And in many schools the good listener is increasingly a man - or woman - of God. Wendy Wallace finds out what it takes to be a chaplain
Father Kevin McEwan does his best work in the playground and corridors of his school. He calls it "wasting time for God" - being in the right place at the right time for children who need someone to talk to. "That's when they begin to trust you," says the newly appointed chaplain at Bishop Challoner Catholic collegiate school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
Chaplains, once the preserve of private schools, are increasingly to be found in maintained church schools. Chaplains offer pastoral and spiritual support to staff and students, believers and non-believers. In difficult times - whether of war in the world, death in the school or just an Ofsted inspection - their role is brought into sharp focus. But there is no universal definition of that role. Ultimately, each chaplain has to work out for himself - or, increasingly, herself - how to spend the time.
Fr Kevin, 60, was ordained 36 years ago, and has experience of teaching RE in school and college, and of hospital and prison chaplaincy. Called to what he terms "active ministry", he sees the school chaplaincy role as bearing witness to children's faith. "The basis is that you actually believe, and you act on that," he says. "You can't tell lies to children or the dying. They pick up on whether you're telling the truth or not."
Fr Kevin arrived at Bishop Challoner - which comprises two schools, one for boys, one for girls, with a total of 1,300 pupils - last August. He was appointed by headteacher Catherine Myers, with whom he'd taught at St Joseph's Academy in Lewisham in the 1990s. He has a room in the boys'
school set up as a chapel, with an altar, silver chalice for communion and embroidered altar cloth. He holds Mass early each morning - attended by up to 50 people including some not connected with the school - and some lunchtimes. He also leads assemblies and organises retreats for both schools.
The room is also used by students as a place to come and talk to him about problems at school or at home. But, for Fr Kevin, being a chaplain is all about being part of the school, being visible, not a remote "add-on" member of staff.
He takes his place alongside professional counsellors working at the Bishop Challoner schools. Asked to define what he offers to children, he says:
"You can't push a kid to do anything. It's their conscience and their choice. All you can do is be gentle. It's the gentleness that is most important."
Schools have to "grow their own" chaplain, according to their own context and needs, says Reverend Alison Adams, director of the Bloxham Project (and until recently a deputy head in a Nottingham comprehensive), a charity set up to support spirituality in schools. "You can tie the job down to a list of tasks," she says. "But that's not necessarily what it is at its core.
The role of the chaplain is being Christ in that place, trying to respond in a Christ-like manner to the spiritual, moral and pastoral needs of the school community."
Kevin McEwan is the traditional face of chaplaincy; white-haired, keen-eyed and dressed in a clerical collar, he could play a priest in a movie, suggest student journalists on the school magazine. But, increasingly, chaplains are lay people, often with professional training in the role.
Postgraduate courses in chaplaincy are on offer at London University's Heythrop College, and St Mary's College, part of Surrey University.
But lay chaplains are controversial, particularly in the Catholic church.
"They are carrying out a new role," says Fr John Dixon, co-ordinator of school chaplains for the Catholic diocese of Arundel and Brighton (where there are 11 chaplains in maintained schools and six more in private ones).
"They have to learn to co-ordinate with local clergy but must not be seen to be usurping them." In school, there are boundary issues too, notably between chaplains and pastoral care systems and RE departments.
The low average salary - only pound;18,000 to pound;20,000 - is a problem and may explain the growing number of women chaplains, believes Fr John.
And the church rarely pays for chaplains; schools usually meet their salaries. "The clergy argue that church schools don't put bums on seats," says Fr John Dixon. "But Catholic schools aren't about brainwashing.
They're about educating children, making them aware of the support of a faith community, then inviting them to make a choice."
Deirdre Leach, 61, looks priestly in a dark purple suit and with a prominent silver cross around her neck. But she came to St John the Baptist - a 1,000-pupil Catholic comprehensive in Woking, Surrey - as a teacher of RE and maths in 1980, before taking on responsibility for Years 10 and 11.
When, two years ago, the governors decided to appoint a full-time chaplain to reinforce the spiritual and pastoral aspects of the school, she applied for the job. "It was what I wanted to do more than anything else in the world."
