School guidance counsellors say they're stretched too far

Guidance counsellors are calling for a set ratio of pupils to counsellors in New Zealand secondary schools, with the idea getting the apparent backing of Social Development and Youth Affairs Minister Paula Bennett.

New Zealand Association of Counsellors schools representative Sarah Maindonald drew applause from an audience of more than 200 people at a Palmerston North conference yesterday when she questioned whether the minister recognised the need to have fewer pupils per counsellor.

Mrs Bennett responded that it was a discussion that needed to be had.

Frontline services such as Child, Youth and Family were "stretched too far".

"I certainly acknowledge it and I will take it back to the [education] minister. I do think you have a strong case and I am happy to take up that argument for you," she told the counsellors.

The Education Act requires that schools offer guidance and counselling. For funding purposes, staff are regarded as fulltime equivalent teachers and the decision of how many to employ rests with schools.

A report published as part of secondary teachers' pay negotiations for 2011 to 2013 found that as New Zealand school sizes increased, the pupil-to-counsellor ratio widened.

A 2004 Post Primary Teachers' Association survey reported some New Zealand schools offered one counsellor for more than 2000 students.

In April this year the Government announced a review of the guidance system as part of a youth mental health project. The review covers the use of funds, the role of guidance staff in schools, and the standards and accountability required of those staff.

School counsellors hoped to be included in policy discussions, Ms Maindonald said.

"School counsellors are saying that they are quite invisible . . . we are doing frontline work which hasn't really been visible or acknowledged." Mrs Bennett agreed the confidential nature of school counsellors' work meant their role often went unsung.

"At some point we have to have the support for a concerted and co-ordinated investment for those children and young people who are at most serious risk."

Manawatu Standard