Thousands of primary pupils to have access to in-school counselling

Move follows concern over rising levels of anxiety and mental health problems

Thousands of primary pupils across seven counties will have access to in-school counselling on a trial basis following concern over rising levels of anxiety and mental health problems.

Minister for Education Norma Foley said she hoped to extend the initiative across all primary schools if it proves to be successful.

She said a combination of factors such as the impact of Covid-19 and early access to social media are likely to be contributing to anxiety rates.

The first phase of the pilot will involve the roll-out of one-to-one counselling sessions for all primary schools in counties Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Monaghan and Tipperary with a Department of Education-approved counsellor.


Parents and relevant school staff will be part of the intervention with the child and will be guided and encouraged to support the child at home and at school.

Ms Foley said officials estimate that 4,000-4,500 children are likely to avail of counselling services as part of the pilot.

Officials said the counties were selected, partially, on the basis of availability of counsellors.

“Wellbeing is at the very heart of all that we do in the education system,” Ms Foley said. “Developing and promoting wellbeing is essential to allowing children to learn and grow to the very best of their abilities. This new pilot project aims to support, enhance and nurture wellbeing in our primary schools with two new support models.”

The €5 million initiative will begin in September for the 2023/24 school year.

Ms Foley said her department will work closely with the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive throughout the pilot and will continue to explore ways to improve supports for young people, including around increased awareness, promoting help-seeking behaviour and signposting to the wide range of available services.

Details of a second strand to the pilot will be announced in the coming weeks and will focus on building up the capacity of schools to address the mental health needs of students.

This is expected to include training for staff – overseen by the National Educational Psychological Service – who could provide support for vulnerable pupils.

The move comes as research indicates there has been a sharp increase in mental health issues and anxiety levels among pupils.

The HSE’s child and adolescent mental health services reported a 40 per cent increase in the number of children waiting to be seen by their services last year, while ESRI research indicates a significant rise in rates of mental health problems and depression among young people.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said teachers have witnessed first-hand the adverse effects of mental ill-health and poor emotional wellbeing on pupils, while lengthy waiting lists for specialist services have compounded these challenges.

INTO general secretary John Boyle said on-site counselling, aligned with international best practices, was an essential component of a comprehensive mental health support system.

“Having qualified counsellors available within schools will ensure timely and accessible assistance for children in need. By implementing this pilot program, we can provide vital mental health services directly to students, enabling them to receive the support they require in a familiar and nurturing environment,” he said.

Prof Paul Downes, director of DCU’s Educational Disadvantage Centre, who played a key role in campaigning for in-school counselling, said schools were reporting huge levels of need for one-to-one counselling supports.

“It is important that specific counsellors are embedded in no more than one to two schools per counsellor to ensure trust, continuity and relationship building rather than simply being rotated on a panel,” he said.

“Today’s announcement, with a further additional strand to be announced soon, is a notable milestone in the development of what will hopefully become a fundamental and indispensable feature of the Irish education system for current and future generations.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent