Breda O’Brien: Cuts in the number of Guidance counsellors hit the poor hardest

Richard Bruton’s plan sounds like fudge that will not translate into what young people need

‘My biggest fear is that due to a lack of time I will not be able to help a child in need.’ That comment, made by a guidance counsellor, is quoted in Liam Harkin’s summary of his doctoral thesis on the impact since 2012 of cutbacks in guidance counselling.

What emerges from his work, as the Institute of Guidance Counsellors audit of current practice also highlighted this week, is a portrait of inequality. The same guidance counsellor went on to say: "In my junior classes there seems to be a wave of self-harm happening among students. I am concerned that due to time in the classroom I cannot see these children."

The words “a wave of self-harm” would alarm any parent, as they indicate how large a part contagion now plays in all sorts of mental-health issues. Self-harm, for example, once relatively rare, is now part of the menu of responses to stress.

This is due at least in part to the pervasiveness of social media, which is full of examples of extremely unhealthy coping mechanisms, often in a way which glamorises them.


Like many other guidance counsellors after the 2012 cutbacks, the teacher who referred to this wave is back in the classroom teaching an academic subject.

Obviously, that reduces the time he or she can spend on the needs of the students, but as other respondents to Dr Harkin’s survey point out, there are additional difficulties, too.

Another teacher put it this way: “It’s always a conflict of interest, because you are trying to be a disciplinarian in the classroom and then you are trying to be a counsellor five minutes later, maybe after disciplining a student in the classroom, so it’s a total conflict.”

The roles of an academic subject teacher and a guidance counsellor are very different, and trying to move from one role to another very rapidly is causing some guidance counsellors to burn out.

Guidance counsellors are central to any care team in a school. Unlike subject teachers they are not as bound to the tyranny of the bell that tolls every 40 minutes, so they can take time to be with students when they are needed.

However, that is impossible if you are timetabled for geography or English and you are trying to squeeze in appointments between classes.

Watching the clock

Of course, that is not true of every school. Rosemary, who works in an urban, all-girls, fee-paying school, talks about not needing to watch the clock, because “If they needed a little bit more time I gave it and if they needed to come back again that was fine.”

Contrast that with the experience of Violet, teaching in a rural Education and Training Boards community college designated as disadvantaged.

Speaking of her workload, she says: “It’s a bottomless pit. It’s really a case of prioritising. You’re firefighting. You just do what you can.”

Preventive work gets lost, so problems escalate that could have been sorted out at a much earlier stage.

While most schools experienced a large drop in guidance hours, the hours allocated in fee-paying schools went up slightly. That’s because fee-paying schools can afford to absorb the costs. Predictably, the privileged become even more privileged.

Nine schools in the Free Education Scheme sector have no guidance counselling whatsoever, not even by non-qualified people, while 63 other schools reported using unqualified people.

That means that in some schools there is no one professionally trained to take the heat out of a crisis, or to provide supportive space for a young person who, for example, has just been bereaved. Other teachers and management will help, and schools lucky enough to have chaplains have been calling on them more and more.

Career guidance is very important, but it is the loss of one-to-one counselling time that is really felt by students. Again, that loss is not felt equally by all. Parents who are better off are less dependent on school-based services in the first place, because they can afford and access supports outside of schools.


So why did fee-paying schools not reduce their guidance hours? As one guidance counsellor put it, these parents believe that because they are paying for a service they are entitled to the best service possible.

Meanwhile, the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged widens. Cutting guidance counselling hours was disgustingly short-sighted, and inevitably inflicted maximum damage on those already at the bottom of the pile.

The programme for government pledges to "enhance" guidance counselling, whatever that means. Minister for Education Richard Bruton will, according to a departmental spokesman, aim to provide "a whole-school approach to guidance counselling, including group work, class-based activities and other activities which focus on providing the best possible outcomes for students rather than exclusively using one type of activity".

That sounds alarmingly like a fudge, something that will look good on paper but will not translate into the focused support young people increasingly need.

At a time when mental health distress of all kinds is on the rise, and family supports are weaker due to parental stress and family breakdown, an immediate reversal of these cuts is a clear priority.