Moving on, handing over: 2

Originally posted on April 12, 2018 @ 9:00 am

This post continues from yesterday’s post.

Working with colleagues

For any guidance department to be successful it needs, like all good teachers and their departments, to not work in a silo.

Getting colleagues on side is hugely important. In a culturally diverse staff body, many colleagues bring very different sets of values which colour their view of guidance. It is essential that guidance counsellors work closely with teachers; by understanding the educational heritage and philosophy of colleagues we can best ensure that the team works together to support students supported by a common understanding and vision.

Specialist colleagues are involved either officially or unofficially with the administration of the guidance program and I make a point of sharing thanks for this support by highlighting the efforts of particular colleagues with the SLT.

The English teachers and teachers of other languages are well placed to offer support in writing techniques, although it is important that they understand the aim of the different types of writing that different university applications require.

Counsellors I have spoken with have sometimes said that they don’t like involving English teachers because they can give conflicting advice. I think that this is a mistake. The English teachers I know and have worked with in the past have much stronger skills than me when it comes to coaching students writing. With proper time for discussion, collaboration and planning any differences in opinion and outlook can be adjusted for and the team can work on the same page.

The development of writing skills is important but staff can be involved in helping to prep for interviews also. In actually delivering mock interviews I have relied on a variety of staff as I feel that the most beneficial effect is gained for students when they interview with someone that they don’t know. I have also used the drama teachers to coach students on body language.

The real challenge for the school here is getting these relationships formalised. This is a priority, as the teachers who give up their time to plan and deliver support to students need to recognised and compensated for this. It isn’t fair to simply expect them to take this on.

Another aspect of working with colleagues comes with getting them on-side to understand the procedures involved in making and supporting university applications.

All teachers support university applications by supplying written comments and predicted grades for the subjects they teach. The school needs a policy for making predicted grades which must be clearly articulated to and understood by teachers so that the team is predicting grades in the same way.  In the same way, teachers need to understand the timeline and process that their students are involved in. In an international school, students may be applying to many different university systems, each with their own nuances. It is helpful if teachers have some understanding of that. One of the most unhelpful things that a well-meaning teacher can do is to continually offer an extension to deadlines for students.

Teachers need to understand how their comments are used to help the counsellor construct a reference and to understand what makes these comments different to a report. Generally, they must be positive and evidence-based. It doesn’t escape my notice that teachers, often, could do with support from the English department in terms of structuring their writing (PEE/A; SEX; Claim, Warrant and Impact).

Finally, in some cases, teachers may be called upon to write full references. The processes for this and requirements for the writing need to be carefully explained and understood.

Finally working with colleagues, also includes organising the transcript production process and having some input into the production of the DP handbook and making sure that the information within it aligns with the guidance handbook.

Working with outside organisations

Ultimately the role of the guidance counsellor is about working with organisations outside of school: universities.

I once heard a Head tell a conference that that role of the guidance counsellor was 50% in school and 50% out of school.

Our work involves liaising with universities, of course, but this can take many forms.

Firstly university visits. These require planning within the school, to agree a suitable place and time that visits can be generally held. Currently, we try to avoid clashes with lessons and encourage universities to visit at lunch or after school.

If I had more time, I would love to allow these visits to include a tour, perhaps the observation of some teaching (this has gone down well in the past) as well as the delivery of the universities presentations. I feel that this goes a long way in building a relationship with that institution, and allows them to better understand our particular context.

I also make a point of reaching out to universities after I have met them at conferences after our students have applied to them, and after students receive an offer (or not). Again, this keeps the lines of communication open and helps to build more of a relationship with your partner on the other side of the desk at that institution.

In terms of non-university institutions, we are currently using BridgeU and UniFrog as platforms to help students do their research and plan their applications. I have been planning to write a comparison of the two all year, and I hope to get this published soon. It has been useful to get feedback from students regarding the two programs.

