Counselling students: Creating a new system vs. leveraging an existing one

The draft of the National Education Policy 2019 recognizes that students require career and emotional guidance in schools through various counselling services. While some ideas have been listed, making this possible at scale can be a challenge. How can we achieve this at a secondary school level, a stage when every student in India makes their first decision towards their career while ensuring that the system is not only sustainable but also affordable and accessible?

Secondary school students today face multiple challenges

Due to continuous efforts of the government as well as civil society over the last few years, school enrollment numbers have increased substantially and there are more students in school today than out of school. Students and parents are increasingly understanding the importance of education and more students are completing their secondary school education.

However, there continues to be a gap that is yet to be filled in the secondary education system in India. As adolescents, secondary school students struggle with their natural limitations <link adolescents article> and they often fall short of tackling issues effectively in their life, trying to cope with demanding situations at home and school by using their existing capabilities and resources.

Not being able to deal with these challenges often reflects negatively on their academics, their behaviour in school and at home and in their relationship with authority and peers. Most students, unaware of their strengths and abilities, try to fit into the “average” mould (this is especially true for gifted students).

However, the ecosystem around the student is neither adequate nor equipped with the knowledge about changes that take place in adolescence and its impact on their behaviours. Despite being ill-equipped, parents and teachers who are well-meaning adults try to guide them – thus, becoming a classic case of doing the wrong things with the right intent. What students need today is access to the right guidance and support at the right time.

Why is it important to provide guidance at a systemic level today?

India in the 21st century has changed drastically and continues to change at a rapid pace. Till a few decades back, the biggest problem that students faced was the lack of opportunities. Well-trodden paths assured success to nearly every student, and the transition from childhood to adulthood was well-paced and gradual. The life skills that were required were very different and teachers and parents were sufficiently equipped to provide the relevant guidance to students.  

Today, this reality has changed. The 21st century brought with it innumerable opportunities in education and career choices that require a different set of life skills. Gaining access to these opportunities is within everyone’s reach now, but making informed choices and taking up the most appropriate opportunity for oneself remains a challenge as conventional pathways are no longer enough to assure success.

We need an intervention that is sustainable as well as affordable.

Providing easy and free access to quality counselling or guidance services to all students irrespective of their social and economic background so that they are able to make informed choices that lead to a meaningful career is a need of the hour. As per the globally accepted standard of 1 counsellor to every 250 students, we need at least 6 lakh counsellors for nearly 1.5 crore grade 10 students in India. However, bringing in new professional counsellors that are accessible to every secondary school student is not only a resource-intensive task, but it would also compromise on the quality of the counselling as external counsellors would not know each student’s academic progress, changes in personality, behaviours and interests closely.

How can we provide customized counselling to students at scale?

Considering that parents and teachers are significant influencers in every child’s life, they are best positioned to be equipped with counselling skills. Not only do they know the child closely and get the opportunity to observe them over a period of time, but students will be more likely to engage in honest conversations as their relationship is based on trust. While there is no mechanism or platform in place to equip parents with counselling skills, we can leverage the existing government structure to equip teachers with these skills.

Why else are teachers best suited to be equipped with counselling skills?

  1. They can cater to a majority of students in their class: If we look at the academic performance, intelligence or spectrum of behaviours of all students in any classroom across the world and plot them on a graph, we would most likely see a bell-shaped curve.  Approximately 96% of students occupy the bell-shaped part of the curve, representing students who usually do not exhibit any grave behavioural or academic problems and show normal progress. The remaining 4% of students in the classroom that make up the tails of the bell curve (2% on the right and 2% on the left) represent students who are either gifted or severely academically challenged or suffer from serious behavioural problems. 

It is only these 4% of the students who need specialized, often clinically trained, counsellors. For example, the average age of onset of mental disorders such as depression is typically between 18-25 years of age but the signs and symptoms can be seen beforehand during the early years.

The combination of equipping teachers with basic knowledge of psychology and counselling to work with the majority 96% of students, along with giving them the tools to identify the remaining 4% of students is the most effective strategy.  

  • Students and teachers share the same socio-cultural context

Every village and region in India differ from each other in some way or another – be it a difference in language or dialect, the status of women, or resources available in a community.  In order to give customized and quality guidance, it is important to have a mentor who comes from a similar socio-cultural background and who understands local socio-economic implications of choosing different education and career options. Students are more likely to communicate fears and aspirations to a mentor who understands their own background, rather than a person outside of their community.

  • They can leverage the bond they have built with their students

Secondary school teachers spend at least 2 years with students, spending a substantial amount of time teaching and interacting with them. This allows them to minutely notice the behaviour, academic progress, strengths and weaknesses of each student. If they are equipped with the information and techniques to counsel them based on their interests, aptitudes, and opportunities available, students will be able to make informed education choices that lead to a meaningful career.  

  • They can also, in turn, equip parents

Teachers are usually in frequent touch with parents through monthly parent-teacher meetings, annual day, etc. Teachers can use these opportunities to help parents understand and deal with their children and equip them with tools that they can use at home to help their children with decision making.

Dr. Shirisha Sathe, President – R&D, SAF