Pupil mental health funding ‘a good start’

3 minute read

Each school will get $20,000 in 2023 to boost their students’ wellbeing.

The federal government’s decision to kick half a billion dollars into student mental health is “a good start and better than nothing” but sustained investment and clear monitoring are vital to any real improvements in outcomes.

Education minister Jason Clare MP on Thursday announced a two-part funding deal consisting of the “Student Wellbeing Boost” of $203.7 million in 2023 and a new five-year $307.18 million Federation Funding Agreement to deliver the National Student Wellbeing Program – formerly known as the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The Student Wellbeing Boost includes $192 million in additional one-off funding to every eligible school to support their students’ mental health and wellbeing, with schools receiving on average $20,000 for use in the 2023 school year. There will also be $10.8 million for a new voluntary mental health check tool to “enable schools to ensure students get the support they need”.

Associate Professor Aliza Werner-Seidler, a clinical psychologist with the Black Dog Institute and UNSW Sydney, and a researcher in student mental health and wellbeing programs in schools, told TMR that the Student Wellbeing Boost was “meaningful as a one-off and a good start.”

“But what is really needed is sustained investment,” she said.

“It will be interesting to see how schools spend that money. There need to be reporting requirements, with the money tracked and monitored to make sure outcomes are positive and have impact.”

Buried in the National Student Wellbeing Program announcement is tacit acceptance of at least some of the recommendations of the recently released final report from the Evaluation of the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The report recommended that the government rename the program “to ensure it aligns with the focus on the function of supporting student wellbeing”.

“A changed program name may not only reduce the polarisation of community views, but also create a more inclusive program,” the report reads.

Associate Professor Werner-Seidler said there had been concerns that the chaplaincy program had not been inclusive of all students, particularly gender- and sexuality-diverse students.

“One of the disappointing things about some school mental health programs has been a lack of evidence-based activities,” she said.

“We need programs based on the most up-to-date science with clear measurement and monitoring of outcomes to ensure the funding is spent effectively.”

Mr Clare said the revamped $300 million National Student Wellbeing Program would give schools “greater flexibility to decide what’s best to support the wellbeing of their students and communities”.

“Schools across the nation now have the option to choose a qualified student wellbeing officer or chaplain to promote student wellbeing,” he said.

This is a return to former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s 2010-2011 decision to give schools the choice – a decision that was reversed by PM Tony Abbott in 2014.

The question now, said Professor Werner-Seidler, is how to define a “qualified” student wellbeing officer.

“It would be good if that could be defined clearly,” she said.

“In some schools that could be someone on the school’s counselling staff, but in other schools without those resources, the student wellbeing officer could be an interested staff member without the requisite training or experience.

“It is a positive step forward that the program has now been opened up to include mental health professionals. This will hopefully lead to more evidence-based programs in schools and better outcomes for student wellbeing.”

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