Primary students to access counselling through school for first time

Kate Nicol-Williams
Source: 1News

From next year, primary schools will have access to Government-funded counselling for the first time.

It’s part of a $75.8 million dollar announcement from Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin, delivering on a New Zealand First coalition agreement policy for primary schools to have access to counsellors.

“It's probably been about 18 years that I have been working on, having conversations about the crisis of anxiety inside our schools and it happening to younger and younger children so to be able to make the announcement that the Government is not only going to increase the number of counsellors inside of secondary schools but actually fund access for primary school children to counselling services, it sort of closes a big loop for me,” Ms Martin said.

Community organisations will receive $44 million over four years in contracts to provide counselling to primary and secondary schools.

"Local counselling organisations will deliver these services, starting in 2021, to schools in areas most affected by the economic downturn from Covid-19," a press release about the announcement states.

A spokesperson for the Associate Education Minister said which schools will be able to access the support, and how, is still being determined.

Ms Martin said secondary schools with more than 450 students have been underfunded for counselling, with an overall increase in $31.8 million in guidance staffing entitlements for these schools over four years hoped to ease workload pressure.

High schools will be able to use the funding to hire an additional counsellor for two days a week with this increase.

“This is the first time that the Government has acknowledged the need for counselling access for children and students in school,” New Zealand Association of Counsellors president Christine Macfarlane said.

“Counsellors working in schools, the counsellors working out of schools with children, have been feeling desperate and unheard and tired … overwhelmed and so this is going to give them some hope … I think they’ll also be saying we need more, this is just the beginning… but I think it will really give them a sense of being validated.”

Ms Macfarlane said the association is still calling for the Government to implement its recommended ratio of one counsellor to 400 secondary students, but says the increase for large schools is “a start.”

She said she’s hopeful the association can have input into how the contracted counselling for both school age groups will work.

“Covid has affected everyone across the country so that’s really hard to say the people who are most affected by it, that isn’t really a valid statement I don’t think in terms of access to counselling for young people … we have to be careful that we’re getting the rural and the urban and culturally appropriate counselling that’s going to be beneficial in a kaupapa Māori and Pasifika, whanau-focused for young children.”

Snells Beach School Principal Kathryn Ramel said she’s really happy and optimistic about the news, and that “a major need” has been addressed.

“Counselling is a gap of support we’ve rarely had access to in the primary schools for a long time and I think if we can help to address some of the issues that we’re seeing in our schools then hopefully that will stop them developing into bigger problems later,” Ms Ramel said.

“The plan is obviously there, now it will be obviously interesting to see what the implementation looks like and I’d like to see schools have a say in that,” she said.

Last year, 1 NEWS revealed waitlists of up to eight weeks for low-risk secondary school students to access counselling.

Earlier this year, a study jointly funded by the Ministry of Education and Association of Counsellors found counselling significantly improved students’ wellbeing regardless of gender and ethnicity.

The average staffing level from schools surveyed was one counsellor to every 668 students and the study reported the workforce was struggling with increased demand.

Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said the counselling boost was an opportunity to build evidence for further change for counselling, if the demand is there, and dependent on which parties are in Government after the election.

Ms Martin said a conversation needed to be had about why a school counsellor can only access higher pay if they are a trained teacher.

“If counselling is a profession in its own right, a highly qualified individual with a skillset that is needed for students, why do they need to be trained and qualified teachers? At this stage we haven’t moved on that, we just increased where we can to take some of the weight off,” she said.

In 2017, the guidance staffing allowance became $69 million, but school boards of trustees are responsible for using the fund in the way they see appropriate.

The funding announcement is the first significant increase since a guidance staffing full-time teaching equivalent role was added to eligible schools total staff funding in 2001.