Report on Positive Mental Health in Schools: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills entitled 'Report on Positive Mental Health in Schools', copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 12th September, 2017."

I am substituting for Deputy O'Loughlin on whose behalf I apologise to the House. She is at the international conference of ALDE, the group to which Fianna Fáil belongs in the European Parliament. I understand the Taoiseach is at his party's group conference in Europe this week also. I see that Mr. Alan Guidon, the clerk of the committee, is in attendance and I thank him for his constant help and assistance to the members. He is a tremendous asset to us. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, who is sitting in for her colleagues, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, who is also attending. My party's spokesperson on mental health, Deputy Browne, is also in the Chamber. I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills who contributed to the production of the report. The report was agreed by the joint committee at its meeting on 11 July 2017 and launched on 12 September 2017 and I have been nominated to move it in the House by the Chairman, Deputy O'Loughlin. It is a comprehensive and important report and I am delighted to have the opportunity to move its consideration in the House.

The Joint Committee on Education and Skills recognises that mental health issues are complex and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to them. We are aware, however, that schools and the interactions of teachers and students play a hugely important role in the promotion of positive mental health among young people. Early intervention is critical for mental health and the education system must equip and support children so that they can be confident and able to achieve their full potential in whatever roles they take on in their lives. Children's mental health should be placed at the heart of the education system, but more needs to be done to support students and teachers in and out of the classroom through greater integration and co-operation of schools and the wider community to promote positive mental health effectively in schools.

The evidence provided to the joint committee makes it clear that there is a particular need to ensure that additional training and support are provided to teachers in order to enable them to recognise when students need assistance and to give them the time and space to provide the help required. It also became apparent to the joint committee over the course of its proceedings that a change is required in the mindsets of all in school communities throughout the State to ensure the well-being of students and teachers is central to the education system. Indeed, we see that starting to be the case more and more in schools nationally. There has been a change in the whole mindset that schools are about teaching and imparting information in the recognition that they are also about ensuring the well-being of students and school communities generally is at the heart of everything a school does. From that, better results can be achieved.

A change is also necessary in society generally in the context of attitudes to mental health difficulties in order that everybody can seek help when necessary and without the fear of being stigmatised. It is much better to concentrate on protecting the mental well-being of teachers and students rather than to focus solely on mental illness. While mental illness is obviously very important, we are talking today about the education system and the role it plays. Each school needs a strategy to achieve a whole-school approach to mental health.

The committee is of the view that the Minister for Education and Skills must work together with the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health and older people to promote resilience. Recommendations in the committee's report include recognising and supporting the critical role of teachers in creating a culture of whole-school approaches to mental health. The committee also recommends that teachers should be allocated sufficient time, training and resources to enable them to promote positive mental health among students and that teachers and students need time and opportunities to listen to each other and to develop caring relationships.

Teachers and schools should be provided with the resources necessary to enable each student to participate fully in schools through encouraging and developing his or her particular talents and strengths. Positive measures to counteract bullying, such as the anti-bullying ambassadors project now running in a number of schools and which supports a friendly, positive and respectful culture in schools with a strong emphasis on eliminating bullying where it occurs, should be implemented.

Students need to feel connected to their community. Schools are a central way of doing that. Children and young people should be provided with the opportunity to participate and engage with both the local and school communities.

There needs to be enhanced collaboration between schools and State agencies to support students and teachers alike. The committee recommends that sufficient time and resources are allocated to ensure the promotion and support of positive mental health throughout the school community. It is recommended that the teacher training programme be revised to incorporate a module of resilience and promote positive mental health in schools.

The committee recommends a review of the current entry system, which places an emphasis on academic achievement, often resulting in additional stress on children and young people.

The committee recommends the establishment of an expert group to investigate the appropriateness, feasibility and best practice approach regarding the introduction of mindfulness in primary schools, particularly with a view to creating a standardised system if possible for all teachers.

It is important that we investigate the introduction of school-based counselling and the provision of nurses in schools, which has been recommended by the National Council for Special Education. We need to explore further training to guidance counsellors in secondary schools, which may be a cost-effective way to provide further access to counselling in schools.

It is a positive development that the well-being policy statement and framework for practice published by the Department of Education and Skills has incorporated a number of recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Education and Skills in its report. Key recommendations made in the report on a whole-school approach, the importance of listening and feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness were incorporated into the policy statement as areas to target in school well-being promotion.

I welcome the fact that the committee's report formed part of the policy statement. However, on behalf of the committee, I note the committee was disappointed it was not mentioned in the policy statement, considering the significant time and effort members put into producing what the committee and I consider an important report. The committee would appreciate, generally speaking, continued interaction along the lines it has had with the Minister and Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, in their relatively short periods in their jobs, particularly in areas where the committee has worked. That would be appreciated.