We also work with Inspiring Futures and use their Futurewise and Career Investigator programs to support our career guidance programs in grade 9 and 10.

To improve

What would improve this guidance program and help it meet the aims of formatively developing our students?

Well, a couple of things.

I think to start some of the skills, like CV writing, earlier, in grade 8 for example, would help students begin to think about what how they can maximise their final four years in school to really develop themselves. Once students are introduced to the concept of a CV and, perhaps, realise that they haven’t got that much on there, yet, they can start thinking about what they can do to get stuff on there. The caveat here is that is isn’t about getting stuff on the CV its training kids to think about what they learn, about themselves and the world, from the activities they do do.

I think also that relationship with colleagues who support the department; teachers who help with writing, for example, need to be formalised, recognised and given the space to commit their working time to this, otherwise, apart from the risk of overburdening already busy teachers, you are effectively running a program on good-will and favours which can’t last forever.


Moving on, handing over: 1

Originally posted on April 11, 2018 @ 9:00 am

Making the decision to move on is not easy. Particularly when you have spent the last four years building a program from scratch. It has been a fascinating ride, and I have learned so much in the process, not just about guidance counselling, but also more generally about working with colleagues and about wider school aims and objectives. I still have a lot to learn and I could certainly still do more in my current post but at least there is a skeleton of a program. I leave it to others to add meat to the bones.

In this post and the next, I thought I would prepare my handover notes to a colleague who will be taking over my role when I move on to China. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what I have learned in the last few years and to think through how things might be improved.

I have created the concept map below which I think neatly covers the different aspects of this diverse role and reflects how I have broken up the role in my mind as I have developed the program at my current school.

Download (PDF, 1.64MB)

Aims of School Guidance

School guidance programs should support the wider aims of the school’s mission and vision, of course. To this end they should be developed to maximise the formative development of the young people they serve. In practice, and in conjunction with other departments within a school, this means helping students to think about and plan for their futures as well as develop writing and conversation/interview skills among others. When implemented well they can help catalyse students into gaining more from their school life by becoming active members of the school community.

Working with students

The most obvious point of interaction for a guidance counsellor is working with the students in the school. I recognise that different schools have different ways of organising their programs, depending on their specific context but there are particular tasks that I believe schools should channel through their guidance counsellors.

In my context, I have developed a program that focusses on “career” education in grades 9 and 10 (Y10 & 11). In practice, this means that we focus on interventions for students that will expand their horizons in terms of the jobs that are available to them. For example, many students (if not all) have heard about doctors, and have some idea of what they may do professionally – normally they have all been to one. But many students are unaware of the other professional routes in healthcare like physiotherapy, radiography, biomedical research, nursing, paramedic science. The aim of our program in these early grades is to expand students knowledge about these topics.

The Future-You festival (FYF) acts as a focal point for this with other activities interspersed throughout the year as shown in the following table.

Grade 9Grade 10Grade 11Grade 12
Career Investigator (Delivered as part of the FYF)Futurewise Career Profile Futurewise if not completed in grade 10University Application support
Future-You festivalFuturewise Career Discussion & CV writing workshop (as part of FYF) Persuasive writing workshopsPersuasive writing workshops
Future-You festivalFuture-You festivalInterview skills training including body language
IBDP subject choice guidanceUniversity & Career researchFinancial Aid application support and post offer decision support
Individual meetingsIndividual meetingsIndividual meetings

This “career” education aims to engage students with research and thinking about their future. We hope that by doing this, students may be better informed when making their subject choices in grades 9 and 10, particularly with an understanding of how the subject choices for the Diploma impact on the options they have for further study.

Once students move into the Diploma program we aim to help them successfully research, apply and enter a university that it is a good fit for them.

In grade 11 we provide online tools to help students identify these options and this is supported by two whole grade workshops in term 1. From January we move to individual meetings (usually one every three weeks) supported by three whole grade workshops in term 2 and three in term 3. These workshops (add link), supported by the English department, focus on helping students develop solid persuasive writing skills that they can use in their personal statements or motivational letters.

