Removing guidance counselling in schools was a dangerous education cut

 

Minister for State at the Department of Health Kathleen Lynch, suggested recently society has a collective duty to foster a culture where young people don’t hesitate to seek help when needed. She said fundamental solutions lie in effective partnerships between professionals.

On RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland she said we have among the highest incidence in Europe of self-harm and suicide. She suggested specialist nurses in A&E departments might be a way to combat self-harm among young people.

I almost wept with frustration as I listened to her words. In a Frontline debate on RTÉ One, it was pointed out to her that when a young person arrives in A&E they have been failed by those responsible for their care. As a guidance counsellor working with young people in classrooms and one-to-one, I have more than 20 years of professional experience of dealing with teenagers tentatively bringing up personal issues that are causing them distress.

The underlying causes vary: family conflict or breakdown, economic and financial crisis at home, relationship issues, and their own or a family member’s drug or alcohol addiction. Most cases are dealt with over a number of sessions in the guidance counsellor’s office, with child protection or potential self-harm cases referred to the appropriate external agency.

In the 2011 budget Lynch’s Labour colleague, the Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn, abolished ex-quota guidance counsellors in schools and colleges of further education. When she was asked how she could justify removing this support from young people she said hard choices had to be made. Faced with a choice between classroom teaching and the guidance counselling service, classroom teaching won. Having said that on television, how can she come on radio now and ask for ideas on how to provide supports for young people, to combat self-harm and suicide?

She is fully aware the most effective supports for children are in schools, where they spend the majority of their lives until 18 or 19 years-old, and not in A&E departments. Quinn will point out schools still have a responsibility to provide students with appropriate guidance the 1998 Education Act, but as it is now a whole-school responsibility it is up to every teacher to guide and support students. The Minister himself famously said that the caretaker or cleaner could be just as effective in the role as a professionally trained guidance counsellor. Pathways out of poverty A number of recent studies – by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors; the Department of Education and Skills through its guidance agency, the National Centre for Guidance in Education, and the Teachers Union of Ireland – into the effects of the removal of ex-quota guidance counselling support in schools have all come up with similar findings.

In well-off communities there has been virtually no loss of service. In these schools, fees and parental contributions ensure students get all of the support they require in their personal lives, and in securing a college place through the CAO, thus joining their parents in the professions.

Where that additional parental financial support is not available, guidance counsellors have reverted to classroom teachers and the students must make do without professional guidance support.

Most crucially, one-to-one personal interactions between guidance counsellors and students have decreased by 59 per cent, which has removed a vital support for students in personal difficulty. This loss of support is reflected in increasing behavioural difficulties in some schools, and in the number of self-harm incidents.

By removing guidance counselling, Quinn has in one move managed to entrench privilege, dismantle pathways out of poverty for those with potential to break through glass ceilings, and endangered the mental health and well-being of vulnerable children. His retort in the Dáil to questioning by opposition spokespersons on this issue is, “It’s all now the responsibility of local school management.”

Do all children not deserve a basic national standard of guidance counselling service, irrespective of the views of local school management? Quinn must give guidance counsellors the opportunity to get back to work, supporting the personal, educational and vocational development of every child in our schools and colleges. They deserve no less. Brian Mooney is guidance counsellor at Oatlands College, Dublin

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