Approximately one child or young person in ten has mental health problems. Research has found that, while people can experience mental ill-health at any time throughout their lives, mental disorders tend to peak during adolescence and adulthood. These issues can manifest as depression, anxiety and conduct disorder. This is often a direct response to what is happening in young people's lives. The emotional well-being of children is just as important as their physical well-being and my colleague, Deputy Browne, has done tremendous work on a statutory basis in equalising the State's responses to mental and physical health. I thank him for that. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with difficult situations and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

The committee recognises the importance of the promotion of positive mental health in schools. It is committed to its work in continuing to progress, promote and monitor the integration of the well-being policy statement in our schools. The committee looks forward to working more closely with the Minister and his Department on this topic in the future, and on many more issues relating to the education and well-being of our children and young people. The education system does not have the answer to everything. It plays an important role but is only one part of it and it is important that when issues arise in society that are of general importance, it is not simply sufficient for the State to say the schools or the teachers will look after it. Teachers have a role, as children spend a lot of their time in schools, but their main role is to teach and for children to learn. Teachers need to play their part, alongside State agencies, the families of the children and communities.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the witnesses who appeared before the committee to assist in its consideration of this matter. They generously gave the committee the benefit of their valuable time and expertise and made a significant contribution to the report and the committee is grateful to them. The report is on the committee's website and laid before the Houses. Those who appeared before the committee and their submissions are in that report.

I commend this report to the House.

Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta O'Loughlin agus na Teachtaí éagsúla ar an gcoiste fá choinne an tuarascáil seo a chur chun cinn. Tá an díospóireacht chuimsitheach agus leathan seo tábhachtach don ghlúin seo agus don chéad ghlúin eile. I welcome and acknowledge the members of the committee and Deputy O'Loughlin and Members of this House for their ongoing interest in this and it is important to have this comprehensive and wide-ranging debate on an important matter.

I welcome this opportunity to address the House on the Joint Committee on Education and Skills report on positive mental health in schools. The topic is significant and worthy of the full consideration of this House. The matter at its core concerns the country’s most important and valuable national asset, our children, and how we support their development so that they may participate fully in society equipped with skills and competencies, experience and learning. Our schools occupy a pivotal position, second only to the family, in respect of supporting the development of our children. It is the task, and indeed the privilege, of the overall school community that such responsibility is entrusted to it. Children develop best in an environment which is caring, supportive and which caters for their individual need. While society has always exerted particular pressures on the young, in today’s age of new technology and rapid social change, a new iteration of challenges faces our children.

It is important that we notice and support the development of key skills and provide opportunities to enhance and promote their well-being and mental health within this ever evolving context in order that they thrive and flourish.

It is in this context that I welcome the input and insight of the joint committee in the report to hand. My predecessor as Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, was pleased to welcome the report, which was launched in September of last year. Indeed one of my first actions upon my appointment in this role last week was to appear before the joint committee on this important matter and, as I said last week to Deputy Thomas Byrne and to reassure him again, I am happy to ensure that ongoing engagement happens on this important topic. I thank all the committee members and its Chairman for their cordial welcome and constructive debate on well-being promotion in schools.

I gave an undertaking at that meeting to provide additional information to the committee on a number of items and I expect to be in a position to respond to the committee regarding those issues in the coming days, not in the coming weeks or months, as my officials assure me that will happen in the coming days.

In preparation for that committee session, and amid all the understandable challenges in taking up my new role, I took the opportunity to familiarise myself with the content, focus and recommendations of the report on positive mental health in schools. The work is the product of a priority in the committee’s 2017 work plan and included presentations from a number of eminent and noteworthy experts, who I also acknowledge. Upon reading the report I was struck immediately by the clear and concise observations of the joint committee in their deliberations on the matter. The report acknowledges that critical and creative thinking, processing information and working with others are absolutely essential to enable young people to navigate their way in the world and prepare them for life and not just for future employment opportunities. It recognises that the education system must support children to be confident and have the ability to achieve their full potential in whatever role they take. The mental health of children should be placed at the heart of the education system and more needs to be done to support students and teachers both inside and outside the classroom. There needs to be greater integration between the whole community and schools in order to effectively promote positive mental health in schools.

The committee concluded that mental health issues are complex and that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Furthermore, the committee noted that school and the interactions between teachers and students play a hugely important role in promoting positive mental health amongst young people. In issues regarding mental health, early intervention is considered critical. Adopting these recommendations would put the needs of both teachers and students first and allow teachers to have the resources necessary to ensure that all interactions between teachers and students are constructive and promote well-being and positive mental health within the school community as a whole.

The report also sets out some 20 recommendations in areas including support for teachers through training and resources, the need for effective anti-bullying measures, the importance of connectedness between students and their communities, the need for enhanced inter-agency collaboration and reviewing the college entry process.

I am pleased to inform this House that there is a large degree of confluence between the report’s recommendations and my Department’s existing and developing policy on well-being and mental health in our school system. Schools and centres for education are crucial to the ongoing development of our children and young people’s well-being and we are fortunate to have schools that already do much to enhance children and young people's knowledge and skills in this area.

The Department of Education and Skills has a key role to play in the promotion of the well-being of children and young people, in collaboration with the Departments of Health, and Children and Youth Affairs, and with other Departments and agencies. My Department adopts a holistic and integrated approach to supporting schools in promoting well-being and positive mental health. The process spans the curriculum in schools, whole-school ethos, quality of teaching, learning and assessment, student support and pastoral care and the provision of professional development for teachers. It also involves other supports such as educational psychological services and guidance services and the interface with other agencies, both nationally and locally.

