Career guidance in secondary school: learning from the generation effected by the budget cuts

Lauren Cassidy

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Since the economic downturn many Irish institutions have felt the pinch of budget cuts, in particular the Irish education system. In 2012, 600 career guidance posts were cut from the budget. Since then, guidance counselling provision has experienced an over all cut to service provision by 27.5% according to the Institute of Guidance Counsellors Ireland. Whilst career guidance is not a mandatory part of the education system like maths, Irish and English, should it not be given the utmost priority throughout secondary school? Is not illogical to push students to the limits of stress to obtain high points, yet not provide them with the adequate means to put those points to use.

School halls (photo credit: MattPatt21, Flickr)
School halls (photo credit: MattPatt21, Flickr)

With the restoration of ring-fenced hours satisfying career guidance on a quantitative level, the quality of the service provided should also be considered. I surveyed a sample of secondary school graduates in the years since 2011 in order to get a sense of the problems that need addressing, learning from the generation that were most effected by these budge cuts.

Too little, too late

25% of those surveyed answered that they were either unhappy or indifferent towards the college course or their current career situation. What is also interesting to note is that while 75% of these people said they were happy in their current situation, the same percentage answered that the career guidance they received in school was not helpful in terms of pointing them in the right direction for college or for a career. But why is this?

Only about 10% of those survey recalled career guidance being introduced to them at junior cycle. While I do think 12 -15 year olds still have an abundance of time to consider their career, it could be beneficial for the groundwork of career guidance to be laid at an earlier stage. The earlier the seed is planted, the more time students have to consider all of their career options.

Research indicates that students’ prior academic attainment is one of the strongest factors behind high drop-out rates. – Carl O’Brien, The Irish Times

Almost 40% of those surveyed answered that career guidance was not introduced to them until their final year in school. During this year students are under a severe amount of study pressure, if students are made aware of all their options in the earlier stages it could relieve some of the pressure, and give cause to more informed decisions. This in turn might see drop out levels decrease as students are more prepared and aware of what they have signed up for.

Writing Exams

Communication breakdown

Another issue that was raised by the statistics was the fact that many people felt their career guidance counsellor didn’t listen to their concerns. The reports on drop-out rates over the last few years have suggested the areas of study with the highest drop-out rates were computer science, construction and business courses.

I asked people to rate their agreement with the phrase “my career counsellor was good at listening to my concerns”. Almost 30% of people disagreed with this statement and a further 20% strongly disagreed with it. Whether or not the statistics reflect biased towards guidance counsellor or genuine lack of support on the part of their part, there is clearly a breakdown in the relationship and communication between students and counsellors.

Life skills

It’s not uncommon that school leavers pass remarks about what they learned in school and how they rarely use it on a daily basis. But according to this survey, school leavers in the last 5 years generally do not believe secondary school provided them with the essential skills for success in life after hanging up the uniform. The average life expectancy in Ireland is 81.4 years according to the We spend 8 years of our life in primary education 5-6 in secondary education. That’s roughly 17% of our entire lives and by the end of it a majority of us don’t believe we’ve acquired the necessary skills to use in college or beyond.

I asked those surveyed to rate their agreement with the phrase “Students should learn college/career appropriate skills (assignments, meeting deadlines, presentations) at second level.” 0% of those surveyed disagreed with this statement. 0% of those surveyed strongly disagreed with this statement. I won’t sit here and mock any teacher’s profession by suggesting we don’t learn anything valuable in school. But those most affected by the cuts feel quite strongly about life skills that are evidently being overlooked by the education system. A majority of those surveyed also believed that work experience should be a compulsory part of school.

There are a lot of students who are provided with this opportunity during transition year, however transition year is not compulsory in a majority of secondary schools. Therefore, there are those who miss out on the opportunity of experience. If work experience was made a compulsory part of the secondary school curriculum, not only would students gain a better sense of they would/would not be interested in working in after secondary skill, it would also provide them with initial CV components when seeking their first job. I realise this would take a lot to facilitate and probably stretch an already tight department expenditure budget. But hey, food for thought, Mr Bruton.

The Leaving Cert

“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid – Albert  Einstein

This quote, spoken by one of the brightest minds of all time, suggests the importance of nurturing individual aptitudes. I asked school leavers to rate their agreement with the phrase “The Leaving Certificate fairly tests the abilities of all students”. 37% disagreed with this and a further 40% strongly disagreed with it.  However, some things have changed for school leavers and a new grading placement has been put in place for students sitting the Leaving in 2017.

“In a provisional scale for the new system presented today, the maximum points awarded in a subject would be 120 for a H1, down 14, to 106, for the H2, then reducing to 13, for 93 for a H3, at 93, and reducing by 12 to 91 for a H3.” – Katherine Donnelly, The Irish Independent.

Unfortunately the data I collected isn’t reflective of the new system in place, only time will tell if its introduction will have a positive knock on effect for students getting into college and sticking out their chosen course. However those that have left school in the years since 2011 don’t regard standardised testing as a “H1” system. The point of this article was not to bash career guidance counsellors, after all, their careers were hit by the cuts as well. It was to lend a voice to the demographic affected by neglected career guidance,  instead of talking over them.

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Lauren Cassidy