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Argyll education boss: ‘We had 100 counselling referrals in a month – it’s important to get help’

Argyll and Bute education
Louise Connor, Chief Education Officer at Argyll and Bute Council.

Argyll and Bute’s chief education officer Louise Connor knows that she has to put mental health at the top of her list of priorities.

After the council boosted its counselling staff at the start of the year, they received 100 referrals of students in need of support in just one month.

Ms Connor knows that indicates how badly-needed mental health and wellbeing services are for students during the pandemic.

And that’s why she said that she and her staff have made recognising and responding to trauma a priority in their council area.

But students’ and staff’s health and wellbeing is just one of the focal points of education in Argyll and Bute.

Ms Connor also discussed the need to provide equal opportunities and resources across the region’s varied geographic areas, and touted the learning benefits of having the great outdoors always at your disposal.

Building a trauma-informed workforce

Ms Connor said that, of all of the difficulties that the pandemic created, the strain on students’ mental health is one of the most serious –  if not always the most visible.

To help (students) get the help that they need is always important to us.”

-Louise Connor

“As a result of the pandemic, trauma can take many forms. And not just for children and young people, but staff can be affected by the pandemic as well.

“We are working on a program to deliver high-quality and sustainable trauma training. So our aim is to be a trauma-informed workforce, and that’s not just education. That’s spanning across our other services as well.”

But the pandemic didn’t invent trauma. It continues to be important for people who work with children to recognize signs of struggle regardless of circumstances.

“Many children and young people are affected by trauma and having your staff recognize that there is a situation there is vital. To help them get the help that they need is always important to us.”

Argyll and Bute boosts education support resources

Connor said that older students have needed more support in the past two years. Transitions from school to the next destination are no longer as direct. Interviews and official visits for jobs and schools happening online and the landscape of work and higher education is changing.

“We’ve increased the counselors in order to try and support the capacity in the system to help the young people that require it. And in delivering that resource we try to make sure there’s equity across all geographical areas.”

Most services went online during the pandemic, but Ms Connor hopes now that much-needed face-to-face work can resume soon.

Get outside and get learning

Argyll and Bute has just about every type of landscape you could want. Forests, beaches, towns remote rural areas.

Each of these setting brings its own opportunities for learning, Ms Connor said, which paid dividends during the pandemic.

Argyll and Bute education

“A lot of our resources have gone into ensuring that our children learn as much as they can in outdoor spaces. Different communities have different resources available that they put to really good use.

“Because we already had that focus (before the pandemic)… we were able to make use of those outdoor learning facilities because it was safer for children to be outdoors.”

Oban High School tights row

Warm temperatures earlier this summer caused a stir at Oban High School. After an incident at school, parents and local representatives expressed frustration and called for a reform of uniform policies that require girls to wear tights – even on hot days while their male classmates are allowed to wear shorts.

“The uniform policy is agreed in schools through parent councils and pupil councils.”

-Louise Connor

Education Secretary Shirley Anne-Somerville was asked about the issue last month, and she said that the government intended to provide Scotland-wide guidance on uniform policies.

When asked if the situation reflects a change in attitudes towards uniform policies, Ms Connor said that parent and student input has always been part of policymaking.

“The uniform policy is agreed in schools through parent councils and pupil councils. Some schools will review that in collaboration with their parent and pupil councils through discussions that take place.

The question of whether girls should have to wear tights on hot days sparked controversy at Oban High School.

“Sometimes when there’s a new head teacher, for example, they’ll look at the values and vision of the school, and they’ll then have a conversation about updating the school uniform.”

Pandemic leaves room for improvement

As the world moves further out of lockdown, education can begin its own return to normality. But the Argyll and Bute education boss said that the pandemic taught her lessons on how to improve delivery. This is especially when it comes to increasing access to digital resources and supporting students impacted by Covid-19.

“Teachers and head teachers are best-placed to understand where their learners are at any given point in time. It’s our job to support them and locate where the gaps are and where children have fallen behind.”

Ms Connor is increasing support staff ahead of the upcoming school year and building upon existing partnerships with e-Sgoil and other online learning resources. She said that she hopes to get students off on the right track when they arrive on campus in the autumn.

For more on the north and north east’s education bosses, use the links below.

‘Every day, we get up to improve education for children’: Moray’s education chief on her passion for the job

Aberdeenshire schools boss will fight to be heard by new education secretary on ‘unique challenges’ of rural areas

Shetland education puts children in the driver’s seat

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