The Scottish government has pledged a counsellor for every secondary school by next year but it holds no information on how many counsellors are currently working in schools and has yet to put a plan in place to monitor progress towards its goal, Tes Scotland can reveal.
In a freedom of information (FOI) request, Tes Scotland asked the Scottish government a series of questions about progress towards its target of placing 350 counsellors in schools by September 2020, but it transpired that it had not established the baseline from which it was working and was yet to decide how it was going to keep track of progress.
The Scottish government said it was in discussions with local authority body Cosla regarding “monitoring and reporting requirements of local authorities” and that it did not hold information on the number of counsellors in schools because individual councils were responsible for recruitment.
Background: Scotland aims for counselling in every secondary
The government was unable to say how many counsellors had been recruited to date or how many local authorities would have counselling services up and running in their secondaries when the new school year started in August.
Mental health: counsellors in schools
However, in the Programme for Government published earlier this month, the Scottish government said: “This academic year sees the first tranche of new school counsellors starting work to support our children and young people in their communities, with all in place by next September.”
When asked if the pledge – which is set to cost the government £12 million this year rising to £16 million per year thereafter – would mean a full-time counsellor working in every secondary, the Scottish government said that “access to counselling services” would be available in every secondary to pupils aged over 10.
A local authority head of education, who did not wish to be named, told Tes Scotland that there was confusion in councils over what was meant by counselling and who would be deemed sufficiently qualified to deliver it.
Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said the Tes Scotland freedom of information request revealed that the government did not have “a clear delivery plan for its commitment to have a counsellor in every secondary school”.
She added: “It is very worrying that there is confusion over the definition of counsellor and therefore uncertainty as to how many counsellors are already employed and how many more will be required.
“Given the importance of mental health in schools, the SNP must address these issues as a matter of urgency.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray described the response to the Tes Scotland FOI as “woeful” and accused the Scottish government of wanting a good soundbite for the first minister to deliver but not being serious about delivering the support “young people desperately need”.
“This is a woeful response from Scottish ministers,” said Mr Gray. “With thousands of young people waiting many months for CAHMS [child and adolescent mental health services] appointments, or being rejected altogether, the need for frontline counselling is urgent.
"To hear from the government that they do not know how many counsellors there are, how many there will be, when they will be recruited or even what constitutes a professional counsellor is simply pathetic.”
The Scottish government said it had agreed a set of aims and principles with Cosla, and that these would provide “a framework on which local authorities can develop and design access to a school counselling service”.
These state that the counselling should be delivered by qualified counsellors registered with an appropriate registration body and that the counselling services should be available to secondary school pupils primarily and in other schools for pupils aged 10 and over.
The principles also state there should be “availability of counselling services during school holidays, to ensure continued support to vulnerable young people”.
A Scottish government spokeswoman added: “We have clearly demonstrated our commitment to support the mental wellbeing of children and young people in this and last year’s Programme for Government, which set out a package of measures to ensure they get the support that they need, including access to counsellors in every secondary school in Scotland.
“We have been working in partnership with local authorities to ensure delivery of the school counsellors commitment and have agreed a set of aims and principles to implement the service. This includes an agreed definition of counselling by qualified counsellors registered with an appropriate registration body."
The spokeswoman added: “We know that schools and education authorities are already utilising existing funding to provide mental wellbeing services for children and young people, including the provision of counsellors. Our aim is to build on and enhance this existing work and provide schools with additional capacity to support pupils and flexibility to meets local needs and circumstances.”