Hereward Harrison, director of children's services for ChildLine, told the British Association of Counselling's annual training conference in Edinburgh last week that most councils interpreted guidelines in a way that denied teachers the right to offer confidentiality on anything considered to be a child protection matter, including underage sex. The most common problem affecting those who use the helpline is bullying, followed by abuse, family relationships and concern about friends.
The guidelines were tighter than they needed to be, Mr Harrison said. "Teachers are responsible people. It would be helpful to give them more space to manoeuvre."
Teachers are not the first people children turn to in times of trouble, Mr Harrison said. A survey of 2,400 young people revealed they came fifth after friends, mother, the ChildLine helpline and father.
"If ChildLine counsellors can encourage a child to go and talk to the teacher they trust most, it is often the most helpful thing they can do," he said. Young people wanted to be involved "listened to and treated with respect" in making decisions that affected them.
ChildLine UK handles more than 3,000 calls a day at six centres. "Phone therapy is the choice of many young people," Mr Harrison said. "They can remain anonymous and in control while they find out about consequences before action is taken."
Unlike adults who expect 50-minute sessions of counselling young people find effective help in "brief encounters". Ninety per cent of calls to ChildLine last 12 minutes or less, Mr Harrison said. "They accept reassurance, advice and guidance on who else they should talk to."
ChildLine now plans a UK-wide schools initiative, to encourage young people to turn to each other.