Student teachers may solve counselling crisis at schools

The education department wants to help orphans and vulnerable children in particular. (Nelius Rademan, Gallo)

The education department wants to help orphans and vulnerable children in particular. (Nelius Rademan, Gallo)

The basic education department’s solution to the dire shortage of counsellors, psychologists and social workers at schools is to deploy student teachers doing their practical training.

But participants in a study by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Kenyatta University, Kenya, said the government should hire professionals in these fields to work at a cluster of schools.

Nic Spaull, a research fellow at UJ and Stellenbosch University, said it would be preferable to have a psychologist or social worker at each school but that was not affordable. 

The department has urged universities to direct more students to psychosocial fields so that they could provide support to pupils.

Troy Martens, the department’s spokesperson, said that pupils faced “a range of barriers to learning” and that a key problem was the shortage of qualified professionals to provide services on an ongoing basis.

She said that some departments of social work and educational psychology at universities were already placing students at schools. Martens added that the department would also assist universities to link with districts and schools.

Spaull said using students to support schools was an innovative way of providing some psychosocial support to schools but added: “As with all things, it should be piloted and evaluated on a small scale to figure out if it actually works or what needs to be changed.”

A study on psychosocial support for orphans and vulnerable children in primary schools in Soweto, published in the South African Journal of Education in August last year, found that counselling services were hampered by the shortage of counsellors, psychologists and social workers.

A teacher from one of the seven schools that participated in the study said his school did not have a psychologist, counsellor or social worker to assist orphans and vulnerable children. Nineteen other teachers said that counsellors never visited schools to help these children and 11 said counsellors visited once a year.

“Without proper counselling structures for children in public primary schools, orphan and vulnerable children are likely to be left to struggle with the challenges they encounter, which in turn is likely to affect their academic performance in school.”

Participants in to the study conducted by Teresa Mwoma of Kenyatta University in Kenya and Jace Pillay, the research chair for education and care in childhood at UJ, advised that the government should hire professional counsellors, psychologists and social workers for a cluster of schools.

One teacher said counselling services should be provided on a regular basis to orphan and vulnerable children. 

“Through counselling services, orphan and vulnerable children whose parents and relatives had died of Aids could be helped to cope with the loss through gentle disclosure.
The disclosure could be done by counsellors at home instead of these children hearing it from other kids,” said another teacher.

The study found that the psychosocial needs of orphan and vulnerable children tended to be neglected and that this would have dire consequences for them.

“The long term consequences of such challenges may include low self-esteem, low levels of life skills, learning disabilities and disturbed social behaviour,” according to the study.

Martens confirmed that students would not be paid for their services because it was part of their undergraduate training. “At all times, the students are mentored and supported by their lecturers and universities.”

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