Providing professional and safe mental wellbeing services in schools
I recently spoke in a debate about school based counselling services, in my contribution I supported the need for more counsellors in schools, counsellors who could facilitate a greater focus on the wellbeing and emotional health of our children. But I also made clear the need for proper safeguarding by ensuring that adults who go into schools to provide counselling and counselling type services should be professionally registered, and any materials used must be approved and in line with DFE guidance.
School-based Counselling Services - debated November 9
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), and I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing such an important debate.
Some time ago, before I was an MP, I was a secondary school science teacher. Like most busy secondary school teachers, I taught more than 300 pupils every week. As a teacher, I was very much focused on delivering the syllabus, ensuring that no one set fire to the classroom, and getting through all the teaching material on schedule. For a classroom teacher, it is important that students are ready to learn, and we often think about that in terms of, “Have they got the right pens and the right pencils? Have they brought their textbooks and homework?”
However, it is, of course, also important that students are ready to learn emotionally and mentally.
It is not uncommon for teachers to have students turn up to the classroom who are just not in a fit state to learn. They might need to go to pastoral support or take some time out. Sometimes, the issues—a falling out between friends, an unexpectedly bad test result, or perhaps not getting into a sports team—resolve themselves on their own. But sometimes—often, in fact—the issues are deeper and harder to fix. I am thinking of things such as low self-esteem, a chaotic home life, abuse and, increasingly commonly, sexual exploitation over the internet.
Members on both sides of the House have made excellent speeches about how children are increasingly affected by mental health challenges that they desperately need help with and are not going to recover from on their own. Of course, some will have parents and extended family who are able to help, but many will not.
It is not just important for their educational prospects that they have access to counselling in school; it is also important for their life chances in general that we address these problems early to stop them becoming chronic and affecting their whole lives.
I do not want to repeat the many excellent remarks about the challenges our children are facing and how it is so important that all children have access to professional support. Some schools are doing an amazing job already. Horizon Community College in Barnsley in my constituency has a wellbeing centre on site that is staffed by counsellors and people from the multi-agency support team, who support not only the children in the school but the whole community. That is a fantastic example, and we should share such good practice. But the truth is that many smaller schools do not have the resources to put in place something as innovative as that, so I fully support the campaign by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow to have a mental health professional available in every school.
Of course we need counsellors in schools, but it is very important that they are professional, that they follow guidance and that they can be trusted.
In response to a survey by the Department for Education in 2017, only 47% of schools that employed counsellors said that their counsellors were registered with professional bodies, and one in seven said that their counsellors had no qualifications at all. We need to be very careful when we talk about counsellors in schools. They have a very influential role and they deal with vulnerable children, who often have mental health issues, as we know. They must fulfill that role responsibly and professionally, and they must follow guidance. I very much welcome the idea of community sector and third sector involvement, but we have to be very careful about the potential safeguarding issues if we do not follow the guidance and do not ensure professionalism.
I want to raise what I think is a very dangerous potential safeguarding issue that we are seeing in this area right now.
Schools are inviting outside organisations in to provide counselling-type services and using their materials. Groups such as Stonewall and Mermaids are teaching what I think are dangerous and contested, extreme ideologies that do not have a basis in science to our children, and it is contrary to DFE guidance. We have groups such as the Allsorts Youth Project, which is teaching children that there are more than two sexes, and the Diversity Role Models group, which comes into school and provides workshops but tells children that their sex was assigned to them at birth. I have seen a video today by the Free to Be group telling teachers that they might drive children to suicide if they do not accept this ideology. And we have Stonewall wrongly interpreting the Equality Act 2010 in a way that erodes the sex-based rights particularly of girls, in a way that I think is very dangerous.
I know of children who have been counselled by adults in school that they would be happier if they changed their gender, and frighteningly, they are being told not to tell their parents and to keep this a secret. I know of schools where children are disciplined for complaining about children of the opposite sex being allowed to use their PE changing rooms. I think this pushing of an extreme ideology that does not have a basis in science and is highly contested is having terrible consequences, and teachers and pupils are afraid to speak out.
In 2009, 72 children were referred to the Tavistock’s gender identity service. In 2019, 2,364 children, of which two thirds were girls, were sent to the service. That is a 5,000% increase in the number of girls sent to the clinic in just 10 years. Many of them go on to be prescribed puberty blockers, and research suggests that 98% of those children are then given cross-sex hormones. These are children who will become infertile, sterile and have permanent loss of sexual function. How can 12, 13 or 14-year-olds consent to that? Many of these children have complex mental health issues. Many are autistic and many have difficult family backgrounds. Some are same-sex attracted, but are being told that they should change their gender. I am afraid that that is a consequence of a harm being done to our children as a direct result of this agenda being pushed in schools contrary to DFE guidance, which states:
“You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender”.
The guidance goes on to talk about what material can and cannot be used.
I appreciate that the Minister has agreed to meet me to discuss this issue. Absolutely, we need counsellors to be available in school and we need more focus on wellbeing and emotional health. However, we must have a robust safeguarding process to ensure that the adults who go into schools and the materials they use are registered, approved and in line with DFE guidance, and that they are doing the best for our children, encouraging their wellbeing and not pushing their own agenda. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how he intends to ensure the guidance is followed and I appreciate his offer to meet me.