Safe haven to clear the head

Catherine Ormell

Counsellors now have such a crucial role in some schools that they are less likely to be made redundant than teachers. Catherine Ormell reports on the renaissance in the ultimate support service.

Miriam Elloway, a school counsellor, was recently asked to see a teenage girl who'd been struggling with her school work. In the counsellor's primrose-yellow office, the clock ticked noisily, the packet of Kleenex was on hand. Silence prevailed. Then suddenly the pupil said, quite sharply, "Well, I've come for my lobotomy."

Miriam laughs. "It's important that the kids know you're unfazeable," she says. A mother of six and an experienced counsellor of adults, this energetic, dark-haired woman takes stroppy teenagers in her stride.

Having worked for some years in a GP's practice, she arrived last year at St Laurence School in Bradford on Avon as its first full-time counsellor. So far she has seen 160 of the 1,200 pupils individually, plus plenty more in group work on assertiveness, negotiation skills and similar topics.

Children refer themselves to her or are sent by teachers or parents to book an appointment for one of the six counselling sessions each day. "They come with problems relating to divorce, bereavement, school phobia, minor bullying, friendship problems, sexual confusion, right through to those struggling to organise their homework," she explains. "I'm not offering therapy for family problems, but I am trying to clear their heads so they can concentrate on their studies."

St Laurence is regarded as one of the top two comprehensives in Wiltshire. Most parents are relatively affluent, middle-class professionals, commuting from this pretty country town with its Saxon church to Bath or Bristol. It is not the sort of school you might expect to need a counsellor.

And over the past few years the school has peaked, with GCSE A to C grades rising from 45 per cent in 1988 to roughly 70 per cent last year, and the size of the sixth form increasing from 100 to 265. But, as well as becoming strong academically, St Laurence has been developing its ethos. Printed in bold type in the school handbook is the legend: "Every pupil has the right to be safe and happy here."

Headteacher James Wetz says that the idea of appointing a counsellor grew out of an anti-bullying campaign and staff training sessions run by a psychotherapist.

Miriam Elloway, who has no teaching background, appealed because she offered a new perspective - a psychodynamic approach which assumes there is an unconscious where painful feelings and defence mechanism may be held and which can then emerge as unacceptable behaviour. A lot of her time is spent allowing pupils to express feelings and find relief by doing so, but also seeking to gain some understanding of the underlying problem.

Although initially reactions were mixed - some pupils tagged her "the shrink", some staff were sceptical - Miriam Elloway was carefully integrated into the organisation. Her official title is "team leader, counselling and behavioural support" and she is equivalent to a head of department and paid accordingly.

She sits on the senior policy group and holds a drop-in session on Friday evenings for harassed staff who want advice on specific problems. The school nurse, two behaviour support assistants and the midday supervisors are her eyes and ears, picking up distress signals from children and reporting back to her.

The experiment has proved sufficiently successful that, at a time when the school is cutting Pounds 100,000 from its Pounds 2.5 million budget, it is opting to make teachers and other support staff redundant rather than lose Miriam Elloway. James Wetz believes it's not enough for pupils to flourish academically: he wants them "to realise a calmness at the centre of themselves".

"I don't mean be inwardly quiet, but rather that we all have times when we have to dig in pretty deep and draw on personal resources, not panic and be sure of ourselves," he explains.

"It's not that we as adults would say, 'Don't worry, we'll just take this difficulty away'. Probably we would say, 'This is difficult, it does hurt, it is upsetting, but by dealing with it you are growing stronger for the future'. "

St Laurence is not an isolated case; in the past year, the school counsellor has made a comeback. Although the press recently hailed the appointment of a stress counsellor at Stretford High School, Manchester as an unique initiative, it wasn't. A few schools have kept a counsellor on the premises since the Seventies; many more have been recruiting in the past 18 months.

In the present climate of scarce resources, schools which are squeezed for cash are finding alternative funds - from health authorities, or charitable foundations, or accepting voluntary help.

Roger Casemore, president of Counselling in Education, a division of the British Association for Counselling, says: "Teaching isn't the only answer. There's a growing recognition that you can't manage a large community of children and adults without helping them to handle various stresses and strains."

Although nobody knows just how many school counsellors there are, membership of CIE is a good indicator and it has gone up by 30 per cent to 360 over the past nine months. Swamped with enquiries from schools, CIE is publishing guidelines on good practice for counsellors working in schools later this year.

School counsellors have not been so fashionable since the early Seventies, when some estimate there were as many as 250 around the country. They were originally an American enthusiasm. The first school counsellor was Jessie B. Davies, who came to Detroit's Central High School in 1898. They arrived in Britain in the wake of the 1963 Newsom Report which recommended counselling to help under-achieving pupils. But with education cuts and poor management, counsellors had largely faded away by the Eighties.

This time around, the revival in counselling is due partly to changing attitudes - we live in the age of therapy - and partly to underlying social changes. Record numbers of children under the age of 10 are being treated in hospital for mental illness caused by family break-ups, poor parenting and other pressures. Similarly, the number of children permanently excluded from school continues to rise.

Meanwhile educational psychologists and child guidance services are hopelessly over-booked in many areas so schools are left trying to sort out problems in-house.

