, the change in the method of guidance allocation had a negative impact on schools in general. Most guidance counsellors did something differently and most of them felt that their role had changed in 2012-13, their perceptions of the change were very negative, and most experienced a reduction in guidance hours.

2. The biggest observed differences were between guidance counsellors in fee-charging schools and those in schools in the Free-Education Scheme (FES). A greater proportion of respondents in schools in the FES had a negative perception of the change than in fee-charging schools. There was also a difference in the actual reduction in hours between both school types, with a greater proportion of respondents (69%) within FES schools experiencing a decrease in guidance hours than in fee-charging schools (44%).

3. The reasons suggested for why a greater proportion of FES schools than fee-charging schools reduced their guidance hours were that:

· fee-charging schools were able to access additional sources of finance and funding that were not available to schools in the FES;

· that parent power had an impact on decision-making around guidance services, and

· that both the school management and the parents in fee-charging schools regarded guidance (particularly career guidance) as important.

4. Within the FES, a greater proportion of respondents from non-fee-charging voluntary secondary schools (VSS) experienced reduced hours than respondents from other school types. Several explanations for this were offered:

· that capitation grants were less for the VSS than for other school types;

· that Education and Training Boards (ETB) schools had greater flexibility to share posts between schools or organise timetables than schools in the VSS sector;

· that VSS principals may have been under more pressure to keep certain academic subjects than principals in other school types, and

· that the VSS sector received less funding for SEN than other school types.

5. The decisions made by fee-charging and FES schools had different impacts and unequal outcomes:

· Supports for affective care were eroded in FES schools, but not in fee-charging schools.

· Due to a reduced career guidance service, students in FES schools did not have the same opportunities as students in fee-charging schools to identify and discuss their aptitudes and interests.

6. Differing school management approaches to guidance allocation and student care led to a wide variety in outcomes. A guidance counsellor in a fee-charging school wrote:

Very good with no negative changes for me but I know that is not the experience for many guidance counsellors but little has changed I think in the private fee paying schools as parents demand a professional service as they consider they are paying for it.

The impact of the devolving of responsibility for guidance provision to schools in Ireland mirrored what had happened in other countries, such as New Zealand, the Netherlands where the negative outcomes included increased inequality in guidance provision and a lack of quality assurance (McCarthy, 2012; Watts, 2011). It also paralleled recent changes in England, where since 2012 schools also have the freedom to “decide what careers guidance services to make available for their pupils” (Andrews, 2013, p. 14), which has resulted in a deteriorating service with inherent “weaknesses” (UK Parliament, 2013,p. 12) and “profound gaps” (Simms, Gamwell & Hopkins, 2014).

7. Guidance counsellors reported differences in parental attitudes to guidance in fee-charging and FES schools. They speculated that parents from fee-charging schools recognised the importance and benefits of a guidance service for progression to higher education and that they may have influenced its retention in these schools:

Parents who send their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools expect a level of service based around progression into third level, and career guidance is seen as an integral part of getting their sons or daughters into the right course and into the right college.

8. Many schools prioritised student academic achievement and teaching over guidance, with guidance counsellors removed from guidance duties and given an academic teaching timetable.

My biggest fear is that due to lack of time, I will not have been able to help a child in need. In my Junior classes there seems to be a wave of self-harm happening among students. I am concerned that due to time in the classroom, I cannot see these children. I can no longer provide the ongoing support to students who need it. I can only see students on a two or three weekly basis, but knowing these students need greater support.

9. Guidance counsellors in FES schools were more focused on counselling than career guidance during the year, while in fee-charging schools the opposite was the case. The demand for counselling was also much greater in FES schools than in fee-charging schools, and often it was impossible to meet the need:

I found students had difficulty accessing the service because they knew how busy I was and would often say – ‘I tried to see you last week, but you’re a hard woman to catch and I didn’t want to bother you’. I feel all students are entitled to be able to talk to the counsellor and to be heard. It’s difficult enough for them to come forward, without putting more barriers in their way.

10. There were differences between school types in the quality, capacity and approach of the counselling service which suggest increased inequality. So for example, the counselling service was mostly reactive in FES schools and mainly preventative in fee-charging schools; there was very restricted access to one-to-one appointments in FES schools and easy access in fee-charging schools; having to wait a long time for counselling was the norm in FES schools but not so in fee-charging schools; guidance counsellors in FES schools were under constant time pressure, which was not the case in fee-charging schools. One respondent from a FES school described his/her work practices as unsafe:

I see the reduction in hours as dangerous as I am forced to work in a way that I cannot describe as best practice.