The Department's three year action plan for education sets out a number of objectives and proposed actions specifically targeting the promotion of well-being and positive mental health in our school communities. These actions build upon and complement well-being promoting measures that are already in place. They include improved curriculum content, including the introduction of the junior cycle well-being programme; more training for teachers and school staff, including the roll-out of evidence-based programmes to promote social and emotional competence, resilience and school connectedness; the introduction of best practice models of school-based student support teams; and a significant increase in the number of National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, psychologists as part of the programme for Government commitment. I had an opportunity to meet the team in Letterkenny on Monday to see the work in which they are involved. It is a challenge for many parts of Ireland to get around the geography and the nature of schools being in different geographical locations. I am very conscious of the resourcing of NEPS psychologists. Another measure is the restoration of guidance posts.

A key objective in the 2018 action plan for education was the publication of the Department's well-being policy statement and framework for practice, which was launched in July this year, providing an overarching structure encompassing existing, ongoing and developing work in the area of well-being promotion. The well-being policy statement and framework for practice for 2018 to 2023 sets out the ambition and vision of the Department of Education and Skills that, by 2023, the promotion of well-being will be at the core of the ethos of every school and centre for education, that all schools will provide evidence-informed approaches and support, appropriate to need, to promote the well-being of their students and that Ireland will be recognised as a leader in this area.

The well-being policy statement and framework for practice describes how schools can best promote well-being. In practice, such schools are those that recognise the importance of well-being promotion, where the voices of children and young people are heard and where they experience a sense of belonging and feel safe, connected and supported. They are schools which provide children and young people with positive experiences, high quality teaching and learning and in which approaches to well-being are developed, implemented and self-evaluated. Furthermore, they are schools that can point students and their parents to internal and external pathways to support, as needed. The well-being policy statement sets out the evidence base for best practice in relation to school well-being promotion, which indicates that schools should adopt a whole-school, multi-component, preventative approach to well-being promotion that includes both universal and targeted interventions.

A whole-school approach involves all in the school community engaging in a collaborative process to improve areas of school life that impact on well-being. This will be achieved through the use of a school self-evaluation process taking well-being promotion as its focus. It will also allow schools to benchmark their practice against indicators of success and statements of effective practice and identify areas for development, implementation and review. It is envisaged that schools will engage with the statements and adapt and develop the best practice items as they meet the needs in their own school community. I am conscious, as a strong advocate for not recreating wheels, that many schools have well-being policies anyway. Many teachers, whether of physics, mathematics or physical education, are already doing the well-being work in a comprehensive way. I am conscious of that and of the many circulars that teachers have to deal with. I do not want to see this as a further bureaucratic role. We have to be practical and approach this with common sense.

A multi-component approach encourages schools to address areas not only relating to teaching and learning but also relating to other essential elements of well-being promotion including school culture and environment, policy and planning, and relationships and partnerships. Working preventatively and providing for both universal and targeted approaches is described as providing a continuum of support. Schools are encouraged to provide supports to promote the well-being of all within the school community as well as providing some targeted interventions for children and young people presenting with vulnerabilities in the area of well-being. These areas are embedded in the well-being framework for practice. It is my aim that by 2023 all schools and centres for education will have embedded this dynamic school self-evaluation process focusing on well-being promotion.

The implementation of this well-being promotion process is an ongoing process that will ensure the necessary focus of supporting children and young people in having a sense of purpose and fulfilment, and the skills necessary to deal with life's challenges. Schools will be supported in this work by a comprehensive national professional development programme, currently being developed and trialled, for which a full national roll-out will commence in 2019 and run to 2023. This will include facilitating the engagement of schools in the school evaluation for well-being promotion process which will build professional capacity. The implementation plan for this policy also sets goals to promote the well-being of teachers and to address the learning needs of current and future teachers in relation to well-being promotion. Work is underway to map the range of existing supports that schools can already access through the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, health and well-being team, the junior cycle for teachers and NEPS, with a view to ensuring that there is a comprehensive and easily-accessible set of resources to address school-identified wellbeing promotion needs. There is also a plan to develop a research-based framework for the evaluation of well-being promotion in schools. A well-being policy implementation group is in place which will co-ordinate activity with other Departments. This group will link with the pathfinder project structures when progressed. The Department collaborates in the implementation of Healthy Ireland for 2013 to 2025, the Connecting for Life strategy for 2015 to 2020 and Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures for 2014 to 2020.

The well-being policy statement and framework for practice has incorporated some of the key recommendations of this committee's report on positive mental health in schools and I thank committee members for the important work they have undertaken in this area. Key recommendations in relation to the whole-school approach, the importance of listening and of feeling a sense of belonging and connection to school are highlighted as areas to target in school well-being promotion. The implementation plan recognises the need and plans to provide for additional teacher training and the development of more resources for schools. The needs of children and young people with well-being vulnerabilities are also recognised and actions that require co-operation between the Department of Education and Skills and other Departments and agencies, including the HSE and Tusla, are included in the implementation plan. Deputy Thomas Byrne raised the issue of nurses, as he did in the committee, and I would be interested in pursuing that too. My Department will continue to work closely with other Departments and stakeholders to ensure that an aligned approach and continuum of services is provided to promote the positive mental health and well-being of all of our children and young people.

