School counsellors in NSW independent schools fear students will avoid seeking help or talking openly about their problems because principals can now demand access to their confidential files, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) has warned.
A new national privacy manual for independent schools says a principal can access a counsellor's files "in the same way as he or she may call for the records made by any other school employee which relate to school matters". It also says that if a student did not accept this, they would need to seek counselling elsewhere.
The APS has warned the policy could have a devastating impact on students but the Association of Independent Schools of NSW says principals have no interest in prying into the private lives of students or their families and have an obligation to ensure the wellbeing of all students in their care.
The principal of Sydney girls' school SCEGGS Darlinghurst, Jenny Allum, said she had never asked the counsellor at her school to produce student files but there was an understanding that she could see them if it was necessary.
"There needs to be mutual trust and understanding between psychologists and heads and I certainly have that with my school counsellor," Ms Allum said. "Psychologists have to understand that they are an employee of the school and their files belong to the school."
Ms Allum said problems such as bullying could not be addressed by a principal if a counsellor was not prepared to share issues raised with them.
But the NSW Parents' Council, which represents parents of private school students, said parents needed greater clarity over what could be shared with principals.
A vice-president of the council, Jacqui Van de Velde, said she understood principals had a duty of care to their students but they did not need access to all information.
"I do think schools need to provide detailed information about what information would be shared and what would stay in confidence because it really hasn't been spelt out clearly enough to parents," Ms Van de Velde said.
School counsellors in NSW public schools cannot share their files with principals or teachers and can only discuss cases with other qualified school counsellors.
John Hensley, a spokesman for school counsellors in non-government schools, said there was one school counsellor on stress leave and another at a different school whose employment was being threatened because she was refusing to release her files to the school's principal.
Darren Stops, the APS's psychologists in schools adviser, said national privacy laws, individual state and territory health record laws and the national registration laws for health practitioners outline how psychologists should manage information from clients.
"The privacy laws defines this information as sensitive health information and yet the Association of Independent Schools seem to think that the information students talk to school counsellors about, information about their families, their mental health and their other physical health, is not confidential," Mr Stops said.
"For this age group, suicide is the leading cause of death and there is a lot of research which shows that a teenager's first port of call when they need help is not a GP, not the local health worker but the counsellor in the school, so if we undermine that, we are removing a major support for people who really need help."