Fee-paying schools miss worst of cuts to counselling

Less serious impact of cuts on fee-charging schools put down to ‘parent power’

 Betty McLaughlin, school guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire in Mullingar, Co Westmeath and PRO for the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, discusses third- level options with students. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Betty McLaughlin, school guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire in Mullingar, Co Westmeath and PRO for the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, discusses third- level options with students. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

Fee-paying secondary schools have been able to insulate themselves from the worst effects of cuts in guidance counselling services introduced three years ago, new research suggests.

A survey of 271 schools conducted for a doctoral study at St Patrick’s College, DCU found that guidance counsellors were spending less time as a whole on one-to-on advice and support.

They believed students’ rights were being undermined “by a loss of care and by a forced crisis intervention approach to counselling in schools”.

The negative impact was detected as greatest in schools under the Free-Education Scheme (FES) as they didn’t have the extra sources of finance and funding available to fee-charging schools.

Some 69 per cent of respondents within FES schools reported a decrease in guidance hours in 2012/13 compared with 44 per cent in fee-charging schools.

As well as having extra resources, the difference was explained by the impact of “parent power” on decision-making around guidance services, and the importance placed on such services by both the school management and parents in fee-charging schools.

Counselling cuts

Liam HarkinCarndonagh Community School

Among the trends identified by respondents was that quieter, more vulnerable students were losing out; less serious cases were being ignored; and mental health concerns were not being addressed.

As one guidance counsellor put it: “There is still the same amount of need among our students, but less time to facilitate them. As a result, we have no time to create preventative relationships with our younger students and issues are escalating before we can address them.”

This effect was perceived by guidance counsellors as less severe in fee-paying schools, in part because they tended to use the service more for career advice than counselling.

Independent support

“They also have the resources, both the social resources and the financial resources to do that, and therefore they are not as dependent on the counselling skills within the school.”

Eighteen of 55 fee-charging schools responded to the survey. A similar proportion responded from the FES sector.

Aside from the survey, Dr Harkin interviewed a small sample of guidance counsellors. A majority of those from FES schools reported reductions in their guidance hours. In contrast, those from fee-charging schools either had their guidance hours increased or kept the same.

The allocation of guidance counselling changed in the 2012 budget, as a cost-saving measure. The former system of ex-quota posts was abolished and schools had to find guidance hours within their standard teacher allocation, leaving counsellors to juggle classroom time with student appointments.

Dr Harkin recommends the introduction of “a system of checks and balances”, including formal audits and inspections of guidance allocations in schools, to ensure equality of provision.

He also says the Department of Education and Skills should reverse the cutbacks, or failing that review them from an equity perspective.

“While guidance as a whole was impacted by the cutbacks, it was very clear that the counselling aspect of the service was diluted most,” he said.

“This impact was experienced particularly by those students who were vulnerable, those who needed transition supports, and those with mental health concerns.”