School counselling in the UK halved by Covid-19 restrictions

  • Thursday, August 13, 2020

Average number of children and young people who spoke to a counsellor reduced from 14 in March when Covid-19 restrictions were put in place to 7 in July.

Image - School counselling in the UK halved by Covid-19 restrictions

New research by the University of Roehampton and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) revealed that the number of children and young people* receiving school counselling in the UK has halved since the Covid-19 restrictions came into effect.

A survey of 742 counsellors in the UK found that the average number of children and young people the counsellors were seeing reduced from 14 to 7 between March 2020 when Covid-19 restrictions came into force and when the survey was carried out in July. In this period, there was also a dramatic reduction in the average hours of face-to-face therapy provided to children and young people per week per counsellor, reducing from approximately 15 to 3 hours.

In contrast, there were increases in the amount of video, phone, and text-based counselling being delivered within the same time period. The average amount of time per week of video counselling provided by each counsellor increased from 18 minutes to 2 hours 58 minutes, while telephone and email counselling rose from 13 minutes to 3 hours 19 minutes and from seven minutes to 46 minutes, respectively.

The research found that these reductions mainly occurred because schools had closed, or had reduced or stopped the provision of therapy due to Covid-19 lockdown and subsequent restrictions. In other instances, children and young people were unable to access online therapy because there was nowhere private that they could do it from.

In addition, counsellors who took part in the survey said that children and young people raised issues related to Covid-19 in about half of the sessions.

School-based counselling is one of the most common forms of therapy for mental health problems in children and young people in the UK. It is estimated that around 84% of secondary schools and 56% of primary schools provide counselling**. This means that over 100,000 children and young people would normally see a school counsellor every year***.

Mick Cooper, Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, who co-led the project, said: “School counselling provides vital support for children and young people. Our research shows that it can bring about significant improvements in mental wellbeing. By talking to a professionally trained counsellor, children and young people can get things off their chests, work out solutions to their difficulties, and develop life skills like being more assertive and relating more positively to others. This reduction in services comes at a particularly bad time. We know that Covid-19 is creating more emotional difficulties and stress for children and young people. It’s a massive problem if they then do not have the support to work these problems out.”

Jo Holmes, Children and Young People and Families Lead at BACP, said: “We’re concerned about the impact Covid-19 is having on children and young people’s mental health.

“We expect to see a rush of children and young people seeking support from school counsellors when the new term starts. Counsellors will play a critical role in supporting young people through the anxieties, uncertainty, grief and trauma they face because of the global pandemic. For some young people this vital support will come after six months of not being able to access the services they need and of struggling with their feelings and emotions alone. It’s crucial that school counselling services are supported and funded to meet this anticipated increase in demand.

“While our research found the number of contact hours with children and young people had been reduced, many counsellors have used this time to retrain to deliver telephone and online counselling sessions to prepare them for current and future needs. There are also many school counsellors who’ve been able to continue offering support throughout the pandemic, not just for students but to help parents and staff cope too. They have been a lifeline for their entire school community.”

Respondents to the survey thought that the most important priority to ensure counselling could be delivered for the next academic year was greater recognition of mental health as a critical service. After that, they wanted a private space themselves where they could offer face-to-face therapy, with or without social distancing; and a private space for children and young people to attend online counselling.

BACP is campaigning for the Government to fund a paid counsellor in every secondary school in England, making the case for this to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in June.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland already have statutory funded school counselling services.

*aged between 5 and 18 years old.
**Department for Education, Supporting Mental Health in Schools and Colleges: Quantitative Survey, 3 August 2017
***Thompson, W. (2014). School-based counselling in UK primary schools. Lutterworth: BACP/Counselling MindEd and Cooper, M. (2013). School-based counselling in UK secondary schools: A review and critical evaluation. Lutterworth: BACP/Counselling MindEd.