I thank Members for letting me speak on this and congratulate members of the committee on this report on an important subject, positive mental health in schools. The core principle of addressing mental health at a school level is early intervention. Early intervention is often talked about as some quite prescriptive model which needs to be implemented in a service and that is part of it but the idea that prevention is better than cure is fundamental. The principle is all the more important when it relates to children. Not only do we seek to intervene early in the development of problems but early in the entire life of the child to best avoid even some of those problems developing at all. It has never been a more stressful and confusing time to be a young person. Every year it seems children are under more pressure with regard to their academic and social life. These pressures are in many cases more heightened and constant versions of the kind of stressors my generation experienced but also new and emerging issues which we cannot yet know fully the consequences of. We need to intervene early not just to address mental ill health but to foster mental wellness.

I recently spoke to a young lady in Mayfield and asked about mental health in schools. She told me nervously but in her own words, which I will not repeat here but they were strong and I will instead give the politically correct version, that 15 minutes mental health a week was not enough in schools. She was right. Mental health should not be a 15 minute class discussion but actually woven into the entire concept of schooling and the culture and atmosphere of all schools. Everything a school does must have the mental health of its students and its staff at its centre.

Instead of being a challenge to the mental health of young people, school should be a source of strength. In both a direct and indirect way, as young people learn mathematics, English and Irish, we must teach them the foundations of resilience, mindfulness, emotional awareness, and respect for all other people in their lives. If we can create that kind of environment we are not only intervening early but building a society in which we can protect and foster mental health in our lives, communities, workplaces and everywhere else.

I welcome the green flag initiative that is getting young people to talk in schools. It is giving them a sense of ownership and pride. I commend all those involved in the programme. We are all aware of safeTALK. We must address mental well-being in the education spectrum on an age-appropriate basis. I congratulate all those involved in the report. It provides a foundation for educating young people and giving them the coping skills to deal with problems and challenges as they go through life. I commend the report and congratulate the committee members responsible for it.

I am delighted to speak on this topic which is one I feel very strongly about. It is an excellent report and I hope its recommendations will be implemented because reports sometimes end up on shelves gathering dust and I hope that does not happen with this report given the recommendations it contains.

We must take a two-pronged approach when it comes to mental health and children in schools. First, we must have the services in place for children in crisis. We all know tragedies can occur and things can be going on in people's home or family lives or they could be affected by external factors. In addition, there are stresses attached to school and children face worries and anxieties as well as bullying. I would like play therapists and counsellors to be available in schools. Many people know I am a big advocate of the school completion programme and I regularly speak about it. It should be rolled out to all schools.

I accept that much of what I am saying is very ambitious but we must start somewhere and we should be ambitious in our plans. Schools involved in the school completion programme provide access to counselling and play therapy, depending on the age of the child. Play therapy is more appropriate for younger children and then counselling can be provided as they get older. Early intervention often prevents a situation from getting worse and a child having to be referred to CAMHS. I accept it does not solve all the problems as counselling alone is not sufficient for every child. Some problems are more complex and psychiatric services need to be involved but we should begin to provide counselling services in all schools.

We must then consider preventative measures and how we can avoid problems getting to the stage where outside help and intervention are required. Reference is made in the report to the fact that teachers and schools should be provided with the resources necessary to enable each student to participate fully in school and to encourage and develop his or her particular talents and strengths. Later in the report it is stated that the committee recommends that non-academic achievements, for example, in areas such as youth theatre, could be taken into consideration for college entry. Those are things we must consider. We must take the stress out of school and ensure that all the focus is not on academic achievement. Some children are excellent in that regard and that is great. Other children are interested in sport and others again fall somewhere in the middle. We must take that into account. It cannot just be the case that one is only seen as a fantastic student if one gets all As because students might have other skills and they must be encouraged also. Those children must realise they are just as valuable as those who are good at mathematics.

Most children in junior and senior infants love going to school and love their teacher but as time goes on they encounter difficulties at school. At some point in the school system they feel they are not good enough and they lose confidence and self-belief. That is where mindfulness, coping skills and emotional resilience come in. There is no reason that cannot be done in schools. We could take a break from academic studies during the day and bring in meditation or time out where children could read a book or play a board game so that the school day is not focused on academic subjects alone. I am concerned about the level of homework especially in secondary school and the stress and worry that causes.

My children attend the Gaelscoil in Kilkenny and they have a mindfulness day on the last Tuesday of each month. That has been happening in the school for the past three to four years. It was introduced by an excellent teacher who saw the value in such an approach. Now, every parent knows that on the last Tuesday of the month there is no homework but they must do an activity with their child that is non-technological. It is about first adopting such an approach in schools and developing such a mindset but it also about changing the mindset of parents and society. That is just as important as the academic side of it. Much needs to be done but we can start by introducing mindfulness, emotional resilience and teaching children that it is okay to be different, and it is okay not to fit in with everybody else. We must teach children how to cope when things go wrong or if something does not go their way, whether that is at school or due to something happening at home. They are the things on which we need to focus.

I was shocked when I learnt this week that we have the highest rate of child suicide for girls up to the age of 19 in Europe. That is something we must try to address. Given the current housing situation I also want to mention children who are in emergency accommodation such as hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation, which has an impact on their day-to-day lives and how they cope in school. Having raised the issue I was told supports are available through Tusla but not every child will be able to avail of the Tusla system. We all hope we will see an end to emergency accommodation but while the system is in place we must consider extra supports for children who are affected. For example, many of them travel a long distance to get to school. They have gone from having a certain routine and familiarity in their lives to upheaval and living in a hotel room with everyone living together in a confined space. It may seem that children are dealing with the situation but we must consider putting extra supports in place for them as well as for teachers to help them to provide support. Teachers require training in order to have the tools to provide support. I welcome the report and I hope the recommendations are implemented.

