Legal: Guidance officers and their relationship with the department

In recent times we have become aware that some guidance officers have entirely legitimate concerns about the nature of their relationship with the Department of Education, Training and Employment and to senior officers such as principals.

While there is no one answer to this problem, we can help clarify one important aspect of the matter: whether guidance officers are employees or clinicians.

We have been supplied with a copy of the position description for guidance officers which was approved in January 2009, which we are informed is still in place. From that document it is clear that guidance officers are employees, not independent clinicians. While it is entirely understandable that some of the aspirations and values of independent clinicians will influence guidance officers, the extent to which they can act in accordance with those aspirations and values will be limited by the nature of their employment.

What is notable in the position description is that the task is clearly described in terms consistent with the proposition that the guidance officer is working in a team and in a particular school environment. The first paragraph of the role of the guidance officer reads: “Provide professional expertise, leadership and support to school communities and networks in the development and implementation of plans, programs and procedures to assist students in achieving positive educational, developmental and life-long learning outcomes.”

Importantly, the second paragraph reads: “Collaboratively (our emphasis) negotiate, develop and implement programs for students”.

Under “Reporting Relationships”, reference is made to the program for a student to be “negotiated with and authorised by a line manager, usually the school principal” and to this service being required to be “in collaboration with other school based personnel and external support providers in a variety of educational contexts”.

The second paragraph under “Reporting Relationships” refers to guidance officers being “required to participate in regular clinical and technical supervision with a senior guidance officer or their nominee, to ensure the provision of ongoing professional support and development.”

Under the heading "Major Responsibilities" words such as “collaboratively” and phrases like “work as part of a multi-disciplinary team and facilitate effective relationships” appear regularly.

There is obviously some tension between this and the notion of student confidentiality. It seems that what follows from this is that guidance officers need to work out in their particular situation what the constraints on their capacity to “maintain confidentiality” are when advised of matters by students. What follows from that of course is that when giving assurances to students about confidentiality, guidance officers should not overstate the extent to which they can do so. We do not underestimate the difficulties that may face guidance officers in this situation, but they need to be aware that the context in which they work has significant implications for what they can say to students.

Of course mandatory reporting in respect of sexual and other abuse alone will override any concepts of maintaining confidentiality.

Guidance officers need to deal individually or perhaps even collectively through their association in negotiating an appropriate resolution of the tension between two admirable objectives, namely participation as members of a team and respecting the wishes of students (to the extent that that is possible) for confidentiality. We hope that this was helpful as a “consciousness raiser”.

Andrew Knott

Queensland Teachers' Journal, 30 August 2013, Vol 118 No 6, p31