Finally, in grade 12, we support students with their applications – it is surprising how long it takes a young person to fill one of these in! We continue with individual meetings and block out deadlines to help students manage the process. As part of the FYF we coach students on interview technique and body language, as well as give each student mock interviews to help them prepare for the requests that they get. Grade 12 reaches fever pitch around December as we push students to have everything prepared early, but students still need ongoing support and help with replying to offers and dealing with any potential fall out on results day.

Working with parents

Alongside working with students we strive to provide support to parents as well. This often comes in the shape of face to face meetings to discuss concerns or specific questions that families have. Questions can vary widely and depend, in the international context, on what the families own paradigm and passports are.

We also run presentations and information sessions for parents which we also normally open up to the wider public. These vary in content but we currently run one a term. This year in term 1 we held an introduction to Dutch HE following on from my tour of Dutch Universities. In term 2 I provided an information session on applying to a range of different university systems.


Team culture: teachers and counsellors

Originally posted on April 4, 2018 @ 9:00 am

“I am applying to Bangor” the student said. “Oh, great! I applied there too!” says I, “It is an excellent school for Biological Sciences”.

As the school’s university counsellor I probably should have had a bit more of an idea that this student had decided to apply to this particular university, particularly considering this was rather late in the year – around April or May of Y13.

Follow up conversations made me aware that this student’s homeroom teacher had initially made the suggestion that this student applied to Bangor.

Let me get out in front of this. I am not trying to suggest in this post that teachers should not speak to their students about their university applications. I am not suggesting that teachers should not even offer advice to students and help them make sense of what can be a very confusing time of life, but teachers do need to think before they speak.

I have heard of schools where the guidance counsellor takes an aggressive, defensive approach in working with teachers. If you so much as whisper the word “university” to a student without their knowledge they may have words with you.

I have heard of teachers being reprimanded by the school counsellor for sharing a book list of subject specific reading with the Y12 and 13s and writing to them in an email that reading would be an excellent way to improve their university applications.

This wasn’t covert. The teacher wasn’t trying to go behind the counsellors back. They cc’ed the counsellor in, thinking they would be pleased that the teacher was trying to engage students to do things beyond what was merely required.

In my world then this is perfectly acceptable, as reading widely is an educationally excellent thing to encourage young people to do.

The teacher was called to the counselling office and made to apologise for that action.

This same colleague still gives me a cool reception when our paths do cross.

As a teacher, before I became a counsellor I wanted to encourage interested students to read my subject at university. I think this is natural. As someone who taught DP and A level and interacted with 17-18-year-olds pastorally, I was naturally curious as to where the students I met were applying, and what for.

It is frustrating when this information is never shared. When Teachers are never told when students have applied, or have interviews or get offers of admission. “Why do they need to know?” Is usually the question posed when this is raised.

Teachers do need to get with the school’s program and get behind the counselling team. Speak to the counselling department if they have ideas about individual students or groups of students and feel that you have the expertise to share. Global university admissions is an ever-changing landscape and teachers are not always up to speed. Also, teachers may not take into account other cultural factors like international diversity, when recommending institutions, which may hugely impact a students future happiness.

I would also submit, from experience, that teachers are not natural counsellors. I have written about this tension between teaching and counselling elsewhere and won’t bring it in here again. But teachers don’t necessarily know how to pose questions to draw out students thinking on such subjective matters about a students future, and they also may not have the full picture, painted by the families worldview.

Just like the teacher that ignores a school’s behaviour policy and does their own thing in their classroom, undermining their colleague who sticks to the behaviour policy, to the detriment of the whole team and school culture, the teacher that doesn’t engage with the counseling team to communicate ideas and discussion points about students, just serves to undermine the counseling department. This can lead to damaged reputations and undermining of the school’s reputation.

