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Malta keen to copy Welsh counselling

But funding concerns and problems training staff in Wales have put a question mark over the future of the scheme

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But funding concerns and problems training staff in Wales have put a question mark over the future of the scheme

The Maltese islands are to follow Wales in providing every secondary school with a fully qualified student counsellor.

Officials from the former British colony were so impressed with Welsh plans for a national counselling service, they plan to copy the idea. Malta's education system is similar to that of England and Wales, and the nation's teenagers experience many of the same problems.

But there is still uncertainty in Wales as to how the Pounds 6.5 million counselling service here will work. Critics say it will be impossible to train enough suitably qualified counsellors to cover more than 200 secondary schools by 2011, the Assembly government's deadline.

Its success, say supporters, will also depend on removing the stigma of seeing a counsellor. Work on the strategy, finally announced by the Assembly government in April, is well under way.

The service is being introduced in response to recommendations made by Peter Clarke, Wales's late children's commissioner, in his 2004 Clywch Report. This followed his investigations into sexual abuse allegations made by pupils at Ysgol Rhydfelen, a Welsh-medium secondary in Pontypridd, in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Mr Clarke concluded there had been a "cover-up" by Mid Glamorgan Education authority, now Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, in the handling of accusations against drama teacher John Owen, who committed suicide in 2001. He was charged with a string of offences but never convicted. His victims recently were awarded out-of-court settlements for the way their allegations were handled by the local authority.

It is hoped having easier access to a counsellor will help students in Wales through difficulties, including bullying, abuse allegations, addictions, and even prevent teenage suicides. However, it is not certain whether funding will continue after three years.

During this academic year, Pounds 1 million will be spread between the 22 local authorities in Wales to phase in the counselling service.

For some, such as Ceredigion, this will be less than the salary of a single counsellor, so local authorities will have to collaborate to share expertise and staff.

Sylvia Jones, a former secondary teacher, co-ordinating the strategy, said the plans were supported at a conference held in Swansea by the Assembly government to study anti-bullying strategies earlier this month.

The key, she believes, is to establish counselling as a "new profession in schools", a mainstream part of education and health services.

"We want to get to the stage where it's okay to go to a counsellor, just like it's okay to go to a school nurse or learning coach."

She is in talks with Glyndwr University, Wrexham, to devise a new MA qualification in youth counselling.

Ms Jones believes it would be wrong for teachers to double up as counsellors for anonymous sessions with students.

She added: "It is a supportive role, but that shouldn't take away from their pastoral role."

Maltese cocktail: religion, violence, sex and drinking

Maltese education is heavily based on the British system. School is compulsory for children between five and 16. Education is free, but parents can choose between state, church or private schools.

The majority of the population is Roman Catholic, and this religion is a compulsory part of the school curriculum. English and Maltese are the official languages in schools, but most university courses are run in English.

Malta has a lower rate of teenage pregnancy than the UK, but numbers are steadily growing.

According to a new world guide published by The Economist and reported by The Malta Independent, Maltese teens drink more alcohol than any other nation. The same guide also found almost half of Maltese youngsters had been in a fight in the past year, more than any other country.

Isabella Kaminski.

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