With one in three marriages in the country breaking down, it's no surprise that family splits are top of the list at St Laurence, as at many other schools. Tessa Hope, chair of CIE says: "Many youngsters can't begin to get access to the curriculum because of everything else that gets in the way.

"Children as young as five are starting school suffering from adult deprivation: they are not talked to, or read to or hugged. It's the break-up of families, the increase in families not talking to each other.

"Parents leave for work before youngsters go to school, rarely do any families eat together, adults are dead beat in the evening."

Tessa Hope advocates prevention rather than cure. Teachers can often tune in and catch problems as they emerge, before they develop into something which requires a counsellor. "Unfortunately, teachers are under such pressure nowadays," she admits. "Either they don't have the skills or they don't recognise that they need them."

One school where this is recognised, however, is St Mary's, Wantage, a prestigious private girls' school and briefly notorious for last summer's post-exam riot when fifth-formers in stocking masks ran amok. If the need to listen is important in day schools, it's critical in boarding schools. Indeed, the practice guide which accompanies section 87 of the Children Act 1989 says teachers and other care staff in boarding schools should have training to develop counselling skills.

At St Mary's, where fees are Pounds 10,860 a year and old girls include Viscountess Linley and the barrister Presiley Baxendale, staff are only too aware of their dual role as teachers and surrogate parents. Headteacher Sue Bodinham says the school plans to appoint a part-time counsellor later this year. In the meantime, she invited a specialist counselling trainer, Helen Holland, to run a workshop on "listening".

And so, on a damp May afternoon, a dozen staff sit with their heads dipped, eyes closed, thinking about the last time anyone really listened to them.

The school nurse, the chaplain and the drama mistress all want to know how to deal with a bereaved child, an over-dependent child, a colourless child who's underachieving.

Helen Holland, who was an English teacher before she qualified as a counsellor and is also a mother of five, claims to be a rebel despite her city-smart lemon-and-black linen co-ordinates and manicured nails. Indeed, she was technically expelled seven times from her own boarding school (the threat was never carried out) and feels for the troubled adolescent.

As she points out: "Teachers are in the game of asking questions and they are often not very good at listening. The moment a teacher asks a child a question, it becomes the teacher's agenda not the child's."

She suggests phrasing questions as statements and offers "I wonder how you are feeling," as more tentative, more encouraging than "How are you feeling?".

In those situations where a teacher has to swap roles - one minute disciplining the child, the next offering understanding - she suggests moving to another room or taking up a different posture to underline the switch. Good listening, she says, comes down to an attitude which embodies empathy (like stepping into their shoes with the laces undone), acceptance (suspending judgment), sincerity (not offering more than you can give) and empowering (letting the child solve the problem).

After the St Mary's group has practised listening to a colleague drone on without interruption, she declaims, "Don't just do something, stand there, " and a wave of appreciation ripples round the room. Holland leaves these teachers with a model of six useful questions to keep in mind when listening (not to ask the child directly):

* what is the problem? (answering this could take minutes or weeks)

* how do you feel about it?

* what are your options?

* how do you feel about each of these?

* which option are you going to choose?

* when, how and where are you going to put this into action?

She stresses however, that teachers have to recognise their limitations as counsellors. "They should be aware that they are not mini-counsellors just learning basic listening skills to enable them to pick up what may be going wrong for a child or to help a child having a bad patch. If the child reveals a serious problem they should be clear about referring on."

This distinction between what the layman might regard as counselling and what counselling professionals regard as counselling "proper" is a trap for the unwary. Counselling "proper", according to the BAC, only happens when there is a contract and a relationship between a client and a counsellor. An agreed time to meet, an agreement on confidentiality (except where child protection procedures are required) and agreement to explore whatever feelings arise. Anything else is just listening and supporting.

What's more, Roger Casemore, argues while it is desirable for teachers to learn counselling skills to become better communicators, they should not take on actual counselling. Their role as a teacher controlling punishment and reward (for instance marking exam papers) will affect how open the child will want to be.

But Chris Watkins, past chairman of the National Association for Pastoral Care in Education, is critical of this approach. He currently runs counselling courses for teachers at the Institute of Education. "The danger of thinking that counselling can only be done in schools by counsellors could result in teachers surrendering up their pastoral role ... something which is demonstrated by research to be part of their professional satisfaction and reduce overall job stress."

Chris Watkins fears schools, in their rush to hire counsellors, might make the same mistakes as in the Seventies. Appointing a token ear, but not tying him or her in with the school, overloading him or her with inappropriate problems so they get burnt out.

"Also, there's a widespread misconception that counselling can help children with behavioural problems. But research proves that counselling is ineffective in dealing with these. It locates the cause for the behaviour problem in the pupil and not the organisation, and while every now and again that might be appropriate, much of the time it's inappropriate."

With these caveats, however, Chris Watkins says he is strongly in favour of more counselling in schools: "The best approach is when it's organised on connected levels, the form teacher does some, their team leader does more skilled work, and then maybe a specialist gets involved.

"This gives you more, you have lots of people in an organisation contributing, rather than just one person in a cupboard. Second, it stops inappropriate referrals. One of the things you find in any helping system is that as soon as you set it up, the problems escalate."

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Catherine Ormell

Latest stories


Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 23/9

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives
Tes Reporter 23 Sep 2020