No method in madness behind school guidance cuts

Thu, Feb 16, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:The Minister for Education is distracted and preoccupied with numeracy and literacy rates at the expense of mental health, writes EILEEN COLLINS

THE DECISION by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn to cut guidance and counselling services in second-level schools reminds me of Van Morrison’s lyrics, “no guru, no method, no teacher”.

Quinn is, in his own words, “out of practice”, or as Van puts it, “no guru”. It is frustrating that Quinn, along with others who admit to being out of practice, are the ones making such vital “policy” – aka “cost-cutting” – decisions.

We all remember our “awful” career guidance teacher. We all have a story to tell. But there are a lot of students out there with a different kind of story to tell, and they are not the ones who are going to put their hands up and say: “she understands my sadness”; “she listens”; “it’s okay to talk to an adult”; “he sat with me after school until my social worker collected me”; “my guidance counsellor helped get me a referral to Pieta House”.

Parents and guardians do not think of their sons or daughters being in such situations. But I beg every one of them at least to consider the outcomes of their child being in that situation and not able to talk or ask for help.

I understand some of the responses: “Didn’t we turn out all right, and we had no counselling?” Young people today live in a culture of choices. When they come home, they can do homework, have dinner, go on their iPhones, Facebook, Skype, watch TV and go out all before their parents arrive home from work. The lucky ones, that is, who have a home to go to.

Sadly, there is “no method” or integrated intergovernmental departmental planning, in policy-speak, to the Minister’s actions. The Department of Education and Skills has responsibility for children. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs most obviously does too. And in the Department of Health, particularly the area of mental health, children are at its epicentre of care.

The decision to remove ex-quota guidance counselling provision is in direct conflict with Goal 3 of the National Children’s Strategy 2000-2010, encompassed in the latest strategy Towards 2016, which states “children will receive quality supports and services to promote all aspects of their development”.

Youth is the peak period of incidence for mental health problems. Currently in Ireland, it is where supports and services are most lacking. Where do children spend most of their time? And where have these services been withdrawn?

Quinn’s decision also runs counter to the programme for government commitment to improve mental health by investing €35 million annually.

The cuts are particularly frustrating given that studies undertaken by economists on behalf of the National Guidance Forum and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that guidance contributes significant returns to the economy and, at a minimum, pays for itself. Studies by the Economic and Social Research Institute and Forfás both agree that not less but more time needs to be given to guidance in schools.

Unfortunately, the Minister for Education is distracted and preoccupied with numeracy and literacy rates at the expense of mental health and wellbeing. Previously, the preoccupation was information technology at the expense of numeracy and literacy.

Do we have to wait until our young people are at the bottom of a European table of a different kind before a plan is put in place? Perhaps the one that depicts Ireland as having the fifth highest rate of youth suicide (age 14-24) in the EU, with 90 per cent of suicides linked to mental health difficulties.

Why not look to other countries now? In the Finnish school system, guidance counsellors work as part of a whole-school and community team in the area of primary mental health prevention. In the area of secondary prevention, guidance counsellors offer support through counselling but are also essential referral agents to school psychologists.

The National Suicide Prevention Strategy, Reach Out, due to be rolled out under the programme for government, acknowledges “the role schools can play in the promotion of positive mental health”. Indeed, one of the objectives it sets in schools “is to promote positive mental health, develop counselling services and put standard crisis protocols in place”.

The strategy firstly proposes an audit of guidance counselling services in schools. By the time this audit is carried out, guidance and counselling in schools will have been decimated because teachers will have no incentive to train as guidance counsellors. The result is that postgraduate courses will not run (already happening next year), and there will be a shortage as counsellors retire.

This, despite the Minister stating that every school should have a qualified guidance counsellor, and the requirement of Section 9c of the Education Act that every student is entitled to “appropriate guidance”.

So the Health Service Executive will undoubtedly spend unnecessary money on rebuilding such services.

The Government gives too much priority to the role of primary care in its mental health reform programme. It is a strategy that lacks mental health illness prevention in terms of education and gate-keeping. Although the proposal to develop community mental health teams is to be welcomed, this is typical of a service-led response to a crisis.

Guidance counsellors are rigorously trained professionals in the area of mental health. Instead of decimating this service, why not, for want of a better word, “exploit it” and invest in it before it is lost.

This role cannot be replicated by assistant principals or by the already overburdened principal who, according to the Minister, is a “responsible individual” who will make the right choice to save subjects, increase class sizes or cut guidance counselling. Unfortunately, he/she will be “responsible” in terms of litigation when wrongful career advice is given, or when the school fails to report cases under new child protection guidelines, as the Minister has now abdicated his responsibility of what “appropriate guidance” is.

I’m not offering up guidance counsellors as the solution to all our young people’s mental health problems. At the current ratio of one counsellor to 500 students, we are working under pressurised conditions – but we must remember before it is too late that vital work is being done.


Eileen Collins is a guidance counsellor in west Cork

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