The South African school system is faced with numerous challenges, some of which were prevalent even before the Covid-19 pandemic and these problems require us to be candid about their causes in order for us to be best able to explore their solutions. The issues include violence in schools, low moral values, high dropout rates, late coming, absenteeism, and truancy. Some of these are closely tied to the psychosocial difficulties that learners face and as such guidance counsellors, who help and counsel learners regarding academic and personal issues, should be mandatory in South African schools to enhance students’ mental health, career choices, and general life skills.
Human beings do not develop in isolation; rather, they develop within the framework of their family, home, neighbourhood, and school, according to the ecology of human development of Bronfenbrenner (1992, 2004). It further emphasizes the importance of understanding how systems affect a person’s development and a school is a microsystem in which the individual engages directly with others. Thus, daily direct encounters in schools mould and support learners’ development and are crucial to their overall well-being. Due to the lack of guidance counsellors in the majority of South African schools, the Life Orientation instructor frequently fills this job despite being unqualified. School guidance counsellors help students develop the academic and social skills needed to succeed, personally and professionally. Employing qualified guidance counsellors who concentrate on these areas would guarantee that students learn and put these skills into practice.
The peak age of onset for most mental health problems is in adolescence and the lack of sufficient mental health counselling in schools is thus a disservice to learners who need help. In “Crisis intervention in rural schools in South Africa”, Dr M. A. N. Duma points out that delicate tasks such as crisis counselling requires a qualified instructor who, when necessary, makes prompt, precise, and critical judgments about the individual and gathers necessary resources. Given that teachers have multiple responsibilities it is not so far-fetched that many learners go through traumatic events of a variable degree without receiving the assistance that they need. When people do not get the support, they endure social and economic hardship, and their chance of developing mental illness rises and this applies to learners as well. The school environment provides a great opportunity to address the mental health of issues that young people are prone to since most of them are enrolled in the country’s education system.
Career counselling, is another urgent area of guidance, as this can help individuals make informed decisions about their careers, leading to greater satisfaction and success. Early 2021 NSFAS, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme which funds most university students in South Africa, decided to stop funding Education and Nursing and in the same year Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande stated that “South African students continue to enrol for courses that are not useful in the new economy”. While the latter may be true it is worth considering that few learners receive adequate counselling on their career options while in high school and if ever considered it is done in grade 12 when learners need to apply to universities and other institutions as soon as possible with their grade 11 results. Having guidance counsellors who actively assist learners in their career choices will reduce the number of students who end up in courses that they do not like or which are not suitable in today’s economy.
Julian Hewitt, CEO of the Jake Gerwell Fellowship, an educator bursary program, has stated that almost half of South Africa’s teachers will have to retire in the next ten years because at least half of the teachers in South Africa are currently in their 50s. With a shortage of teachers lurking in the shadows it is even more important to consider who the responsibility of leaners’ mental health is going to fall upon. To be a school guidance counsellor, aspirants must have a master’s degree in the related field. This is not easily attainable due to a lack of funding for studies, and, in addition, some individuals may later opt to work in a higher-paying fields. However, making the job essential in schools would create an environment that will encourage individuals to pursue this career path.
The approach to achieving successful students in South African schools is of necessity multifaceted, and requires various interventions to maintain it. The appointment of guidance counsellors provides schools with a means of ensuring the achievement of educational goals while also supporting students’ holistic development. Giving these obligations to teachers who are primarily engaged in teaching and administrative roles, results in a lack of regular, and even non-existent, support for learners. Making the provision of qualified guidance counsellors in schools a requirement will improve students’ mental health, career decisions, and everyday life skills while also transforming classrooms into a haven for students.