Cuirim fáilte roimh obair an choiste, roimh an tuarascáil atá á phlé againn agus roimh na rudaí a bhí le rá ag an Aire. I read the report and I was especially interested in the submissions and presentations. I have one question for the committee in that regard. Were there any presentations from teachers and students?

We are very conscious of health and safety regulations in every walk of life, including in schools. I refer, for example, to the type of doors, windows, flooring and locks, or the number of students who can be in a teacher's car if a teacher is bringing them to an event. They all have to do with physical health and it is time that we did the same with the mental health of students.

As the Minister said, it is important to acknowledge the really good work that has been going on for many years. A variety of programmes is in place, some drawn up by schools themselves, such as the Meitheal system, mentoring, the Big Brother Big Sister buddy programmes and older students looking out for the younger students. When new initiatives are proposed in the well-being, wellness and mental health area I often wonder why they do not take account of the good work that has been going on in schools. When I hear the term child-centred education it is almost as if was almost discovered in recent years but from my long experience in schools and the work of my colleagues I know that the child has always been at the centre of education.

I was looking at what we have been doing and it became a trip down memory lane for me. The school where I taught was a pilot school for the On My Own Two Feet programme. Caithfear aitheantas a thabhairt do na múinteoirí agus do na scoileanna a ghlac páirt sa chlár sin. Eight schools were involved with between five and 11 teachers in each school and we trained for up to 120 hours in order to be able to deliver the programme. Those hours were done outside school and at weekends because we were committed to the programme.

It was devised by the psychological services in the Department of Education, the health promotion unit in the Department of Health and the Mater Dei Counselling Centre. It was launched in 1994 – I can hardly believe it now. Reading back through it last night, I was struck by how progressive it was and how advanced it was all those years ago. It was about developing personal and social skills. While it was designed for the prevention of substance abuse, it was an overall life skills programme as well. The aim was to enable students to develop their ability to take charge of their health and, specifically, to make conscious and informed decisions. There were five books covering the areas of identity and self-esteem; understanding influences; assertive communication; feelings; and decision-making. There was a handbook on the methodology. The formal evaluation of the programme found that it had a significant effect on attitudes, beliefs and behaviours relevant to substance abuse. That was part of the substance abuse programme.

We are talking about the same thing now. At the time, teachers made some recommendations. One related to how vital it was for training for teachers to deliver these programmes. The recommendation was for 50 hours of training. At that time in the 1990s other courses were being carried out through developmental group work. The main point I wish to make is that in the 1990s and even before then this work was being carried out to support students personally and socially to enable them to make informed decisions. I am reminded of the phrase that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

A great deal is demanded of schools and teachers. Our experience from the 120 hours we gave was that we did it willingly, but that was in a different environment. The environment today is making it difficult for teachers, especially given the amount of paperwork they have to process. This had started in 2007 and 2008 when I was still teaching but it has increased more and more since. The problem is with all the "Ps", namely, policies, plans and procedures. Teachers are inundated with the associated paperwork. No sooner is a policy agreed and ratified by a board than it is up for review. I realise we need policies and plans but not to the extent that we have them today.

From what the Minister was saying it looks like there may be more paperwork. My question is whether all of that is improving the quality of teaching. It is taking up an inordinate amount of teachers' time. That time could be spent more productively on training in the courses needed to deliver the programmes we are all committed to and which contribute to positive mental health.

In spite of all the paperwork, teachers are doing their best with their students. Not only are they teaching the academic subjects but they are with their students in stressful and difficult times too. I saw a submission from the theatre group for aesthetic engagement which referred to the core experience. It reminded me of TEAM Educational Theatre Company, which did such invaluable work back in the day. However, it lost its funding and that was the end of that group.

I wish to raise one point about the school timetable and the pressures on it. A certain number of hours must be given for each of the academic subjects. There has to be a given allocation for physical education and a class for social, personal and health education or well-being or whatever we call it. If a teacher needs an extra class for an academic subject, the SPHE class will be the first to go. If a teacher is taking an SPHE class but she is either unwilling or does not want to be there or the class is simply being added on to make up the hours, she will be willing to give up that class.

I wish to make a point about religious education classes. Contrary to what some believe, they were not indoctrinating classes. They were times for students to have discussions. They were time for debate, meditation and for the issues that were important to students.

There is a role for outside agencies from the community coming in to schools to deliver certain programmes. Some of the agencies I know in Dublin Central are community-based and work in the areas of drugs, alcohol, gambling and sexual health. They are welcomed by the schools because the people who come in have training and skills. It is vital to allocate time for this. This is where the religious education classes played a role in allowing students' voices and opinions to be heard. I was involved in an initiative in the north inner city through the drugs and alcohol task force. We had four conventions of transition year and fifth year students. These were roundtable discussions and the facilitators were the youth leaders. The conversations were about their opinions on drugs and alcohol but of course the conversations opened out into other areas. It was a question of engaging with young people on their terms.