But it works both ways. Counsellors need to make teachers feel included. They need to seek students consent first to share the information (internally) about where students are applying and where they have been successful. This information serves to catalyse the team on the celebration and helps to build ongoing fruitful relationships between students and the staff that work with them. Why do teachers need to know? Because teachers care, becuase teachers invest their time, more than anyone, to work on behalf of students, because teachers know just when to put in the right word of encouragement, just when a student might need it.

It allows a whole team celebration of the students achievement and contributes to building a strong team culture amongst the staff. So counsellors and teachers: work together!

Education University

UK student loans: just a graduate tax?

Originally posted on November 13, 2020 @ 11:08 am

In the UK, as in the US, higher education access is supported through government loans. In the UK, this system has been in place since 1998/99 when student fees of £1000 were introduced for undergraduate courses. By the time I went to university in 2002, this had risen to around £3000 and, at the time of writing fees for undergraduate courses in the UK stand at £9,250 per year of the course.

Much has been made over the introduction of tuition fees and the main vehicle used to pay for them – student loans. In this post I want to explore reasons behind the introduction of fees and loans in the UK and what some of the implications of these may be.

Colleagues I have discussed this with often maintain that loans are just a graduate tax, that graduates only begin to pay them off when earning above a certain level, and that if they are not paid off in 30 years they are erased. This may be true, but, I have felt uneasy, in my role as a university guidance counselor about just dismissing the implications for young people who decide, on our advice, to get themselves up to almost £30,000 in debt on fees alone, ignoring all other costs of being a student. This post is really an opportunity for me to explore this topic in a little more detail.

Why loans?

A little known theory in economics, known as Human Capital Theory (HCT), asserts that investments made in the development of skills and knowledge, through training and education, will improve the productivity of an individual and thus the economy as a whole. On the personal level, the rationale, from this view, for investing in education is for the real term pay off you will get from getting a better paid job. On a macro scale, the amount that a government invests in education then, so the thinking goes, the greater productivity of the economy and subsequent increase in GDP.

But there is a trade off for a government. Investment in Higher Education (HE) is expensive, and has a lower rate of return according to many studies. And so governments are less willing to invest tax payers money, especially for degrees that may have a low return on investment.

Enter, Milton Friedman and the free market, which suggests that the market for HE may be improved, and institutions made more competitive, if the state reduces its input, oversight and regulation. Friedman advocates for fees for HE be covered by the student in the form of loans from the government

So, naturally, based on two economic rationales, free markets and HCT, the case for HE investment through student loans is made. What is the problem?


One of my concerns around this issue which is linked to others is the impact it has on choice. When we begin to look at degrees in terms of return on investment, then some degrees seem to have a higher value – graduates from these degrees get paid more and therefore can pay off their debts more easily. There are two problems with this.

Imagine that degrees in computer science command the highest salaries for post graduates. This is because in the labour market there is a shortage of these skills. As more and more people switch to studying this degree because it pays better, the labour market becomes flooded with these skills and the price of labour goes down. Thus the return on the investment goes down as wages are driven down by competition. This isn’t the graduates fault who may now be saddled with debt that is harder to pay off.

Secondly, should the value of a degree be measured purely in these monetary terms? As I have got older I have appreciated more and more what can be learned in non science undergraduate courses (I did three science A Levels and a science first degree) like Arts which tend to command lower salaries. There are a whole variety of reasons why these degrees have more intrinsic and instrumental value than just monetary value for a graduate but they stand to die out and receive less funding if individuals stop applying for them, which they will do if they are thinking about returns on investment alone.

Related to this point and the point below about equity is the idea that those that do have to worry about debt, those students coming from less affluent backgrounds will feel more pressure to not take a degree that doesn’t have a good return of investment, so we have a class or wealth divide around who really has choice of degree path, with the more affluent students, having more rational choice. So the first charge to lay at the door of the idea of loans is that they actually reduce choice for poorer students.

