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Education / School counselling funding welcomed but concerns expressed over capacity to deliver

Lerwick Town Hall.

COUNCILLORS have welcomed funding from the Scottish Government of nearly £1 million over the next few years for school counselling – a sum which was more than expected.

Concerns, however, were raised in the chamber on Monday over Shetland Islands Council’s capacity to deliver on the scheme, particularly in meeting the anticipated full start date of September.

The scheme, which was announced late last year, aims to ensure every secondary school pupil in Scotland has access to counselling services, with over £60 million due to be given out by the government across the country.

For 2019/20 the SIC has been allocated £197,000, with £255,000 set to be available in the following three years.

Children’s services director Helen Budge told Monday’s meeting of the education and families committee that it was “more than we expected” – especially the 2019/20 settlement.

The money could be used for staffing as well as areas like travel, professional development, ICT equipment and supervision.

A report presented to councillors said that in order to avoid duplicating what is provided by other services such as children and adolescent mental health services or the universal support in schools from pupil support staff, school nursing and youth workers, the council will use a ‘request for involvement’ referral approach.

The council will recruit a senior practitioner at a cost of £45,000 to oversee the programme, with the money due to be taken out of the funding settlement.

In the short-term independent counsellors will be contracted to allow managers to “assess the level of need for the service in Shetland and throughout the various settings across Shetland to ensure an appropriate service provision is in place”.

This data will be used to review where the need for the service is greatest and how resources should be allocated when counselling staff are appointed.

“We in Shetland would never want to put a full-time counsellor in all of our secondary schools,” Budge clarified to councillors.

“That would be impractical.”

The extra funding was generally welcomed by councillors, but concerns lingered over how it could work in practice – especially as the government is keen to see full delivery by September this year.

“We do have independent counsellors, but to become a trained counsellor does not happen overnight,” westside member Catherine Hughson said.

“How on earth will we meet that demand?” she asked – saying the time scale was “really tight”.

Hughson told the meeting that Shetland College was delivering a diploma in counselling up to a year ago.

“We should certainly encourage the college to re-do the course,” she said, especially if the council is looking to go down the ‘grow your own’ approach to staffing.

Finance chief Jamie Manson told the meeting that included in the scheme nationally was a training programme which ideally would end up with more people applying for the new counsellor jobs across Scotland.

More locally, Budge suggested the council could tap into people in the third sector who are trained counsellors.

Committee chairman George Smith said he “wanted the way forward to be as imaginative as it can be”.

He admitted it was a “bit ironic” that the council – which is usually pressing the government for more funding – was trying to figure out how exactly to use the better-than-expected allocation.

“I think there’s an urgency,” Smith added. “There’s a need to pull together folk to think through how are we going to use the money.

“It’s a very welcome initiative and I’m sure we will come up with suitable solutions to it.”