In April 2012, the Government announced measures to improve the mental health of young people aged 12 to 19 years with, or at risk of, mild to moderate mental health problems. These initiatives comprise the Prime Minister’s Youth Mental Health Project.

One of the initiatives agreed to by the Government included a national evaluation of the current provision of guidance and counselling in schools.

The evaluation focused on the wider guidance and counselling provision in schools, of which guidance counsellors are a part. The Education Review Office (ERO) evaluated how well each school/wharekura provided guidance and counselling for students.

This report presents the findings from phase two of a two-phase evaluation. The phase one report, based on the findings from surveys of school leaders, guidance counsellors and students was released in July 2013.[1] This second phase included visits to 49 school/wharekura in Terms 2 and 3, 2013, and a survey of 671 students at these schools.

Key findings

ERO found that the schools and wharekura were providing guidance and counselling for students who presented with many different problems. These problems were apparent in all types, deciles and locations of schools. The major problems facing schools in terms of student wellbeing arose from household poverty, poor mental health, family dysfunction, bullying, relationships, and drugs and alcohol.

As well as addressing these problems through their guidance and counselling provision, schools also worked with a variety of external agencies. In schools with good guidance and counselling provision, relationships with some external agencies were well developed. However, almost all schools in this evaluation identified challenges in working with external agencies. These challenges were mostly related to students and families feeling there was a stigma with accessing support, and the more complex referral pathways to already overwhelmed services.

How well did schools provide guidance and counselling?

ERO found that in 30 of the 49 schools/wharekura, the guidance and counselling provision was serving students well, with 14 of these schools/wharekura doing this very well. In the remaining 19 schools/wharekura, the provision of guidance and counselling was not as effective. In three of these schools and one wharekura, ERO was concerned about the lack of guidance and counselling support for students.

In the group of schools/wharekura where students were very well supported, it was the strong ethos of care and shared understanding about the approach to guidance and counselling that underpinned provision. The features of guidance and counselling provision in these schools/wharekura included:

  • strong leadership
  • strategic resourcing of people, time and space
  • people with the professional capacity to help students manage their problems or refer them to expert help
  • clear expectations around practice
  • good relationships and communication both internal and external to the school/wharekura.

What needed to improve?

In all the schools in this evaluation, there were growing numbers of students seeking help and the severity of their needs was increasingly complex. ERO had concerns about the capacity of guidance and counselling staff to effectively manage an increasing workload and address the complex nature of some of these problems. This was apparent even in the schools where students were well served but it became more of a concern as the quality of a school’s guidance and counselling lessened.

In some of the schools and wharekura, ERO identified issues related to a lack of strategic direction for guidance and counselling through relevant planning, policies and procedures. Issues associated with resourcing of time, people and space impacted negatively on guidance and counselling provision.

In the schools where there was a lack of an integrated approach to, and shared understanding about, guidance and counselling students were not well served. In some schools, ERO found that professional practice was compromised by a lack of professional learning and development and appropriate appraisal. Poor relationships and communications, both within the school and with the community and external agencies, also contributed to the poor quality provision of guidance and counselling for students.

Many schools undertook little or no self review of their guidance and counselling provision. Subsequently, school leaders and trustees did not know if their guidance and counselling provision, including preventative programmes targeted at particular groups of students, was meeting the needs of their students.

What did students say?

Overall, students were positive about guidance and counselling in their school and most had someone they could talk to for support. Many students commented that guidance counsellors were able to help them and provided practical and useful advice and guidance. Over two‑thirds of students surveyed said it was socially acceptable at their school to see someone about guidance and counselling, but commented that assurances about confidentiality and privacy, and ease of access made it easier to seek help.

The findings from the student survey showed students were most likely to seek help first from a parent or caregiver, and then from a guidance counsellor. Deans or friends/other students were the next most likely. Over half of students said they were not asked to give feedback about guidance and counselling at their school.

The survey findings support what ERO found in schools and wharekura regarding the need for a variety of appropriate people in guidance and counselling roles for students to approach, and improved self review of guidance and counselling provision.

Valuing guidance and counselling provision

ERO found that in many of the schools and wharekura that provided guidance and counselling very well or well, school leaders placed high value on guidance and counselling and its importance for student wellbeing and student learning. This ‘value’ was reflected in strategic resourcing decisions which ensured that guidance and counselling provision matched identified needs. Consideration was given to non‑classroom contact time, management units, a diversity of roles in the guidance and counselling provision, communication protocols, and appropriate physical spaces within the school. In some schools/wharekura this strategic resourcing went over and above that provided through the Guidance Staffing Entitlement.[2]

Not all schools placed such a high value on guidance and counselling. In some schools, the Guidance Staffing Entitlement was not additionally resourced through other sources of funding. There was little or no recognition of the impact of guidance and counselling on student wellbeing and student learning. Subsequently, in the schools where provision was the poorest, there was a lack of accountability about the use of the Guidance Staffing Entitlement.

Generally, it was not the amount of Guidance Staffing Entitlement which schools received that determined the effectiveness of their provision. Rather it was the priority given to ensuring students were well served through the strategic decision-making processes about how the funding available was used with other resources that supported the approach taken. ERO is concerned that the formulas being used to calculate the Guidance Staffing Entitlement create anomalies that impact on the level of provision for students. For example, the maximum Guidance Staffing Entitlement of 2.3 FTTEs (full time teaching equivalents) applied equally to schools in this sample that had roll sizes ranging from small (215 students) to very large (1948 students).[3] ERO’s findings highlight issues in some schools, particularly those with large or very large rolls, where guidance and counselling staff were dealing with high caseload levels.

Guidance and counselling – beyond the school

Guidance and counselling staff in schools and wharekura are faced with increasing complex problems that students bring with them to school. Often these problems originate outside the school and relate to wider issues in society. ERO found that in many schools and wharekura in this sample, the guidance and counselling staff had the professional capacity to either resolve these problems or refer students to external help. However, in some schools, staff were not supported by strong leadership, strategic resourcing and robust systems within their school. Almost all schools stated they were not always well supported by external agencies.

In relation to student wellbeing and youth mental health, schools and wharekura are important sites of implementation and transformation. However, ultimately schools operate within a wider network of educational, community and external supports. The improved wellbeing of students, in particular their mental health, requires a coordinated response across the education, health and social sectors.