The point is that children and teenagers in the north inner city and one or two other urban areas are living in a reality that is altogether different from the majority of areas in the country, urban and rural. They see open drug dealing every day. They can step over drug paraphernalia on their way in and out of school. They can see people in addiction shooting up. They know about fear and intimidation through drug debt. They see the normalisation of alcohol misuse and abuse. Of course they see the emergency response unit on the streets as well. The schools and youth projects are doing great work but when a programme is rolled out for the entire country it should take into account the specific and particular needs of young people who are living in these environments.

Well-being, mental health and the associated skills and strategies are vital to those who are most in need. One strong finding from the convention was how young people relish the opportunity to sit down with their peers and the facilitators to discuss these issues. We had another conference with teachers, youth leaders and some young people. We produced another report entitled Let's Get Specific, which the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, launched. One key recommendation was on proper staffing and the training of teachers as well as connecting the teaching with the external support groups. Another related to involving parents in the training and the need for continuous feedback from young people on the effectiveness or otherwise of the strategies. This was an interagency collaborative report.

One of our recommendations was that SPHE would not be treated as an add-on subject. I am using the example of SPHE but the point applies to well-being too. There is danger in confining the class to one or two 40 minute periods per week. I have discussed the matter with the Minister's predecessors. This type of learning should pervade the whole day. There must be a whole-school, holistic approach. Every class should have the young person's sense of well-being at the heart of it. This means creating a positive learning environment, encouraging each student to achieve his or her potential and valuing each achievement. This should be the case regardless of whether the student achieved 200 points, 600 points or no points in the leaving certificate or he or she becomes an apprentice or a doctor. It is about challenging and stretching students to reach their potential and not giving up on them. Shane Martin made a submission suggesting that schools need to empower their students with the toolbox for coping during the inevitable crises and challenges in life. The word "inevitable" is important. We cannot eliminate all stress and anxiety from young people's lives but we can show them how to cope. That is why it is so important. This is where I see a role for mindfulness in schools but it has to be delivered by people who have had some training in the area.

One of the recommendations from the committee related to the provision of psychotherapy training. I know guidance counsellors who have done this as well. They have done the three year training course and built up the hours. There are no shortcuts to that end. I was struck by how that point came into the recommendations. Recently, recommendations on supervision of guidance counsellors were introduced and that was welcome.

It was good that the submissions acknowledged that schools at primary and secondary level are responsive to the issues of poor mental health and that they are proactive in supporting and preventative approaches. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water. We have good programmes that are working and they can all be built in. The ethos of the school is important. We tried to emphasise all the time that we were a telling school and that people talked about things. We celebrated diversity and highlighted that there was nothing wrong with being different.

Some programmes have proven successful over the years. Programmes need to be well designed and teachers need to be trained. There needs to be timetable commitment. There needs to be managerial support and parental support. If such programmes are implemented, they can have positive impacts on the academic and well-being outcomes of students and can reduce the anxiety and stress. It does not matter whether we call it mindfulness, SPHE or well-being. We are all talking about the same strategies to help young people to cope.

I congratulate the committee on the fine work done and on producing this report. As we know, schools play a role in promoting, supporting and developing positive mental health in their students. We know that early intervention is critical. I am chairman of the board of management of an Educate Together national school in Wexford town. We are looking for a new school building but I will talk to the Minister about that another time.

In March this year I raised the need for a review of mental health guidelines and supports in schools with the then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton. I talk to primary school principals and teachers on a regular basis to get a sense and understanding of what they are experiencing in schools. Teaching staff are under pressure to solve their pupils' problems. Often this involves referring students for psychological supports in schools and in the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, for which there are lengthy waiting lists. Teachers highlight the lack of supports for young people outside of schools in the child and adolescent mental health services and in community psychology care. When children do not get the necessary supports their issues fall back to the school. Often it is the teachers and principals who become active on the front line in dealing with young people and their mental health problems and challenges.

We know that 50% of those with mental health problems develop them before they turn 14 years of age. One student in four suffers from mental health problems.

However, if those students come from minority groups, whether they be Travellers, people with disabilities, refugees or the LGBTQ community, those ratios increase fairly significantly and if they come from a number of those categories, they increase even further. It is important that appropriate resources are put in place to support the parents, students, principals and teachers.

I want to raise the increasing mental health issues of very young people in terms of digital safety. I have spoken to teachers and principals about that but we have seen research on it from America and the United Kingdom. Students are starting school with speech and language issues but, physically or mentally, there is nothing wrong with them. They are simply not used to speaking. They start school with vocabulary issues for no other reason than they are stuck on their laptops, iPads and iPhones. They are not developing the necessary vocabulary that would previously have occurred. There is research which shows that if one assesses a five year old's vocabulary, one can predict their likelihood of employment in their 30s. That does not necessarily follow if appropriate intervention is put in place, but there is research that shows that. If young people are behind when they start school, they rarely catch up. The research shows that the gap widens. That is why there is a necessity for proper intervention.

In terms of dealing with the issue of young people's mental health, we need to teach parents, teachers and students how to recognise mental health issues, develop awareness around them, how to help them develop the confidence to speak openly about them, and develop coping skills and resilience to deal with them. The reality is that, in general, young people today probably do not face the same type of crises people might have faced 50 or 60 years ago. We need to teach them those resilience mechanisms.

