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Axing school counselling had drastic negative impact, says principal

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Axing school counselling had drastic negative impact, says principal

  • By Robbie Meredith
  • BBC News NI education correspondent

Image source,Getty Images

Scrapping counselling for primary school pupils has had “a drastic negative impact,” according to a school principal.

Michael O’Kane of St Mary’s Glenview Primary School in Maghera was speaking after a major evaluation of the Healthy Happy Minds scheme was published.

There is no other funded primary school counselling programme in place.

The Department of Education (DE) and Education Authority (EA) do provide a counselling service for post-primary schools.

What was Healthy Happy Minds?

The Healthy Happy Minds scheme was introduced by the Department of Education in November 2021.

It provided primary schools with funding to pay for mental health support and counselling for pupils and other kinds of therapies.

Support included art and music therapy, play therapy and equine therapy.

However, an independent review into Happy Healthy Minds commissioned by DE found that over 630 schools, over three-quarters of primary and special schools, took part in the scheme.

Its findings are based on the views of schools, counsellors, parents and monitoring data.

It added that in many areas demand for the scheme had exceeded supply.

What else does the independent evaluation say?

Image source,Getty Images

Image caption,

Over 15,000 counselling and therapy sessions took place in the first year of the scheme from November 2021 until October 2022.

It said funding the scheme had cost the department just over £6m.

While there were some problems in providing counselling and qualified therapists in rural areas, schools were overwhelmingly positive about Healthy Happy Minds.

Over 15,000 counselling and therapy sessions took place in the first year of the scheme from November 2021 until October 2022.

Over a third of children who got counselling through the scheme presented with mental health issues.

Other issues children sought counselling for included bereavement, anxiety, self-esteem, anger management and suicide.

Over 200 child protection issues were identified or referrals made as a result of the scheme.

Eighty five percent of schools who took part in the review said they would be unable to provide counselling without the funding.

The review said Healthy Happy Minds “did largely achieve the objectives and outcomes it sought to”.

It concluded the scheme “represented good value for money” and “achieved most objectives”.

What does a principal think?

Image source,Michael O’Kane

Image caption,

School principal Michael O’Kane said Healthy Happy Minds was an ‘excellent early intervention’

Michael O’Kane is the principal of St Mary’s Glenview Primary School in Maghera. He had previously been the principal of St Colmcille’s Primary in Claudy while Healthy Happy Minds was running.

“It gave children the opportunity to develop positive relationships with other children, adults and professionals outside of the formal school setting,” he told BBC News NI.

“We used it primarily for equine therapy and the children engaged in activities that they would not have been able to do in school.

“The cut in counselling has made a drastic negative impact in schools I feel,” he added.

Mr O’Kane said it was an “excellent early intervention” for children going through trauma or showing signs of poor mental health.

“It was a great way to counteract that at an early stage – we had access to play therapists who were very effective at getting the children to open up and share their worries.”

Mr O’Kane said being unable to access counselling for children at his school due to cuts has had a “detrimental effect” on children in need and it is a “very high priority” for the children at his school.

“For me to be able to address those needs for the children I’m going to have to take money from other pots that are extremely important or else do fundraising to be able to do it,” he added.

Mr O’Kane believes if there was extra money available, most principals would use it for counselling.

What is the Education Minister’s view?

In a statement accompanying the publication of the evaluation, Paul Givan said that “looking after the emotional health and wellbeing of our children is a key priority”.

“The benefits of early intervention in the right place and by the right people, are widely accepted to improve outcomes for children and young people.”

Mr Givan also said that he would consider the evaluation of the Healthy Happy Minds scheme in the review.

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