More than 100 positions for counsellors in state schools across New South Wales are vacant, as teachers, students and their families grapple with the impact of a major, long-term staff shortage in the public education system.
While the State Government looks to address the shortage of teachers and school support staff in the wake of two state parliamentary inquiries, amid increasing pressure to address teachers’ pay packets, students in regional areas including the Riverina have been forced to look elsewhere for mental health support.
President of the Wagga Wagga Teachers’ Association, Michelle McKelvie, told Region that claims aired regarding the shortage of counsellors in town were “definitely true” and that while the newly elected Minns Government seemed to be genuinely trying to address the issue, it was “not something that would be solved overnight”.
Ms McKelvie said: “The reality is that we simply do not have enough teachers – classes are being split in primary and high schools across the state; there are classes being held in libraries and quads (quadrangles) and I know often we’ve only got one counsellor for schools that are meant to have two.”
She said that while it was a major issue in the Riverina, it was a statewide shortage that had been worsening for the past decade, and it seemed largely ignored until recently.
Figures from the NSW Department of Education show that as of 15 May this year, there were 108 positions for school counsellors currently vacant, six of which were in the Riverina region, with one vacant in the Illawarra, two on the South Coast and one vacant in the South West Slopes region.
While Deputy Premier and Education Minister Pru Car was unavailable for interview for this report, she said in a statement that student mental health and wellbeing was a key priority, and “we need to make sure our students can get the right support when they need it”.
“That’s why the Minns Labor Government will invest $75 million to recruit an additional 250 school counsellors over the next four years,” she said.
“This is the first step towards reaching the ratio of one school counsellor for every 500 students, as recommended by a 2017 parliamentary inquiry.”
Ms Car said the teacher shortage was a serious issue that had been impacting schools and the Government was “going to get to the root cause of the teacher shortage crisis”, including addressing teacher workloads and teacher pay.
The widespread lack of school counsellors was highlighted more than two years ago, in a report from an inquiry into staff shortages led by former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop, which recommended that more counsellors needed to be employed to address a significant rise in student mental health issues.
Ms McKelvie, the NSW Teachers’ Federation, and several parents of students who have spoken to Region have also made similar comments, highlighting the current lack of mental health support for students, particularly those in high school.
But Ms McKelvie said that since the new Government was elected, it had been more transparent about the issues the education system was facing, and she was now “quite positive” about the future, despite the likelihood it would take a number of years to fully address the staff shortages.