Principal's urgent plea for more trained counsellors to help high school students

Source: 1News

A central North Island principal has made an urgent plea to the Government, saying more trained counsellors need to be in secondary schools.

"It is no exaggeration to say that our youngsters are dying because of the lack of targeted funding for trained counsellors in secondary schools," Morrinsville College principal John Inger said in a letter to Education Minister Chris Hipkins.

A survey of 16 schools in the central North Island and Bay of Plenty created by Mr Inger showed some counsellors couldn’t see students for several weeks after they made an appointment and some reported an unsustainable workload.

“Our kids are taking their lives because of the pressures on them and we cannot respond in our schools because of the lack of resourcing in terms of guidance counselling provision,” Mr Inger said.

"An old model of funding (once again) dictating to the new world our students live in. In general the guidance team work beyond allocated hours. Professional supervision is done in their own time," one staff member commented in the survey.

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Morrinsville College counsellor Vicki Tahau-Sweet said she works overtime every day and still doesn’t have enough time to see students.

Ms Tahau-Sweet said she would like to see students within one to three days of an appointment being made, but the reality is getting seen can take up to eight weeks, for low-risk students.

“You walk away carrying the knowledge there are kids that you haven’t seen, there are ones you haven’t seen enough and to be honest, I’m sort of waiting for something to go wrong, sort of the worst to actually happen,” she told 1 NEWS.

Morrinsville College student Lucas Sargison said the wait times can negatively impact students seeking support.

"It can make you feel devalued and a bit discouraged, like ‘Oh, I’m not important enough to be seen," he said.

Ms Tahau Sweet said students are facing more hardship and pressure, leading to increased demand for counselling.

“Now it’s more high-crisis stuff, more stuff around suicide and anxiety, depression and things like that.”

Morrinsville College principal John Inger is calling for the Government to fund trained counsellors under a ratio of one staff member per 300 students and to create a separate pay scale for qualified counsellors that aren’t teachers.

“We can have guidance counselling experts with masters degrees that get paid absolute peanuts because they don’t fit under the teachers’ collective agreement,” he said.

In a letter, Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Mr Inger that the Ministry of Education is reviewing the effectiveness of counselling for secondary school students with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors.

NZAC guidance counsellor spokesperson Jean Andrews welcomes Government initiatives on mental health including rolling out nurses to more low decile schools, but said counsellors have a unique and important role for young people.

“We would say that we actually need to have the fence at the top of the cliff, that we should be helping these young people long before they get to the stage that anxiety and depression and other mental health issues are impacting on their life…”

“What we'd like Chris Hipkins to do is listen to the voice of our young people, young people are saying they want help where they need it and that’s in schools, they shouldn’t have to be very ill before they get help,” Ms Andrews said.

The Association is advocating for a funding ratio of one qualified counsellor per 400 secondary school students.

Ministry of Education’s Coralanne Child said in a statement that the review on school counselling effectiveness would be received by the Ministry by the end of the year, and is expected to be published early next year.

In 2017, the guidance staffing allowance became $69 million, which is the equivalent of around 875 full time roles, but school boards of trustees are responsible for using the fund in the way they see appropriate.

"As of 22 October 2019, 267 staff roles were primarily designated as ‘guidance counsellor’, ‘guidance counsellor trainee’ or 'career advisor' across 184 schools," Ms Child said in the statement.