It is 90 pages long, was three years in the making, and is seen by the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (NZAC) as a ‘cornerstone document’ to aid schools with their pastoral care provisions. Yet school counsellors say that the new guidelines for student wellbeing in secondary schools should have received more promotion from the Ministry of Education.

There is also anger that, despite the current mental health crisis among school students, the 1:400 counsellor/pupil ratio, which the NZAC describes as a “fair workload”, was left out of the guidelines.

The need for better resourcing is getting to a crisis stage, with many counsellors considering leaving the profession, says NZAC spokesperson Jean Andrews. Yet, she says, there has been little discussion on the guidelines and so far very little response from schools about them, despite the fact they were published in late November.

The document, Te Pakiaka Tangata Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success, was put together by a working group of experts from key organisations, including NZAC, NZPPTA, SPANZ and NZSPC and specialist staff from the Ministry.

The guidelines followed an ERO recommendation. In 2013, an ERO evaluation of 44 schools and five wharekura found that students were not well served by the guidance and counselling provision in 39 per cent of those places of learning.

Sarah Maindonald, a Christchurch school counsellor who was on the guidelines working group, says Te Pakiaka Tangata should provide a useful reference tool not only for counsellors but for principals, their pastoral care teams, form/whānau teachers, deans and school trustees.

The Ministry’s website Education.govt.nz says the guidelines “outline practice principles, ethics and values with the aim of more consistent provision of safe, high quality pastoral care, guidance and counselling for secondary school students.”

Each school should develop its own plan for providing pastoral care, guidance and counselling “in a way that is consistent with its culture”, it adds.

Trained counsellors have their own professional code of ethics and belong to organisations such as NZAC, but it is the first time that guidelines that are specific to working within schools, including the work of pastoral care teams, the wellbeing space and student counselling, have been produced, Maindonald says.

The Ministry of Education announced the guidelines’ launch on Twitter and articles were published on both Education.govt.nz and its companion website for parents and carers. They were also flagged up in the ‘critical need to know’ section of the Ministry’s School Leaders bulletin in December.

Meanwhile all Ministry of Education regional staff and ERO regional staff were told about the guidelines and asked to talk about it within schools, a Ministry source says.

Working party members were asked to share the new guidelines with their organisations; the NZAC, for example, has communicated them to all school counsellors.

SPANZ president Mike Williams has also highlighted them, says Onehunga High School principal Deidre Shea, who is on the SPANZ executive with the portfolio for student wellbeing.

But Andrews, a Dunedin-based school counsellor who holds the NZAC portfolio for guidance counsellors, says that a mooted promotional poster has failed to materialise, and there has been nothing in either the Education Gazette or PPTA News. “So there hasn’t been much of a reaction or much publicity.

“It could do with more promotion, definitely. We see it as a cornerstone document and it really should have been happening 15 years ago. There’s no other document that I’ve seen, working in this field for 20 years plus, that would measure up to giving some understanding to what it looks like in schools, but it’s not been well publicised.”

Shea, who was also on the working party, describes Te Pakiaka Tangata as “a great resource tool… I’ve not had a lot of feedback but certainly what there has been is that they are very useful, they were written with the intent of being useful for lots of different groups within schools.”

The new government has already made a start, using its first budget to help struggling families and expand the nurses in schools programme to include decile 4 schools, says Shea, adding that she hopes increased counselling support will be reviewed in an upcoming collective.

“The heartening thing for me is that the current government has recognised and stated that they understand that there are major challenges here so I’m confident they know of the issues.”

Education Central understands that the 1:400 counsellor/student ratio was discussed by the working party, but the Ministry left it out of the guidelines. It views it as a school-specific staffing issue rather than policy.

But Andrews says that leaving it out sidesteps the issue of what is a fair workload for counsellors, who are at breaking point.

“I’m in touch with a lot of counsellors across the country and I can honestly say that unless there is some kind of guideline and resourcing put in place for them, it’s actually reaching a level now of school counsellors wanting to down tools and resign. We are a forgotten group and the need for resourcing is getting to a crisis stage.”

It is hoped that a joint research proposal between NZAC and the Ministry of Education, which is to assess the effectiveness of counsellors in schools, will provide the conclusive evidence that counsellors need to argue their case for the 1:400 ratio.

Andrews says that the Ministry has stepped up and offered its help with the study, which will involve 20 schools across the country and is close to being finalised.

She just hopes the research doesn’t come too late as counsellors struggle on – stretched and overloaded.

Coroners, for example, are now asking school counsellors to manage the risk of all students in the school who are suicidal, on top of their regular workload of students who are often anxious, depressed, and struggling socially.

Back in 1989, prior to Tomorrow’s Schools coming in, the counsellor/student ratio was 1:400.

“There was a clear structure, and now there’s no funding over 400. So a small school of 400 to 500 gets the same funding as the school I’m in, which is 1100,” says Andrews.

“It’s just completely crazy and of course we have many more needs now than we did back in the nineties.”

“[Principals] are seeing their counsellors constantly overworked and overwhelmed and they are accountable for the management of us.

“The cry is there but no, we have not had any response and we are simply being told we have to do the research and show that we are effective. Is that fair? We haven’t got that about teachers, have we?”

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