CHILDREN are being encouraged to act as Samaritans to combat bullying in schools.
Government guidance, to be issued next month, will recommend that pupils should be trained in professional counselling techniques to help their peers.
A third of girls and a quarter of boys are afraid of going to school because they are victims of bullies, according to the Department for Education and Employment.
It is thought that children are more likely to talk to other pupils about their problems than to teachers or parents.
Peter Smith, psychology professor at the University of London and government adviser on bullying, said: "Most children are aware of bullying and don't like it. Peer support helps by involving the silent majority who are normally bystanders."
Education Secretary David Blunkett wants to expand schemes which are already used in many local authorities.
North Lincolnshire council runs projects in six schools. The counsellors are chosen from a number of applicants and screened for suitability.
They have 10 weeks of out-of-school training with a professional counsellor. They are taught listening techniques and given advice on referring problems to education or social services.
Judy Franklin, anti-bullying co-ordinator at Frederick Gough secondary school in Scunthorpe, said: "Bullying goes on everywhere and the peer-support scheme is part of a whole-school policy to deal with it. What counsellors discuss in the sessions is completely confidential."
Bullying is parents' biggest worry about their children's education, according to a survey released this week by the charity Parentline Plus.
More than half of the 400 parents who called its national help-line were concered their children were being victimised.
The Government is under pressure to tackle bullying to avoid a flood of claims from victims using the new Human Rights Act.
Only this week, a couple who say bullies drove their daughter to attempt suicide began suing school governors for damages. Ian and Sharon Jardine from Cambridgeshire, claim their 13-year-old daughter Danielle took an overdose after being tormented by a gang of pupils at St Clement high school, near Kings Lynn, Norfolk. 'WE HELP THEM FEEL LESS LONELY ...'
MARIE McDonagh, 14, peer counsellor at Frederick Gough school, Scunthorpe, says: "They come and see me because they know I can relate to their problems.
"Confidentiality was one of the main things we learned in training. We're told not to talk to our friends or family about the sessions. I've fallen out with friends because they were curious about it and I wouldn't tell them anything.
"I was surprised by how cruel bullies can be. Children who've come to talk to me have been in tears because of name-calling, swearing and abuse and they don't know who to turn to.
"They're frightened to go to teachers in case they 'have
words' with the bully and make things worse.
"We're like the Samaritans. We're taught to listen and give pointers to help the children, without actually telling them what to do.
"We can't confront the bullies or report them to teachers but we help the victims feel more confident and less lonely.
"We had really good training which has given me skills which I can use in my career. If something really serious comes up, like problems at home, we know how to pass it on.
"I've never been a bully but, like everyone, I was involved in petty fights when I was younger. Now I know just how upsetting it can be."