Contradictory policy messages by government about student welfare and support – January brought the publication of two significant policy documents by the Department of Education and Skills and Department of Health, both of which seek to increase the level of support available for young people in our schools.
Well Being in Post-Primary Schools: Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention is a response to strong evidence of growing incidences of poor mental health and self-harm among young people and an increase in youth suicide. In Ireland the cost of poor mental health was estimated to be 2% of GNP (€3bn) in 2006. An investigation by Headstrong (National Centre for Youth Mental Health) found that every town and community has a small number of young people living on the edge and many young people are unable to cope with the problems they face (2009). International research shows that mental health promotion is most effective when it takes place early in life and school is a favourable location to start support programmes and initiatives. Therefore, guidelines to support practice in schools are welcome. Correctly, the good work already being done in schools (SPHE, Guidance, Pastoral Care, other initiatives) is highlighted. However, the guidelines seek to bring greater coherence to current practices and emphasise a stronger focus on a whole-school approach and co-ordinated links with out- of- school services (health, youth, community).
The second report Action Plan on Bullying is also a comprehensive document and lays the foundation for training for parents and boards of managements, the identification and provision of appropriate professional development for teachers, a public awareness campaign and a national anti-bullying website.
Bullying is a social phenomenon and a multi-faceted approach, involving local communities, the family, social and health services and schools, is necessary. Explicit acknowledgement that schools already have anti-bullying measures in place and that they can only shoulder some of the responsibility for taking actions that prevent or counteract bullying is, therefore, welcome. However, as can be expected, school is seen as a place that has a strong influence on students’ attitudes and behaviour. In this context, efforts to increase capacity in schools, families and society to avert or address bullying merit serious consideration. Immediate development of new anti-bullying procedures for schools is being given high priority and the Department has already invited the teacher unions to participate in a working group that will prepare draft new procedures for consultation.
The publication of these two policy documents can be taken as a demonstration of a laudable and welcome government commitment to the welfare of students and young people. Such effort would, however, be more impressive and instil greater confidence in teachers and principals if it did not lie alongside contradictory policy decisions; decisions that have seen schools lose teachers, guidance and counselling support and middle management posts on an on-going basis since 2008. Teachers and principals live with the consequences of poorly, thought out and disconnected policy decisions each day and it is difficult to imagine how the coherent approach advocated will emerge. They understand the negative impact the education cutbacks have had on the state of ‘health’ of their school. The critical point is that the reduction in teacher numbers and management posts and diminished access to the expertise of guidance counsellors restricts how schools can support young people in developing the personal attitudes, skills and competences to cope with day-to-day adolescence life and prepare for adulthood.
A TUI study (2012), conducted by an independent company Behaviour and Attitudes gathered extensive data on the impact of the budget cuts on schools and students. In a sample of 88 schools close to a quarter (22%) reported that the level of pastoral care had been reduced by September 2012 and 19% reported reductions in guidance provision. Following the decision to withdraw provision for ex-quota posts many more schools reported expected reductions in these critical areas from September 2012 – 63% reporting expected reductions in guidance provision and 50% in pastoral care services. The allocation of a year head (from the reduced pool of senior posts) to each year group, seen by many as the key to strong pastoral care systems, is now a luxury in most schools. 70% of all respondents in the study (283) ranked the resulting negative impact on support and welfare services to students as high but management felt they had little choice.
A recent small, localised study across 12 schools on the east coast paints the reality that arises from the removal of ex-quota provision for guidance. Half of the schools involved had reduced discrete provision for guidance and counselling by 50% or over and one third had reduced it by over 60% (the highest reduction was 85%). Just one quarter of the schools surveyed had retained discrete provision for guidance at over 80% of the original allocation. At the time of the study one school indicated it no longer had a guidance counsellor. Feedback also flagged that some guidance provision was now general in nature and delivered by non-specialist teachers or guest speakers.
Additional data and commentary from personnel in these schools showed that within the discrete time allocated to guidance work, many guidance counsellors are now expected to concentrate on delivering guidance to whole class groups. These trends have also been identified by a recent independent national study (LifeCare Psychological Services) in 240 second level schools which found that the amount of time guidance counsellors are spending on timetabled class room activity has increased by 19.8% which can include curriculum guidance, subject teaching, SPHE and other activities.
Both studies emphasised that provision for one-to-one support sessions as the biggest casualty of the removal of ex-quota guidance posts. The LifeCare Psychological Services study found a 51.4% reduction in the time available for one-to-one student counselling with guidance counsellors struggling to fit this in around timetabled and other commitments. The highly specialised expertise of the guidance counsellor and the ‘necessary confidential space’ are, therefore, no longer readily available to students who need individualised, high support to deal with personal issues and/or career advice. Individual sessions are by necessity restricted, often reserved for the extreme case that presents after a student has already endured significant personal distress or trauma. Notably, some guidance counsellors are not facilitated in attending their personal supervision sessions; an essential to ensure best practice. In addition, the guidance counsellor can no longer assign time to core planning or co-ordination activities that support other staff with less specialist expertise in working with students.
These trends clearly conflict with the whole-school strategy advocated. Both sets of guidelines recognise that someone has to have core responsibility and a small number of staff should have lead roles in order that effective responses are planned, co-ordinated and delivered. Critically, there is repeated reference to guidance, counselling, pastoral care services and care teams as core supports in identifying needs, planning, intervening, monitoring and review.
Diminished school capacity
Yet school capacity in all these areas has diminished, challenging even the most imaginative of schools in terms of how it will prioritise the implementation of any new guidelines and procedures. What seems to have escaped the policy makers is that guidance counsellors have additional professional expertise that is critical to the development and continuity of strong care and support systems in schools. If, as has been reported, they are restricted in the time available or in how they use their time they will not be able to deploy this expertise in a manner that will best suit the needs of the whole-school community and individual students.
While the procedures and guidelines to address bullying are under review the guidelines for mental health promotion and suicide prevention are agreed and clearly articulate a continuum of support with three levels
- ‘Support for All’ – universal support for all students
- ‘Support for Some’ – targeted support for the mild or transient needs of some
- ‘Support for a Few’- intensive, individualised support for more complex and/or enduring needs.
It is difficult to see any compatibility between government guidelines that clearly expect more time and attention to be given to student welfare and the plight of schools in a resource stripped environment with many competing priorities. In such an environment it is not surprising that schools are expressing considerable concern that most students will be not receive the general support they deserve, the short-term targeted support required by some will be inadequate and restricted and, most importantly, those that need intensive interventions will be short changed by the system as too little support will come too late. Failure in this regard will have negative consequences for the current generation of young people, which as identified in national and international reports will simply mean cost the state more in the long term.