Teenagers face tremendous pressures as they grow up, in the form of the traditional pressures we all faced adapting to adulthood and exams and the modern day pressure of social media. One of the resources children traditionally had at school was guidance counselling. Mental health issues, self-harm and suicide attempts have all increased in recent years. Guidance counselling was introduced in schools around 1966, a signal time in second level education in this country, and it was made a legal requirement in the Education Act 1998. Guidance counsellors provided appropriate guidance and support to students at second level and since that time the relationship has been mutually beneficial, meaningful and, above all, confidential.
The previous Government made a decision to cut and cull guidance counselling in the infamous budget of 2012. This was a wrong and poorly thought-out decision which led in practice to a reduction of some 51% in the amount of guidance available. What is worse, it hit disadvantaged students and disadvantaged schools even more. In the confidence and supply agreement that Fianna Fáil entered into with Fine Gael we put this as a priority and we wanted the restoration of guidance counselling on an ex-quota basis. We saw the deficit and felt that it needed to be addressed. I had a meeting with the Minister about this and my colleague, Deputy Dara Calleary, had a meeting with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. My party leader also spoke to the Taoiseach about it because there has been a marked reluctance to deal with the issue, despite the fact that it was agreed between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the confidence and supply agreement.
This week, the Department has issued a number of circulars relating to teaching posts, including provision relating to guidance counselling, but there is no provision for ex-quota guidance counselling. That has come as a shock to people in the profession but it has also come as a considerable shock to my party, in light of the high priority we have put on this and the number of communications we have had since we agreed this in the confidence and supply agreement. There is no attempt in the circulars to ring-fence guidance counselling and they simply reiterate the position of the 2012 circular that, "Schools should consider how best to align the resource allocation with the objectives of the guidance plan." There is no requirement for a guidance counsellor to be ex-quota. Can the Minister clarify these latest circulars? Will guidance counsellors be employed on an ex-quota basis or will schools be entitled to have an à la carte approach to guidance counselling, contrary to what was agreed in the confidence and supply agreement between these two parties?