Young people today are exposed to things that previous generations would not have been exposed to until at least their teenage years or even older. They are seeing extreme violence, pornography and all sorts of images on the Internet, and that is having a profound effect on young people. That emphasises the importance not just of well-being programmes but critical metal health interventions for young people and their teachers.

It has to be more than goodwill, however. It cannot be simply about putting all these mental health appropriate interventions onto the shoulders of already overburdened teaching staff. It has to be backed up with appropriate resources and referral pathways so that teachers know how to spot issues with young people and know how to deal with them and to where they should be referred. It is important also that when students are referred for help, that those supports are available.

In terms of community psychological services, which I appreciate does not come under the Minister's Department, in my county of Wexford, there is a 34-month waiting list for a child to see a community psychologist, and no urgent cases are being seen. That has a knock-on effect on the Minister's Department because those children are not getting the supports they need. They are going to school and they will have challenges on which teachers will have to support them. I would like to see greater interaction between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Health, in particular the section dealing with mental health, to see how these issues can be appropriately and effectively addressed.

It was reported about a year ago that Ireland has one of the worst statistics in the developed world for depression causing young people to leave school. That shows that the issue of mental health is not being dealt with effectively in schools.

The Joint Committee on Education and Skills report proposes enhancing the links between schools and State agencies to support pupils and teachers alike. I very much welcome that. As I said, ministerial collaboration with the other Departments in terms of mental health is vital. There is huge expertise in the Department dealing with mental health that can be shared with the Department of Education and Skills.

I congratulate the committee for its fine work. I wish the Minister the best with his Department.

Does the Minister wish to respond to the points raised?

I will be brief because the points have been well made and I do not have to re-emphasise their importance.

To concentrate on Deputy Buckley's contribution, he referred to resilience, mindfulness and respect, not just the continuum from primary to secondary school but also onwards into the workplace. Developing that confidence is something we very much value as a nation because we have a long history of our future not being clear-cut where people emigrated at 16 or 17 years of age and arrived in environments such as a building site in London to be asked what their trade was and overnight became a chippie or a brickie. We have to work on the resilience that has been built up at an educational level in a meaningful way.

The Deputy emphasised the importance of coping skills but that is not to say that every generation knew how their world would map out when they were growing up. I recall a statistic given of a family of 12 young people in Donegal, ten of whom became priests and nuns, and all of whom emigrated to Africa to work as teachers and so on. I refer to that resilience.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan emphasised that it very well. That ethos, philosophy and learning model has been passed from generation to generation and it has put us in a different space. In terms of my diaspora role, when I travelled as Minister of State with responsibility for international development and I met highly educated Irish people in key positions in different organisations. Speaking to their peers in different countries, if we were to analyse the skills Irish people have over other people in terms of getting into those key positions, it was emotional intelligence and the ability to listen and to take a step back. It was about having that awareness. I do not believe that has anything to do with DNA. It comes about through parenting. The education system has to have a major role in that regard, but we need to do more.

I agree with Deputy Funchion's comments. As a former youth worker who spent a few years in a community setting, I could see the value of the informal approach to helping people work on the creative aspects and not restricting them in terms of their spirit or creativity ability to do new things and face new challenges. We have to be conscious of that.

The Deputy's comment about taking the stress out of schools is apt. It is not just about stress in schools. Everybody is stressed. Parents are stressed. They are working hard and trying to juggle childcare, whether it is travelling from Mullingar to drop their child at a crèche at 5.30 in the morning or whatever. It is a different world. It is about taking a holistic approach to look at what is happening outside the school. I take the Deputy's point in that regard.

I agree with Deputy O'Sullivan on the question of sharing best practice. Many schools are doing many different projects. When I visited all the Gaeltacht schools throughout the country as Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, I learned that no two schools are the same. They are unique. They have cultural nuances in terms of the region but they are all doing different things. They are working with industry and communities. There is volunteerism. There is a great momentum around physical education in many primary schools. It is about how we share that best practice, what is working and what is not working. We need to be clear about policy when we are bringing different groups or individuals from the outside in because the policy guidelines are important in that regard.

I was struck by something when thinking about the new physical education curriculum for the leaving certificate. That will stand out as an outlier if we do not put the same type of effort into primary school, particularly in terms of young girls. A recent statistic indicated that half of all young girls drop out of sport at the age of 12 or 13.

If we do not encourage them to get involved in sport at primary school level the leaving cert curriculum is left as an outlier. I am conscious of that and I know much work is going on in primary schools. A lot of it is done by volunteers. Schools have some funding for it, but it is something I am keen to pursue and look at.

Deputy O'Sullivan spoke of the good work that has been done in different generations through the years. I would be interested in finding out more about On My Own Two Feet, the programme at the school where she taught, if she would not mind sending me some information. She is right about RE, religious education, classes. There is sometimes an argument around religion, but the religion classes I took were more about getting a bit of space and time to think abut things. Whether we call it RE, philosophy or meditation, we have to create the space for young people to take a step back from their busy lives.

Deputy Browne, who has left, spoke about the waiting lists for psychologists. There are resourcing issues affecting the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and counselling. We need to beef those services up. That is where we come in as a Parliament. We must make the choices on where those resources are spent.