Equity and Access

Costs of entry to HE can present very significant barriers to individuals. This is the problem of access. If a government wants to promote a genuine free market for the sake of the economy, then the assumptions that everyone can access that market has to be addressed. In other words the government needs to ensure that all those “deserving” of a place in the appropriate labour market are able to get access to the education and training they need to be able to compete in that labour market effectively. And here is the rub, the introduction of fees raises a barrier to individuals who despite a reduced socio-economic background may have the personal qualities to make the most of the labour market at the other side.

Fees and loans may not present much a problem to members of society who have the social and economic capital in order to cover the costs, but they will raise very real barriers to children, with just as much, if not more merit, for whom the prospect of becoming £30,000+ in debt is a very frightening prospect. So the second charge to lay at the door of fees and loans, is that they do nothing (at the very least) to provide equity in society. If we want a just, socially mobile society, where individuals are not constrained by the random act of birth, then we need to think hard about the implications of these loans.

There is another element to this. Many people understand the idea of genes and inheritance, and probably can understand the idea that certain biological traits are inherited from parents. But what often is missed is that children inherit their early environment too. Bourdieu writes about this in terms of cultural capital. Plomin also references this idea in his work. Children are born, at random, into a particular family environment, just in the same way they are born into a body made from a particular mix of genes. The family environment will transmit cultural capital in the form of knowledge, customs, understandings particular to that family. To use an extreme example, some children will grow up exposed to ballet, opera and fine art. Others will be exposed to cold, fend for yourself dinner, because mum and dad are both out having to work their third job.

Which group of children will be best placed to make the best decisions in terms of university courses? Which will be more likely to understand how to make the most out of university and capitalise on their experience?

This problem of equity and access leads to a third problem: social reproduction. Children who are born in the “right” place will be more able to go on to reproduce those conditions for their children, while the others will find it much harder to shift gears so to speak.


So let’s lay that aside. I have outlined above three misgivings about the system: Choice, Equity, Access. I don’t claim that the points briefly expressed above are enough on their own to call for a change in the system, but they should at least give serious pause for thought. They certainly did for me when I came across them.

A fourth problem with student fees and loans is debt. And there are two elements to this for me.

Firstly, there is a general issue linked to the ideas above which goes along these lines: Those students who are already disadvantaged are the ones who will be most disadvantaged, on average, by this system. As I alluded to earlier, some students will not be put off by fees. Their families might be able to pay them directly or at least pay off the loans quickly once the graduate leaves and gains employment. Or, some parents may be able to make interest free loans to their kids on the understanding that these are paid back. Fair enough.

But many kids won’t be in this fortunate position. This will be because they come from families that are not that fortunate (yes, unfortunate, not lazy). So these kids, the ones that actually need the levelling affects of education, are the ones that will end up picking up the bill of debt.

Accepting this means that you can’t argue that loan repayment is a graduate tax – not every graduate will need to pay it. It’s a poor-graduates tax. It hits those from the poorest backgrounds the hardest. The less money you have going into uni, the more money you will have to pay back, either because you have to borrow more, or because it will take you longer to pay back.

And this is doubly true if they haven’t had the advice growing up (Remember cultural capital?) about maximising their investment and decide to spend £30,000 on Beckham studies.

The second issue about debt for me is the specific issue of interest rates, that the UK government employs. I was staggered when I looked at the student loans available to me as a postgraduate student this year. The UK government was willing to lend me money at a whopping 5.2%.


The Bank of England has lowered interest rates to 0.1%, mortgages are at an all time low, and I can get a loan from Nationwide for £20,000 at 2.9%. Why is the UK government charging higher interests rates than a corporate entity like a bank? Has it been turned into a business?

The only reason that the student loans company has an interest rate this high is to make money. Plain and simple. These are not loans designed to enable access to university, to level the playing field to allow those most disadvantaged a leg up. Instead they are a way for poor graduates to become compound interest slaves to government and society.

