5. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 14683/18 asked on 29 Mar 2018)

Deputy James Browne: I ask the Minister his plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools.

Deputy Richard Bruton: I can inform the Deputy that a well-being policy statement is currently being drafted which provides further advice and clarity to schools and centres for education in regard to the implementation of the primary and post-primary well-being guidelines and the junior cycle well-being guidelines of 2017. The well-being policy statement will set out the Department’s ambition and vision that by 2023, the promotion of well-being, including mental health promotion, will be at the core of every school’s ethos and that all schools in Ireland will be actively engaged in an ongoing, dynamic process of well-being promotion. Through this process, schools will understand, evaluate and reflect on their capacity to provide for key success factors that lead to optimal promotion of well-being and mental health promotion in their own school setting. They will identify priority areas for improvement and will identify and avail of appropriate continuous professional development, support and resources, either provided by the Department of Education and Skills support services, or by external support providers, to achieve their goals.

A well-being practice framework to support schools in the implementation of the policy is also in development. This framework will provide practical support and information in an easily navigable format. It will be made available to support schools and centres for education to engage in a coherent and meaningful well-being promotion process. The well-being practice framework will complement and support the existing implementation of relevant curricula and policy and in particular the well-being in post-primary and primary schools and the junior cycle well-being guidelines at post-primary level. The well-being practice framework will be published as a draft document and will be further developed following engagement through consultation with partners in education and trial use in schools and centres for education.

Deputy James Browne: My question is on the Minister’s plans to review mental health guidelines and supports in schools. The Minister will be aware that there is a very real, justifiable concern about the evidence that this Government as a whole is not prioritising children, whether record levels of homelessness, appalling waiting lists for hospital appointments, over 6,000 children waiting for primary care psychology appointments, with at least one county now refusing emergency appointments, and a similar situation prevailing in child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, all which add to mental health pressures on young people. As a result of the lack of supports external to schools, increasingly, school principals and teachers find that they are on the front line of young people’s mental health issues. This is at a time when children as young as four, five and six are presenting with anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health stresses not seen in previous generations at such a young age. Social media is no doubt playing a huge part of this. They are becoming aware and exposed to psychologically damaging information at a shockingly young age. My fundamental question is what specifically the Minister will do to help with these young people and their mental health situations in schools.

Deputy Richard Bruton: The answer is very specific things. This is part of the confidence and supply agreement. We have now restored 500 of the 600 guidance counsellors who were in our schools. We have expanded the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, recruited additional staff and focused them specifically on delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS. In September, we introduced a well-being programme for children, specifically well-being at junior cycle, that is, in those early teen years. That seeks to ensure that the schools will have the policies, the curricular content, the relationship building and referral mechanisms in place to ensure that children who might be experiencing difficulty will have support in the school where appropriate and the capacity for referral to appropriate services elsewhere. The Deputy is absolutely right that the well-being of children is becoming an increasingly important part of a school’s work. The expansion of provision in this area has been a very significant part of what we have done in recent years with the extra resources. I think there are now good practice guidelines set out and schools are very enthusiastically adopting it. We are putting in the professional development support and NEPS developing materials to ensure that the schools have both the curricular content and also the know-how and good practices to support children who might be having difficulties.

Deputy James Browne: I talk to primary school principals on a regular basis and I am the chair of a board of management of a primary school myself. An idea I particularly want to highlight is that, increasingly, teachers and principals are meeting young children who have physically and intellectually nothing wrong with them, but who are presenting with speech and language developmental issues and social developmental issues. They are simply not getting the exposure they need before they come to school. This is adding to the pressure on principals and increasingly to comorbidity and multi-complex needs, both between disability and mental health needs. All this is putting intolerable pressure on school principals and teachers, especially when they are presenting at such a young age. I ask that two practical things be done in the short term. In particular for small primary schools, there should be an increase in the number of release days for school principals so they can attend for mental health training. Very small primary schools have limited release days and tell me that they find they have difficulty in getting the days away to get the necessary training to do the courses, some of which are quite good and available. Second, I ask for an increase in the flexibility of the appeals process. Certain primary schools may have three, four or five students starting this year, but their hours are set for special needs assistants, SNAs, and support hours from the previous year, but they may not have lost any children from sixth class who perhaps had support. In other words, they find a pinch point where they are under very real person. I think those are two practical things that could be done in the short term.

Deputy Richard Bruton: On the issue of resource teaching and SNAs, we have increased the provision by over 40% so it is a very rapidly expanding area. The National Council for Special Education, NCSE, recently undertook a study to make sure that the approach to such supports would be a whole-school approach, particularly with regard to resource teaching. That has been successful and there were extra resources to put in to make sure that would be effective. On the issue of release days for training, we will certainly look at that. Where CPD, as they call it, continuous professional development, is provided to schools in support of curricular content, there are release provisions in certain cases and I will get the Deputy a briefing on that. With regard to speech and language, we recognise that there is scope to look at in-school speech and language delivery and we will be initiating a pilot project this year to see if a better approach can be developed. If that pilot is successful - I believe it will be - I think we would look to expand services so speech and language could be accessed in the classroom. Mental health has been recognised as a cross-government issue, not just for education. There is a task force on youth mental health and it is one of what is described as a pathfinder project where cross-government collaboration is actively being pursued.