Ms Leach describes her journey from head of upper school to chaplain as "from Rottweiler to kitten". She says:"Being able to use the pastoral skills I'd gained as a head of year - without having to do the disciplinary bit - is bliss and I feel in a hugely privileged position." But, as a woman and a lay chaplain, Ms Leach is, she says, "a bit of an oddity. You're neither fish nor fowl, and chaplaincy doesn't easily fit into the school structure." She is still her on her teaching pay scale, which, at pound;35,000, is substantially more than the average for a chaplain.
She sees her role as divided between pastoral support and spiritual care.
On the pastoral side, she is a member of the heads of year team, and staff refer students to her. There are frequent knocks on the door to her small room. First, a school-phobic - out of school for almost a year and now gradually being reintegrated - calls to say hello and confirm her presence.
Then the education welfare officer arrives to talk over not just children's problems but her own. "I was so worried after that home visit last weekI" Deirdre Leach gets involved in cases where children have "multi-faceted and time-consuming" problems. She has time for home visits, and for long-term engagement with families' problems. "I do a lot of negotiation with students who are not in school because I am free to do home visits and the reasons are sometimes complicated," she says.
In a Catholic school, the pastoral and spiritual sides can merge, as happened last June when a Year 10 student at St John the Baptist committed suicide. The event traumatised the entire school community, and still reverberates. There was no blueprint on how to proceed. "It was a question of listening to students and adapting to what they needed, because we'd never experienced anything like it before," says Ms Leach. "It was the toughest thing I've ever had to work through, and it isn't over. It is still very raw in school."
A lot of the work is "empathetic common sense", she says. But there is an element that defies definition. Part of what she offers is "presence. I don't think it's much more than that. That and a knowledge that somebody cares." But religious faith is the bedrock. "My faith and my own spirituality are important to me," she says. "I couldn't deal with some of the things if I didn't feel the power of the spirit was working in me, on occasion."
Ian Petrie, 31, has been lay chaplain for six years at St Michael's Catholic high school in Watford, Hertfordshire. A former youth worker, he is one of a minority of young chaplains, but is already in his third post.
He came to St Michael's with misgivings, having found in the past that chaplaincy "wasn't a role everyone attached huge amounts of credibility to.
Some of the jobs on offer weren't terribly well thought through." But, at St Michael's, his role is structured around teaching, with more than half the time spent in front of classes. He sees every key stage 3 class once a week for RE classes he describes as "informal, experiential-based, looking at spirituality and applying it to real life".
Spending so much time teaching gives him credibility in school, he believes. He also organises a gospel choir, and is a member of the senior management team. His salary is pound;28,000. "Without structure, you have harassed teachers bursting into the staff room for 10 minutes at break," says Mr Petrie. "Then off they go and the chaplain's sitting there wondering what to do next. There's a tendency to wheel the chaplain out for a prayer, then put them in a cupboard again. You have to fight that tendency."
All chaplains can feel isolated - they are neither a member of the teaching or support staff nor a visiting cleric - so a sense of faith or mission is crucial. "Chaplaincy is more than just being a very nice human being," says Alison Adams of the Bloxham Project. She believes ministering to staff and students of different faiths - or none - is no problem. "We try to give the big questions the importance they deserve, and that transcends faith boundaries. Young people are hungry for the opportunity to explore those questions."
The report published in 2001 by the Church Schools Review Group, chaired by Lord Dearing, reinvigorated faith schools by describing them as "standing at the centre of the church's mission to the nation" and recommending that they be "distinctively Christian". At Ian Ramsey CE secondary school in Stockton on Tees, only around one pupil in three comes from an observant Christian household. But headteacher Barry Winter says part-time chaplaincy by the local vicar, Sue Giles, has transformed the school's Christian life.
"She helps us understand what it might mean to be a Church of England school," he says. With Rev Giles, staff have worked on making the school's values - forgiveness, justice, love, compassion, respect for other faiths - more explicit in its daily life.
Rev Giles was one of the first group of women priests to be ordained in the Church of England, 10 years ago, and says she felt called to chaplaincy. "I like meeting people on the edges of the church, of faith, with lots of questions and for whom the traditional language doesn't necessarily convince or help them. The main thing is that they are learning how to reflect; for all of us it is quite difficult to know how to do that."
The Bloxham Project: tel, 01455 824089; www.bloxhamproject.org.uk. Heythrop College: 020 7795 6600; www.heythrop.ac.uk. St Mary's College: 020 8240 4000; www.smuc.ac.uk