Northern Ireland school counselling waiting list has almost 800 pupils.

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Almost 800 pupils were on the waiting list on 31 December 2019

Almost 800 post-primary school pupils in Northern Ireland are on a waiting list to receive counselling.

The figure was revealed by the Department for Education (DE) in response to an assembly question by the DUP MLA Joanne Bunting.

A new independent counselling service for post-primary schools was introduced in September 2019 at a cost of £23.6m over five years.

Primary schools have to arrange and pay for their own counselling.

Almost 800 pupils were on the waiting list on 31 December 2019 but the education minister said many of the young people were expected to have started counselling in January 2020.

Size dependent

Some assembly members on a Stormont committee recently described the amount of counselling available to pupils as "shocking".

The schools service is provided by independent organisations but managed by the Education Authority (EA).

The number of pupils who can see a counsellor depends on the size of their post-primary school.

In schools with fewer than 499 pupils, three pupils per week can receive a counselling session in addition to one "drop-in" session lasting an hour.

An external counsellor will spend half a day in a school of that size, but that rises in bigger schools.

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Primary schools have to arrange and pay for counselling from their own budgets

In schools with 500 to 999 pupils, five pupils a week could receive a counselling session, while that rose to eight pupils a week in schools with pupils from 1,000 to 1,499 pupils.

In the largest schools, with more than 1,500 pupils, 10 pupils could receive a counselling session each week in addition to a drop-in session lasting one hour.

Own budget

Ms Bunting had asked the Education Minister Peter Weir how many post-primary pupils were on a waiting list for counselling services.

In a just-published response, the minister said that there were 798 post-primary pupils awaiting counselling - 767 in mainstream schools and 31 in special schools.

BBC News NI understands children deemed in immediate need of counselling by their schools would be prioritised.

The EA-managed service is not available to primary schools.

They have to arrange and pay for counselling from their own budgets.

One primary school teacher who contacted BBC News NI said their school paid for a professional counsellor to work with pupils as young as six.

"At the minute we have four children seeing her, usually for six one-hour sessions," they said.

"We've had six or eight pupils go through counselling this academic year and have seen positive results but the children's needs are getting more complex.

"Parents have also made positive comments about meeting a professional relatively quickly after raising concerns."

Northern Ireland's commissioner for children recently warned that younger pupils were experiencing mental health problems.