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Schools do better with a counsellor

Children who have a shoulder to lean on are far less likely to fall behind, say Mike Hough and Susan McGinnis

Kerry (a composite of the experiences of real pupils) has separated parents who have been at war with each other for almost two years. She lives with her mother and younger brother but wants to see more of her father. Her mother has become extremely angry and can be hurtful in what she says to Kerry.

Kerry's schoolwork has been suffering and she doesn't seem to like herself.

Her guidance teacher is concerned and has been checking in with her on a regular basis. But now she asks Kerry if she would like to see the school counsellor. Kerry agrees and an appointment is made for the following day.

Six weeks later, Kerry is feeling better and says: "It was really good to talk. She didn't tell me what to do but just let me get things off my chest and helped me to think about how to handle things better at home."

Twenty-two secondary schools across the west of Scotland now have therapeutic counsellors managed by the counselling unit of Strathclyde University. This represents a significant increase in support offered to vulnerable young people in response to growing recognition that mental health is part of an important national agenda.

Post-McCrone, schools have fewer pupil support staff and, while they continue to offer exceptionally good pastoral care, the pressure on them is relentless. To date there is some way to go before first-level pupil support tutors take up some of the workload. Even with such developments, many schools and authorities now recognise that pupil support can be assisted with specially trained and qualified counsellors working on site.

The counselling unit has been training therapeutic counsellors to British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) standard for 15 years.

The unit, in partnership with Greater Glasgow NHS, initiated a pilot project in three secondary schools in autumn 2003. The award-winning evaluation reported such positive results from both pupils and staff that every school in East Dunbartonshire now has a counsellor working on site for the equivalent of a day and a half a week. Glasgow has a similar arrangement in 10 schools and Argyll and Bute two.

When setting up a school counselling service, the approach adopted by the unit, in light of its growing experience, is to spend time establishing working relationships with schools before the counsellor starts to see pupils. A checklist informs this process: * What evidence is there that pupils have been consulted?

* Is there a suitable room available?

* How will the pupils get access to the counsellor?

* Has the pupil support team been consulted?

* How is it proposed to inform parents?

* Have the school staff been informed and their opinions heard?

* What links with other agencies already exist and how will the counsellor relate to these other agencies?

Answers to questions such as these create the basis for detailed discussions between the senior management team of the school, other agency representatives, members of the pupil support team, the counselling service manager and the counsellor, resulting in a working agreement between unit and school.

It is not always a straightforward process. Schools working to full capacity do not have spare rooms. Careful negotiations around the rights of the young person, those of parents and the needs of the school are necessary to establish a sound basis for a confidential service (within a framework of child protection).

Gaining the trust of pupil support staff to share responsibility for pupils in their care takes time and effort. Other agencies working with the school may have different ethical and professional guidelines. Protocols for these issues need to be in place before the counsellor can begin to see the first young clients.

Once agreement is reached, the counsellor goes about the practical detail of establishing a physical presence. The counselling room needs to create a relaxed and informal atmosphere and be located in a discreet place away from general traffic. Publicity for the service is the next step; posters, leaflets, talks to year assemblies and meetings with pupil councils are all used to introduce the counsellor and explain how the service is going to work.

In most cases, referral is through the pupil support team who encourage, support and, sometimes, nudge pupils towards seeing the counsellor for the first time while also emphasising that the service is confidential and voluntary. This is where the work of the guidance team is particularly effective. As the eyes and ears of the school with regard to the emotional well-being of pupils, they are ideally placed to notice those who are in need of the additional help of the therapeutic counsellor.

At the same time, the principle of self-referral is of great importance as it recognises the significance of young people taking responsibility for their own affairs and being able to ask for and receive support on their own terms. Formal procedures for giving permission to be absent from class - usually a standard pastoral care appointment slip - are always followed.

Since 98 per cent of the counselling happens during the school day, the counsellor is alert to the need to vary the time of appointments to avoid always missing the same class.

An evaluation package is included, and the evidence to date is that the service is having a positive effect. Eighty-eight per cent of the young people surveyed said they were satisfied with the service, with 74 per cent reporting that it helped them "a lot or quite a lot".

A gender breakdown shows that, unlike many services available to young people, it was used almost equally by boys and girls (46 per cent and 54 per cent, respectively). Preliminary results of the latest data indicate that around 60 per cent of pupils felt that the counselling they received improved their motivation and concentration.

A counselling service also demonstrates in a tangible way to young people that the school cares about them and is concerned to offer support rather than criticism. It supports hard-pressed pastoral care staff by relieving them of the pressures of dealing with some of the most troubled young people in their care. The long-term effects have still to be quantified but the results to date suggest that counselling is already making a contribution to the emotional well-being of the whole school.

Mike Hough and Susan McGinnis work in the education faculty's counselling unit at Strathclyde University.

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