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Rise in school absenteeism: ‘Some stay up too late on their phones until 3 or 4am’

Guidance counsellors say anxiety issues and bad habits mean more students are not attending classes

Theresa Burke, a guidance counsellor with 20 years of experience, says attendance rates were always good at the all-boys secondary school where she teaches. Like many other schools, however, more challenging trends are emerging.

Of the 680 students at Coláiste Choilm Tullamore, between 60 to 80 used to be absent on any given day before the pandemic. Nowadays, anywhere from 110 to 120 students are not in school.

“Why? It’s bad habits, lack of sleep. Some stay up too late on their phone – some tell me it could be 3 or 4am – and they’re too tired in the morning. A parent might not be around in the morning to get them up, and they worry if they’re late there might be a punishment,” she says.

Mental health issues and anxiety are another factor, she says. Where a pupil has social anxiety, she says, they may turn up in the car with their parent at the school gates, but feel they can’t go inside.


“I’ve noticed lately that more and more of the students I meet are struggling with their relationship with themselves. It manifests in things like anxiety, low self-esteem and lack of self-belief. All these things are very visible in a school environment,” she says.

School absenteeism is on the rise across many schools with principals reporting that boys, especially in the years leading up to the Junior Cycle, are especially vulnerable.

Latest figures collected by Tusla, the child and family agency, show “unexplained” school absences have quadrupled, indicating that thousands of young people are missing out on an education.

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), a national organisation with approximately 1,500 members in schools and other education settings, says its most recent second level survey found that, for the first time, more members were supporting learners with mental health issues than with career guidance issues.

Yet, teenage pupils have lost out on vital school counselling services following Budget spending cuts in 2012, which resulted in fewer hours being allocated to guidance across many schools.

The IGC says this lack of ring-fenced school hours for one-to-one appointments means there is now unequal access to guidance counselling in second level schools and colleges of further education” at a time when demand for support is rising.

Against this backdrop, the IGC has launched a new strategic plan which aims to push for greater professional recognition and ensure the needs of all students are met.

The institute wants a restoration of hours in schools for guidance counsellors to provide the required services for students, in consultation with school management. It says it is not sufficient to allocate “whole school” guidance counselling hours for principals to use as they wish.

“Our members report this as a serious limitation on their ability to serve all the students in our care with the highest possible professional service,” the new strategy states. “It also contributes to the significant inequality of service provision to students around the country.”

The Department of Education says that in the current school system, there are almost 930 guidance counselling posts allocated to our schools at a cost of almost €70 million.

Minister for Education Norma Foley has said her department has committed considerable resources towards the restoration of guidance counselling hours to post-primary schools, to the provision of continuous professional development and a national guidance counselling supervision service in recent times.

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Theresa Burke, meanwhile, says she feels lucky that she has a supportive principal and management team. However, in order to cope with demand, the school employs two private psychotherapists who visit the school each week, paid out of funds raised by the board of management.

“There is, and always has been, an insufficient allocation of guidance resources from the Department of Education to address the needs of students in the area of personal counselling.” she says. “Demand in this area has grown significantly and continues to grow year-on-year, but then so too has the demand and time needed for career related appointments.”

She says more resources are needed in schools that provide a familiar setting to support students, without any stigma.

“Students know who we are, they know our faces, they know what to expect when they come to talk to us. Unfortunately, more and more of my students apologise for asking for my time as they realise just how stretched things are. That is sad,” she says.

For all the stress of the job, she says she feels privileged to be able to make a difference to students. She keeps a file of thank-you notes as reminder of the life-changing impact of guidance.

“You have helped me unconditionally and selflessly during my time here, going above and beyond,” says one note.

“I just really want to thank you again for helping me get through everything two years ago,” reads another. “If it wasn’t for you, I really would not be alive right now and I’m so grateful for the help you gave me.”

Students in schools place huge trust in guidance counsellors with their stories, Burke says.

“They trust us to help. They trust us to act in their best interests. That is a massive privilege and every guidance counsellor I know works immensely hard to live up to the responsibility within the privilege.”