The Minister for Education has announced a €5 million pilot scheme that will offer free counselling to children in all primary schools across seven counties.
Norma Foley said it would provide a service that was “long overdue” in schools and aim to address rising anxiety among young children – caused by multiple factors including the Covid-19 pandemic.
Under the pilot, counselling and mental health supports will be offered for free in all primary schools in counties Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Monaghan and Tipperary from September this year.
Children can have up to eight free one-to-one counselling sessions in the next academic year in an effort to prevent their difficulties escalating.
The counties were chosen to take part in the pilot based on the availability of counsellors in the area.
Parents and school staff will be part of the process and will be guided and encouraged to support their child at home and at school.
The Department of Education said that all primary schools involved in the pilot would receive further information next week, which will include information for parents.
Ms Foley said that they estimate between 4,000-4,500 students will avail of the services in the pilot project.
“I think that’s important because the greater the bandwidth, the greater the learning,” she said, saying that they would look to learn about what exact supports students would need.
She said that the direct provision of counselling supports from a panel of qualified experts represented a “significant undertaking” and “a good step forward” towards the goal of rolling it out nationally.
“We recognise that Covid has impacted on our young people but even prior to that, I think we’ve always been conscious of students who, for whatever reason, might disengage from schools, might be reluctant to attend school, have heightened anxiety or whatever the case might be,” she said.
“So this is an opportunity to meet it face to face on the ground and provide additional support both for the families concerned and also for the schools to support these students going forward.”
She said the pilot would not interfere with the work of the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS), but rather “enhance it”.
Asked what is causing anxiety among young people, Ms Foley said that she believed it was a combination of factors including the Covid pandemic and use of social media.
She added: “Covid has heightened – not just among our young people – Covid has heightened anxiety right across society: we see it in the young members of society, we also see it in older members of society, that’s I suppose the reality we’ve had to live through
“I absolutely would say social media. I think we’re very conscious of the world of social media – the access that young people have to it. And we’re very clear ourselves in terms of the new strategies we have in schools.”
“Mobile phones can be potent,” she said, adding that they needed to be “proactive” to address it.
A second strand will involve a cluster of schools coming together and will focus on building capacity within schools, with more information to be released on this in the coming weeks.