I could just about accept it, if the rates were lower or in line with other interest rates for important investments paid off over a long time i.e. mortgages. But I just find a rate of 5.2% entirely cynical.

Milton Friedman as Obi Wan Kenobi meets the UK government as Darth Vader. The young Anakin (aka Margaret Thatcher’s government) has learned the dark side of Firedman’s ideas so well that they will apply it to conquer the universe.

Whats the problem with a rate this high? Well, at that rate, because of compound interest the loan will have doubled in 14 years. So, if a student graduates and is not earning enough to begin to pay off the debt, they are soon going to find the amount owing has grown to crushing amounts.

Jason Hikel in less is more, and writers like David Graeber have highlighted the problems with debt capitalism but it strikes me that these loans made to students are not too dissimilar to the loans made to global south countries that tie them into repayments over years that reduce the nation’s ability to fund its own education and other social systems. It is fundamentally exploitative. And disproportionately exploitative of the poor.

Add to this that free market economics will see that the cost of labour is pushed down, and we have an unholy alliance of high student debt with declining relative wages.

I can’t see that causing any problems for society down the line /s.


Think of all that debt accumulating, providing a steady income to the UK government from all of those graduates taking out loans and paying them off over the next thirty year. Supporters claim that the government has promised to forgive the debts if they remain unpaid after 30 years, but I think that is naive.

The government has made drastic changes to teachers pensions, military pensions, as well as to women born in the 1950s, all in the last 10 years, There is nothing in that behaviour that suggests to me that they will keep their word. I do not believe for a minute they will be willing to give up this income stream of debt repayments which is set to become a lucrative industry for the government, they will need it to support growth of the economy. Debt fuels growth.

What do you think?

Resources University

The future-you festival

Originally posted on August 6, 2017 @ 9:00 am

In my first year at my current school I was one of the grade 10 homeroom teachers. At the time, the grade 10’s were the eldest grade, the school having only opened the previous year with all grades up to grade nine.

That year our Head of School organised for some parents to come in on an afternoon to speak to our grade nine and ten students about their various professions.

The session lasted a couple of hours while different parents rotated in front of our small cohort of 18 students to tell them they needed a passion.

The next morning the feedback in homeroom was less than excellent. The major theme that came across was that the kids would have liked some choice about what they saw and who they listened to.

Later that year I was given the chance to set up the university counselling program and part of that required me to organise careers day.

In the first year I was responsible for it (my second year at the school) my main aim was to introduce choice for students.

That year we held it in May and the event ran from after lunch until 7pm. From 2pm until 4pm we had a series of career focussed workshops. These were bookended by a keynote and plenary session. The latter were compulsory for all students, but, during the time in-between, students rotated through workshops that they had previously signed up for.

After the plenary from 4pm to 5pm we held a short university fair, hosting universities from Switzerland plus a few others.

Following this we hosted an author who spoke about her book and work that supports international students making transitions to study at international universities.

In my second year, the academic year just finished, we moved the date back to March. Unfortunately, with the extra classroom hours I was working, I simply didn’t have the time to organise a university fair – the amount of time that goes into simply emailing contacts is extraordinary. However, we did run an evening event again this year. This was organised by my colleague in the schools marketing department and took the form of two guest speakers, with dinner and wine for attendees. Next year we have decided to call this part of the evening “future-you conversations”.

This year I am hoping to expand what we do slightly with morning skills based workshops on top of the afternoon career focussed workshops. These will be run in conjunction with inspiring futures who offer two days of their advisor time to members. We bought membership for next academic year.

Grade 12 will have a session on interview skills to support students who will have interviews as part of their university applications but also as many of them will be interviewing for jobs in the next 12 months.

Grade 11 will have a session on persuasive writing for their personal statement. This will hopefully provide them with some raw material with which to begin their personal statement drafts later in the year.

Grade 10 will have a session on cv writing as they will be looking for work experience this year as they have a work experience week in June.

Grade 9 will use the inspiring futures career investigator.