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22 July 2015

IGC Response to ERSI research on student wellbeing and school experiences

Wellbeing and School Experiences among 9- and 13-Year-Olds:
Insights from the Growing Up in Ireland Study

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC) President, Betty McLaughlin, welcomes the opportunity to comment on yet another piece of excellent research from Emer Smyth “Wellbeing and School Experiences among 9- and 13-Year-Olds”, adding to the wealth of research on education in Ireland to-date from the Economic Research & Social Institute (ERSI). 

This research is particularly welcome as it focuses specifically on children’s wellbeing from their own perspective – behaviour, academic self-image, anxiety, self-reported popularity, body image and happiness.  In addition, it analyses the individual, classroom and school factors which shape these aspects of self-image at 9 and 13 years of age, highlighting implications for educational policy at primary and post-primary level.  Unlike previous research which has focused on family influences on child self-image, this study focuses on the potential impact of school and classroom experiences.  

Academic achievement appears to have a stronger influence on self-image than either school or class, but with better outcomes in larger schools; and academic self-image at 13 is significantly related to self-image at the age of nine.   However, girls appear to be more sensitive to school and classroom contexts than boys; and are more self-critical when taught in multi-grade (split) classes (usually smaller schools) where girls appear to make negative evaluations of themselves in relation to (older) peers.     

Students social relationships with teachers and peers have emerged as important protective factors in fostering positive self-image; and students who dislike their teacher, dislike their school and have experienced bullying have poorer outcomes.  This has major implication for these students as previous research by Emer Smyth (2010; 2011) has found that negative interaction with teachers is strongly predictive of early school leaving, educational aspirations, and grades at Junior and Leaving Certificate levels.  

Overall, what is extremely interesting is that schools and classrooms can make a difference, with children in the same class group having different experiences of school and reacting to it in different ways.  Emer Smyth has found that a child’s self-image is not as strongly influenced by social background factors as other factors, such as educational achievement. In contrast to children from professional and managerial backgrounds, children from homes that are the most disadvantaged in terms of financial and educational resources have the worst outcomes in terms of behaviour, happiness and anxiety.  For 9 year olds, having a special educational need (SEN) generates more negative self-image; and the gap in academic self-image between young people with and without SEN has grown over time.  Of concern is that children from immigrant families are more negative about themselves across all of the dimensions of self-image, though less than for those children with SEN.  

It is this diversity that poses the challenge for school principals in addressing both teaching practice and guidance counselling support for children with differing self-images, as well as abilities.  This highlights the importance of engaging with students, managing the transition from primary to second level, and providing support and feedback in ways that minimise the potentially negative effects on students’ self-image and wellbeing.

Wellbeing is a core principle of the new Junior Cycle curriculum and is defined as “children being confident, happy and healthy” (NCCA, 2009); and is seen as “contributing directly to their physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing and resilience” (DES, 2012).  “Well-being in Post Primary Schools” (DOH, 2013) acknowledges that in-school guidance is at the hub of the wheel of support offered to students – a service providing an internal referral system, coordinated by professionally qualified Guidance Counsellors.  

This excellent piece of research by Emer Smyth has further confirmed the findings by the IGC (2013, 2014), NCGE (2013, 2014), ASTI (2014) and RAI (2015) on this issue, and adds to the wealth of evidence collected to-date that the IGC’s fears that, while all students would be affected by the removal of the dedicated guidance service in 2012, the disadvantaged and vulnerable students would suffer most.  Recent research by Dr. Liam Harkin also found that while the removal impacted negatively on the distribution of care throughout the guidance service, this reduction was not experienced equally by all school types.  The biggest difference was found between fee-paying schools and schools in the Free Education System (FES), where a diversified service model of guidance has developed, as a result of guidance being viewed differently by individual school principals.  One-to-one counselling has become a reactionary crisis intervention service; and the off-shoot of this compromised care in FES schools has resulted in guidance counsellors managing greater care demands, with less time resources, ultimately increasing the guidance counsellors own stress levels.

Over, since September 2012, guidance counselling service provision in second level education has experience cuts in the order of 24%, with a catastrophic 59% reduction in one-to-one counselling (IGC, 2013).  This equates to one in five guidance counsellors now performing as full-time teachers or 168 guidance counsellors being removed from the Guidance Counselling service in Irish schools – an unprecedented level never before witnessed in the Irish education system.  Many students do not now receive the essential supports necessary to allow them to achieve their potential and to progress their educational goals, commensurate with their aptitudes and abilities.  According to the IGC President, Betty McLaughlin, it has entrenched the privilege of those who are already privileged, and undermine the prospects of those from less advantaged backgrounds in achieving their potential.  Guidance counselling is an entitlement of all, and not a luxury for only those who can afford it.  Within our schools and colleges, Section 9C of the 1998 Education Act explicitly acknowledges this entitlement; and requires that a guidance programme be part of a school plan and identifies the central role of the professionally qualified guidance counsellor.

Education cutbacks and the withdrawal of in-school support services to students have been widespread in the Irish education system since 2009.  While all students are negatively impacted, the more vulnerable students are more disproportionately negatively impacted because there is no substitute service available.  It is the role of Government to support all children to achieve their potential, through providing a universal entitlement to guidance counselling support.  

That is why in its pre-budget submission to the Minister for Education and Skills the IGC has as one of its recommendations “That the Minister reviews the current guidance counselling provision in schools … and services to students and schools most in need must be prioritised”.  The uneven and disjointed service provision demonstrates that the vulnerable and disadvantaged students are hurt most by the cuts.  This has major implications for stated Government commitment to reduce social and economic inequality and promote social inclusion.  The IGC believes that it is only when access to appropriate guidance is established as a basic human right that all that students can fulfil their personal, educational and vocational potential.  

Betty McLaughlin
Institute of Guidance Counsellors