11. The distribution of care in FES schools was negatively affected as time for counselling was reduced, despite a huge demand. In fee-charging schools, counselling time was not reduced. Guidance counsellors were of the opinion that the guidance allocation changes negatively impacted on the counselling service and the care of students, with a lack of time being at the root of the problem. Many expressed grave concerns at the loss of care for students, particularly for those who were vulnerable,those needing transition supports, and those with mental health issues. This one comment is typical of many:

Time, time, time. Absolutely snowed under with work – in office or classroom all day, no break or lunchtime off as students are always looking for support. Huge social issues – family breakdown, society changing, dysfunctional homes, and alcohol associated problems. All these need time. Discussions are always cut short.
12. The quality of affective care was closely linked with resources of time, and it was impossible for guidance counsellors in FES schools to provide a professional guidance service:

This year I have less guidance hours and this has impacted on the service I give to students. I feel that the service is diluted, and I’m trying to get a bit of this and that done but nothing in great detail compared to other year.

Many quality indicators were not being met, such as a lack of counselling follow-up; difficulties in referral to other agencies; difficulties finding time to write up counselling notes; problems getting the time to attend counselling supervision, CPD training and in-service courses, for example:

I failed to complete large amounts of my work. I feel I couldn’t support students and unless the allocation changes this will continue. I am very hardworking but totally disheartened.
13. As the demand for counselling in FES schools forced prioritisation, preventative work disappeared and the guidance service became a reactive crisis intervention one:

I have never come across so many students in distress on the corridors as this year. There is a sense of crisis. Huge cyber issues, little sense of prevention. Big problems which should have been dealt with early.
14. With guidance resources being concentrated on Senior Cycle, particularly Sixth Year, Junior Cycle students were neglected, with First Years losing out most.
Guidance at Junior Cert has been wiped out.
15. Guidance counsellor well-being and mental health are essential in order to provide the care that students may need (O’Brien, 2011), however the research participants in this study expressed strong emotions of guilt, frustration, disillusionment, annoyance and anger at being unable to provide support and care for all their students. Many mentioned being under increased stress:

I felt like I was working on a conveyor belt and had very little time to get to know students. I felt under pressure all year and the job was not done the way I would like.

A lot of the stress was due to having a conflicting dual role in schools:

It’s always a conflict of interest because you are trying to be a disciplinarian in the classroom and then you are trying to be a counsellor five minutes later, maybe after disciplining a student in the classroom, so it’s a total conflict.

Students’ relationships with the guidance counsellor changed over the course of the year:

As I have more classes and have a discipline role, students do not approach me in the same way.


Conclusions (5)

Five main conclusions were reached from the research findings:

1. The removal of the ex-quota guidance allocation impacted negatively on the distribution of care through the guidance service in second level schools:

School is not the caring place it once was.

2. The reduction was not experienced equally in all school types, with the biggest differences between fee-charging and FES schools. These two representative comments illustrate the contrast between these school types:

Like I didn’t watch the clock, if they needed a little bit more time I gave it and if they needed to come back again that was fine [guidance counsellor in an urban, fee-charging girls school].

It’s a bottomless pit, it’s really a case of prioritising, you’re fire-fighting, you just do what you can [guidance counsellor in a rural DEIS, ETB Community College].

3. A diversified service model of guidance developed, as guidance was viewed differently by individual school principals:

The management in our school has done everything to keep a dedicated guidance and counselling service in the school at a very difficult time, in terms of funding and teaching allocation.

4. Students in FES schools experienced compromised care from the guidance service, due to a large reduction in counselling appointments. The demand for counselling in FES schools increased, but as many schools prioritised career guidance, counselling was neglected and it became a reactionary crisis intervention service:

Doing emergency counselling on corridor between classes. When I ask students why did you not come to me sooner they tell me ‘you were too busy’, this is very sad.

5. Managing greater care demands with less time resources increased guidance counsellors’ own stress levels:

This is the first year that I’ve found the job so stressful that I wonder how long before this stress affects me physically.


Main recommendation.

The ex-quota guidance allocation system should be restored as soon as possible, as it was more equitable and more objective than the current system which depends on the subjective judgement of each individual principal (or ETB). This is the only way to ensure that all students in all schools across the country receive equal levels of guidance support and care.

Interim recommendations.

