‘Why aren’t pupils getting counselling in schools?’

24th August 2018 at 00:00
Amid fears of a mental health crisis, Scotland’s ‘patchy’ support service is revealed. Henry Hepburn reports

The “huge” disparity in school-based counselling services around Scotland has been laid bare by a Tes Scotland survey, prompting calls for urgent change.

While some councils are committed to providing specialist counselling in schools to help pupils with mental health and other difficulties, others provide few such services – if any – and are sceptical about their value.

We asked all 32 local authorities whether any pupils in their area had access to trained counsellors in school, whether there were any plans to grow this type of service locally, and whether a call to Parliament for access to trained counsellors in all schools by 2022 was feasible.

Of the 29 councils that responded, some were embracing the idea of counsellors in schools. In North Ayrshire, six full-time counsellors were employed from August 2017 to work across all nine secondaries, with another three joining them later. Glasgow, meanwhile, has specialist counsellors working in every secondary and 13 primaries.

East Lothian, however, sees “limited evidence that trained counsellors will make an impact”. Midlothian, like a number of authorities with little or no specialist counselling, points to its educational psychologists: the council says that they can work on “universal” approaches as well as “targeted intervention for specific individuals”, whereas “counsellors can deliver for the individual only”.

There are no plans to introduce trained counsellors in Falkirk schools, where so-called “listening services” are deemed more appropriate; while Highland says that the third-sector counselling services it uses probably could not provide equal support across the vast and largely rural authority.

Another looming issue is that, even where school-based counselling exists, it often relies on the Pupil Equity Fund (PEF) – which is not guaranteed to be available after 2021.

'The situation is urgent'

SAMH (the Scottish Association for Mental Health) is campaigning for counselling to be available in all secondary schools by 2020 because, says external affairs director Jo Anderson, “the situation is urgent, it’s not getting better, and it’s got to change”.

She adds: “In Northern Ireland, children in every secondary school have had access to counselling since 2007.

“Indeed, Scotland is now the only country in the UK that doesn’t have a clear strategy on school-based counselling. Why are Scotland’s young people missing out?”

Stella Gibson, chief executive of Scottish counselling organisation The Spark, says that school counselling is “very patchy across Scotland” but that schools’ PEF money has led to a “significant increase” in demand for The Spark’s service.

She adds, however, that even where this goes well, a school will stop the service if it means being able to increase its teaching staff. She wants to see dedicated funding for counselling and investment in training.

“If the Scottish government decided tomorrow that all schools should have a counsellor, there wouldn’t be enough trained counsellors available to deliver the service,” says Gibson.

Jonathan Wood, national manager in Scotland for children’s mental health and counselling charity Place2Be, cautions that, while providing counselling in every school in Scotland would be a good move, this alone “is not enough to promote positive mental health across a school community”. Place2Be favours a “whole-school” approach in which school staff improve their skills.

“Teachers are often ill-prepared for the challenges that distressed children can bring to the classroom,” says Wood.

Euan Duncan, a professional officer at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association and former guidance teacher, says his union is “deeply concerned about how young people’s mental health is being supported”, adding that they face “simply unacceptable” long waits for the right treatment.

Pupils in distress often turn to teachers, says Duncan, and “guidance staff are doing their best to plug the gaps, but few are trained counsellors and they don’t have sufficient time to provide this kind of support in addition to their many other duties”.

The government says the first action resulting from its Mental Health Strategy, published in 2017, was to commit to a national review of counselling services in schools, although the findings have yet to appear. A spokesman says local authorities and schools should support pupils’ wellbeing based on local circumstances and needs, adding: “Some will provide access to school-based counselling. Others will utilise the skills of pastoral care staff and liaise with educational psychological services and health services for specialist support when needed.”

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