I refer also to speech and language therapy. That takes place outside the school, through the HSE. We have already started teasing that out within the Department. Conversations were happening before I joined the Department examining on-site speech and language therapy as an option for schools. That would be very practical and common sense.

I do not want to keep people here by filibustering - I note that I have two minutes and 20 seconds left. On a personal note, I was at a funeral in my parish this morning. We said goodbye to a woman from Carrigart who was a principal in Loreto Letterkenny. She started out as a home economics teacher, before moving to the Department's inspectorate and developing the home economics curriculum. She came back to become deputy principal and then principal. Her journey from being a practitioner to working in the Department gave her insight as a principal. Her colleagues are broken-hearted as she was a very young woman. Listening to them, one of the biggest observations was that she kept the ways of a home economics teacher. She was the person who cared for her students in a very compassionate way. That is something that we should never underestimate when we talk about the new well-being policy. We have leaders in our schools to whom we must look. We have to look at their life journeys, experiences and new ways of doing things. That said, old ways are good too. She was bid farewell today by the many people who knew her, her students and the whole community. They were also acknowledging her very important legacy of education. She never forgot where she came from and the key skills in teaching; helping people when they are in need, when they are in a corner and when they need a lift. She did that so well. Her name was Nora Friel.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to have the debate. I thank the other member of the committee who was here tonight, Deputy Funchion, as well as the other Members who spoke. I gave apologies for my Fianna Fáil colleague Deputy O'Loughlin, who is abroad on behalf of the party.

Almost two thirds of children have experienced a stressful event of one sort or another by the time they reach nine years of age. We know this from the Growing Up in Ireland survey. This may be the death of a close family member, serious illness, moving house or another major event. These events undoubtedly impact on the well-being of young people. That same survey revealed that 23% of Irish nine year olds have social media or gaming profiles, that is, about 26% of boys and 21% of girls. At least I know that although my son says all of his friends take part in Internet gaming not all of them do. According to this survey, however, quite a few of them do. Boys' profiles are largely related to computer gaming, whereas those of girls tend to be on social media. In recent years we have become all too aware of the need to protect young people taking their first steps in life. As has been discussed already, perhaps the Minister will discuss the need for a digital safety commissioner with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton.

Mental health services for young people are outside the school system, and of course they belong in the health services. However, the reality is they are deeply lacking. Some 1,607 children have been waiting for a year or more to see a psychologist. As my colleague noted, 109 of them are under the age of four. Again, that is outside the school system. These are the challenges that people with acute mental health difficulties face. NEPS practitioners are not front-line psychologists by any means, although they do provide some assistance. We only have 180 NEPS psychologists but we have 4,000 schools. A lack of NEPS psychologists has undoubtedly contributed to a lack of well-being among certain students who are unable to get the resources or services that they need.

On the health side, the situation is the same in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. The latest figures show that while the Government has repeatedly claimed to be improving the capacity of CAMHS nationwide, almost 120 more children have been added to the list in the last year. We all know that from our constituency clinics. Constituents and principals come to us about the CAMHS services, trying to get some intervention. It obviously does not relate directly to school, but principals take a degree of responsibility when children have such a need for mental health services.

Mental health issues are complex. They do not suit one-size-fits-all solutions. However, a number of general principles are correct. Early intervention is critical. As has been said, schools acknowledge that they have a role in promoting and supporting positive mental health. By the age of 13, one in three young people in Ireland is likely to experience some type of mental disorder. I fully accept and emphasise that the Department of Education and Skills is not the only Department involved in this. I really do not lay this at the door of schools entirely. However, a holistic approach is needed in this area and the Department and schools need to play their respective roles.

I thank the Minister for his attendance and for listening to the debate and I hope that he will spend some time looking into this issue further, particularly where resources are concerned. We have spoken about NEPS, but guidance counselling is also relevant. I am delighted that guidance counselling is now part of the Government's strategy and that this particular cut has been largely, though not fully, undone. Given my party's position relative to that of the Government party, I have no doubt that it will be the subject of some discussions over the coming days and weeks, about which we will say no more on the floor of the Dáil.

The Deputy said "days and weeks", not "weeks and months".

Yes, days and weeks. Weeks turn into months relatively easily. However, I am not on the negotiating team and neither is the Minister, so we will just have to keep doing our respective jobs.

This is obviously an area that needs work. The restoration of guidance counselling has been highlighted as a key concern. Full restoration must remain a priority, regardless of what comes out of the confidence and supply talks. It is essential that this is done.

Again, I urge the Minister to look at the issue of nurses. This has been recommended by the National Council for Special Education, NSCE. A small number of nurses could significantly help the physical and mental well-being of a significant number of students, particularly in regard to medication for various ailments or conditions. We need nurses in schools to prevent other problems from happening. We do not need a nurse in every school, although that is the case in some other countries. We do need to make a start.

In closing, I welcome the fact that the Minister's well-being policy statement and framework for practice has been published. I am delighted to be here on behalf of Deputy O'Loughlin to debate the committee's report. I am glad we have done the work. I want to thank everyone involved. I mentioned Mr. Alan Guidon, other members of the committee and the witnesses that came before us. I also thank the other staff of the committee. A whole host of further actions are required if we are to move beyond crisis management. The holistic approach that we are moving towards is what this area requires.

Question put and agreed to.
The Dáil adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 November 2018.