Due to ongoing budgetary constraints, the ex-quota guidance allocation may not be reinstated in the short-term, therefore the following interim recommendations are made for urgent consideration and implementation by the DES:

1. There needs to be an extensive programme of in-service information and training for principals on the importance and benefits of guidance, as the final decision on school-based guidance services now rests with them.

2. For equality of guidance provision to be guaranteed across all schools under the current method whereby school management decides on the allocation, there needs to be a system of checks and balances put in place by the DES. These include the following measures:

(i) There is a need for formal audits and inspections of guidance allocations in schools.

(ii) These inspections should include strong policy levers to encourage all principals to allocate adequate guidance resources in their schools.

(iii) For this to happen, there would need to an increase in the number of guidance inspectors and inspections.

(iv) All future Whole School Evaluations (WSEs) should contain a distinct section on school guidance, and the DES should require that guidance forms part of any school self-evaluation (SSE) process.

3. As the different levels of financial supports given by the DES to the three main school sectors have been shown to mirror the unequal reduction of guidance across the three sectors, there should be an equalisation of financial supports to all school sectors.

4. In light of the changes to the method of guidance allocation, Section 9(c) ofThe Education Act (1998) relating to students’ access to “appropriate guidance” and the subsequent DES Guidelines for Second Level Schools on the Implications of Section 9(c) of the Education Act 1998, should be reviewed and revised. From this research, it appears that it is not possible under the new guidance allocation system, for FES schools to provide the guidance service envisaged under the Act.

5. In view of the widespread reduction in one-to-one appointments and counselling in FES schools, the holistic nature of guidance in Irish schools, and the benefits of such a model need to be re-emphasised to school principals by the DES, with equal emphases on career, educational and personal guidance.

6. In light of the finding that guidance resources were being focused on Senior Cycle, there needs to be a rethink and a discussion on what guidance is feasible for guidance counsellors to deliver to Junior Cycle students under the current allocation arrangements. This is particularly important given the plan to introduce a new modular-based Junior Cycle Student Award where guidance may feature as a modular subject.


This research only tells the story of the impact of the change in the method of allocating guidance in schools in Ireland from the first school year (2012-13) after its implementation. In the interim period, the situation may have evolved somewhat. As we approach the end of the third school year under the new system, it is perhaps time for a comprehensive national review of the impact of the change to be conducted by the DES.


The significance of this research on the changes in guidance allocations is that it is largely qualitative, in contrast to the quantitative studies conducted by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and the National Centre for Guidance in Education.

In addition, it is a study that has been rigorously tested academically.

References Cited in Press Release

Andrews, D. (2013). The future of careers work in schools in England.Downloaded on 17 June 2013 from, UK: Career Development Institute.

Department of Education and Science (2005). Guidelines for Second Level Schools on the implications of Section 9(c) of the Education Act (1998), relating to students’ access to appropriate guidance. Dublin: The Stationery Office.

Ireland (1998). Education Act. Dublin: Government Publications.

McCarthy, J. (2012). Cutting education slack. Guideline, 39(2), 6-9. Dublin: Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

O’Brien, M. (2011). Professional responsibility and an ethic of care: Teachers’ care as moral praxis. In C. Sugrue & T. Dyrdal-Solbreke (Eds.), Professional responsibility: New Horizons of praxis. London: Continuum.

Simms, M., Gamwell, S. & Hopkins, B. (2014). The changing role of information, advice and guidance (IAG) in young people’s transition into the labour market.Unpublished paper presented at the 2014 British Sociological Association Annual Conference, at the University of Leeds, from 23 – 25 April 2014.

UK Parliament. (2013). Career guidance and young people: The impact of the new duty on schools. Seventh Report of Session 2012-13. House of Commons Education Committee. London: The Stationery Office.

Watts, A.G. (2011). The proposed model for career guidance in England: Some lessons from international examples. Journal of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling, 27, 32-39.

Contact Details (not for publication)

For any questions or clarification, Dr. Liam Harkin may be contacted at 087 631 2355 or

[1] The National Centre for Guidance in Education (NCGE) defined guidance in the educational context as ‘a range of learning experiences provided in a developmental sequence, designed to assist students to make choices about their lives and to make transitions consequent on these choices’ (NCGE, 2004, p.12). The Department of Education and Science clarified guidance further as encompassing “the three separate, but interlinked, areas of personal and social development, educational guidance and career guidance” (DES, 2005, p.4).

[2] Guidance counsellor is the professional title used by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), the representative body for guidance counsellors in Ireland, to describe the role of the lead person delivering the guidance service in schools.


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