School Counselling – What do the Political Parties offer?

By Dr Marilyn McGowan, Centre Manager in Poole

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In 2004, Margaret Hodge, Labour MP for Barking, made school counselling a political issue when she said that she hoped counselling would one day “be delivered in mainstream settings, like schools”, and added that “counselling for pupils and students who are having emotional difficulties both inside and outside school can be a lifeline, a turning-point in their lives”.

Twenty years later, as we approach a National Election, where are we?

With an increasing rate of mental health problems in young people (about 1 in 5 children and young people aged 8 to 25 years with a probable mental disorder1), there are claims that school counselling is now the most prevalent form of mental health support for young people in the UK, so we would expect it to feature strongly in election campaigns.

Yet the only national political group to mention school counselling is the Green Party. In the televised political debate on 13th June, Carla Denyer asked others to join the Green party in pledging their support for school counselling. The Green Party’s manifesto suggests that they will provide a trained and paid counsellor in every primary and secondary school, and every sixth-form college. They also address an area, which is seldom highlighted, related to the prohibitive cost of training as a counsellor, offering bursaries to train school counsellors from underrepresented backgrounds. Encouraging, but given the odds against the Green Party seizing political power we could be forgiven for wondering how possible these promises might be.

So, what of those parties with more power, those most likely to have the greatest influence in the coming years?

Here we have to watch out, not for rising inflation but, for confusing conflation.

The alignment of school counselling with mental health creates a conflation of the school counsellor with mental health practitioners which has resulted in most of the other parties failing to address the role of school counsellors. The promise of a mental health professional in every school does not necessarily mean a school counsellor.

The current Conservative Government bypassed many well-trained counsellors to create a new profession, that of Mental Health Practitioners in Education. Funded by the NHS, they were offered free training and are now placed in schools. The Conservatives intend to expand coverage of these mental health support teams from 50 to 100 per cent of schools and colleges in England by 2030. They do not address the issue of what is being called “the missing middle”, school counsellors who can address issues at a more advanced level from the mental health practitioners and who can prevent problems escalating to mental health services. The Conservative’s other offer is to increase the new mental health hubs for young people, community-based services which, however important, may take mental health funding away from the schools.

Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time in July 2023, Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Education Secretary, confirmed Labour’s plan to provide school counselling in England if they win the next General Election saying “We want a trained mental health counsellor available in every secondary school.” The use of the word ‘counsellor’ is encouraging but the actual manifesto does not follow this through, preferring the term specialist mental health professionals in schools. Labour, like the Conservatives, favour the initiative of mental health hubs and are also offering to recruit 8,500 specially trained staff across CAMHS and NHS talk therapies to treat adults and children2. This medicalised model of mental health is not the same as school counselling.

Similarly, Liberal Democrats are committed not to school counselling but to a dedicated, qualified mental health professional in every primary and secondary school3 which they would fund by increasing taxes on social media giants and companies like Amazon and Google4.

The new Reform Party does not really address the issue, choosing instead to talk of increasing Pupil Referral Units so that schools ‘can function safely’ with what seems like an added postscript that ‘disruptive children must also get support.’ 5

Remember, the devil is in the detail!

BACP has been working with Citizens UK, an activist organisation to convince politicians of the need for statutory funding for school counselling in England, as already exists in Scotland, England and Wales. Even with this commitment from the other regions, establishing more than cursory access to counselling in schools can be difficult and funding streams often dry up. However, BACP and Citizens UK have commissioned Public First to research a socioeconomic impact assessment on the case for school counselling. Some of the statistics are undeniably convincing but let’s hope the parties in waiting read them:

Key findings from Public First Report6

  • Access to appropriate treatment and support for young people with mental health problems is insufficient: Less than half of those with a probable mental health condition are accessing Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS).
  • Just 48% of teachers in England report that their schools offer on-site counselling.
  • Ensuring universal access to counselling for young people in England could yield significant fiscal benefits in the form of increased tax revenues, reduced benefits spending and reduced pressure on government services including schools, the justice system and the NHS.
  • Universal access to counselling among young people in England would generate lifetime fiscal benefits to the government of £1.9 billion, against an annual cost of about £250 million; In other words, the gains to the Exchequer are about eight times greater than the cost of ensuring universal access to counselling in schools.
  • Per young person receiving counselling, we estimate lifetime fiscal benefits to the government of about £2,640 against a cost of provision of £350.
  • In terms of access to counselling for primary school-age children, fiscal benefits are ten times greater than the cost of provision.

Join Us on 4th July, Election Night, to hear more about Counselling in Primary Schools
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1. Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2023 - wave 4 follow up to the 2017 survey






Written June 2024

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