Are we are doing enough to ensure the wellbeing of students at all levels in our schools? ANNIE GRAHAM-RILEY reports. 

There are not only calls for a lower ratio of counsellors to students in secondary schools, but also calls for counsellors in primary schools to address what has been described as a “crisis of anxiety”. The question now is whether the latest government policy, a $100 million social investment package, alongside the new Risk Index targeted funding model, will deliver on promises to alleviate the problems currently being experienced across Aotearoa.

The Youth Suicide report, issued by the Government in July, acknowledged a large increase in youth suicide rates in New Zealand. Youth suicide rates totalled 238 for the two years from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2016. This formal data refers to the 12–24-years age range and doesn’t specify the numbers of those affected in attendance of primary and secondary schools. However, Aotea College head of wellbeing Nicole Macquet agrees that many of the issues faced by our young people today can be directly linked to suicide and suicidal idealisations.

“There has been a significant spike in mental health for young people in secondary schools, with serious and imminent concerns around safety. There are a large amount of issues directly related to mental health and I would say the amount of students who think about suicide is increasing,” said Macquet.

Suicide, anxiety, and other mental health concerns such as anorexia, self harm and OCD are being brought to the forefront by an increasing emphasis on student wellbeing in schools.

The NZCER 2016 National Survey of Primary and Intermediate Schools highlighted a serious issue pertaining to wellbeing in the aforementioned parts of our education sector. Findings suggested that more strategic attention and action is needed by policy makers, government agencies and in schools.

Macquet again agreed with this sentiment, but stated that funding can be a problem and that many of the solutions to these problems are somewhat out of the hands of those on the ground.

“Counsellors (are) grossly understaffed in schools. The recommendation by NZAC, PPTA and ERO is a ratio of 300:1 but it’s hardly ever anywhere near that. Some of the solutions for this problem sit at a level that we can’t influence,” she said.

Whilst counsellors are present in secondary schools, it is teachers who, despite a lack of professional mental health training, are helping to identify and deal with such issues.

This problem is also occurring in primary schools, where funding for counsellors is not provided by the government. Instead, primary schools deemed worthy under the decile system are supported by Social Workers in Schools (SWiS), who are then supported by the Ministry of Vulnerable Children, Oranga Tamariki (MVCOT) and Child and Adolescent and Family mental health service (CAFS).

Primary school teachers often become the student’s first port-of-call for students struggling with issues. Pam McCann, service manager for Family Works Hawke’s Bay says that the nature of referrals from schools are now far more complex than they were in previous years and that the range of needs has also increased.

“We see children with mental health issues such as anxiety, selective mutism, depression, stress, grief. We see children traumatised by their home environments and particularly where family violence is normalised,” said McCann.

Dealing with these issues has become challenging for local SWiS programmes, who are finding it difficult to meet the ever-increasing demand.

“We cannot keep up with the demand. More and more of our children are experiencing harm in huge numbers – from serious harm to less serious harm. We have to prioritise our work on the basis of who is most seriously at risk.”

McCann is calling for guidance counsellors to be present in the primary sector to help alleviate the “burgeoning” demand being placed upon SWiS workers.

“Guidance counsellors working alongside school-based social workers would provide extra resource for children. As an organisation we have a team of three counsellors who are overwhelmed by demand to be working with children. Guidance counsellors working collaboratively with SWiS is a great idea in this region because we do not have enough counsellors in the NGO sector to meet the needs of children and their whānau.”

While McCann acknowledges that some of these issues are caused at home and pertain to the children’s experiences outside of school, there is also evidence to suggest that National Standards may be contributing to the crisis.

NZEI Te Riu Roa president Lynda Stuart describes the situation as appalling.

“National Standards are putting kids under enormous pressure, leading to high levels of anxiety. We are talking about, in some cases, very small children here. It is not acceptable. Principals and teachers are increasingly worried. Parents tell us that their children are telling them that they are failures. The system is broken. School should be a place of creativity that fosters a love of learning.”

The Government currently encourages schools to implement PB4L (Positive Behaviour for Learning) as a method to encourage resilience and alleviate issues deemed to be within the control of the school, such as behavioural issues and bullying. However, for more significant issues funding for the SWiS is currently only available in targeted low decile primary and intermediate schools (decile 1–5).

Concerns over the impact of the Risk Index targeted funding model, and its impact on the allocation of funding, were commented on by Minister of Education Nikki Kaye, who said she wasn’t able to predict the outcomes of the new model but promised that no school would be negatively impacted.

“No school, early learning service or ngā kōhanga reo will see a reduction in their funding as a direct result of this change. In fact, we expect some will gain significantly.”

Minister Kaye also reiterated that programmes targeted through decile, such as Nurses in Schools and Social Workers in Schools, “continue to reach those schools and services where the need is greatest”.

In addition to this sentiment, Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support, promised that the new $100 million dollar mental health package, released on 14 August, would deliver on promises to alleviate some of the mental health issues in schools.

She said it included an $11 million dollar pilot providing mental health specialists to selected Communities of Learning l Kāhui Ako to support the early identification of potential mental health issues, coordinate on-location access to mental health care so that students have fast, easy access to the support they need, and facilitate access to specialist services when a more specific and/or severe mental health need has been identified.

The package promises to reorient the current approach of mental health and begin to focus more on early intervention and building the resilience of school-aged children and young people.

In the meantime, Nicole Macquet encouraged teachers, support staff and mental health professionals to empower students and work alongside them to find solutions. Aotea College has championed this approach to create their “Wellbeing Bubble”, which emphasises the importance of creating partnerships between students and staff, with a focus on building resilience and teaching prosocial skills.

Macquet encourages educators to tap into student voice at all ages, to be asking curious and respectful questions such as “Help me understand?” and “Tell me more?” to find out what it’s like for them and then to co-construct the support they need.

“It’s about schools in New Zealand saying ‘where can we help each other?’ We need to be tapping into each other’s expertise and lend support.”


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