Guidance counselling cuts hit religious-run schools hard

Students at religious-owned schools that do not charge fees have lost out most from cuts to guidance counselling, according to research.

The changes to how second-level schools are staffed since 2012 mean no guarantee of dedicated hours for career guidance or counselling support. The effective increase in pupil-teacher ratios removed the provision of a full-time guidance counsellor for every 500 students, meaning some schools put holders of those jobs back teaching curricular subjects.

Liam Harkin surveyed 273 guidance counsellors for PhD research at St Patrick’s College in Dublin about the impact on their work during the first year of the changes.

A key finding was that 44% of those working in fee-charging schools had their guidance counselling hours reduced, compared to more than two thirds at schools in the free education scheme.

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Within the free system, the highest numbers who returned to class teaching were in the voluntary secondary sector, which represent about half of second-level schools and are mostly run by or on behalf of religious orders. Mr Harkin said possible reasons include lower department grants given to these schools, and the greater flexibility for schools run by education and training boards to share posts or organise timetables.

“Voluntary secondary principals may have been under more pressure to keep certain academic subjects than principals in other school types, and the sector received less funding for special educational needs than others,” he said.

Previous survey outcomes on the topic have included an Institute of Guidance Counsellors finding that counsellors at one in five schools were not timetabled entirely for teaching.

Mr Harkin is a guidance counsellor at Carndonagh Community School in Co Donegal. He found the career guidance aspect of counsellors’ work suffered most in the free sector, but many still struggled to provide the required pastoral supports to students.

“I have never come across so many students in distress on the corridors as this year. There is a sense of crisis,” one respondent wrote. “Huge cyber issues, little sense of prevention. Big problems which should have been dealt with early.”

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