Appointments with guidance support

31st August 2001 at 01:00
Northfield Academy has earned a reputation as a beacon of socially inclusive, community-based secondary education. David Henderson examines how, while Raymond Ross investigates some of its more innovative project work

Counselling is not a crutch, says Northfield Academy's independent student counsellor, Sandra Mojsiewicz. "It's about empowerment."

Her experimental post, created through Alternatives to Exclusion money from the Scottish Executive's Excellence Fund, means Mrs Mojsiewicz is seen by academy pupils as part of the pupil support team, not part of the school structure. She regards this as important, particularly for older pupils who may wish to confide in her.

The post is unusual in other ways. All pupils must refer themselves, whether or not they are encouraged by peers or teachers. Also, the counsellor works in Northfield's two associate primaries (with P5 upwards) as well as in community places, and she is available over school holidays for consultation.

She can be consulted on site at regular and negotiated times and is contactable by note, telephone or personal contact to set up counselling sessions, working always within child protection guidelines.

"Self-referral underpins the whole idea, which is that it is about the individual young person," she says. "That is crucial.

"I've been very busy since I started last September. I've seen 170 pupils, mostly over family issues or anxieties to do with bereavement, though the first pupils I saw presented as cases of depression. Surprisingly perhaps, peer relationships are not among the highest reasons for counselling.

"We operate as discreet a system as possible, for example using slips of paper at registration which simply say the pupil has an appointment with guidance support.

"There is no stigma attached or associated in their or anyone's mind. I am their counsellor, not a hospital counsellor."

Mrs Mojsiewicz taught for 20 years, seven of those as a principal teacher of guidance. She is also trained in psychotherapy and group therapy.

"Guidance staff liaise with the family and social services but if the problem is in the family, then the young person won't want immediate family involvement. That's one instance of where I can come in. The young person can work through the problem with me first and talk it out before taking the next step - before involving family or anyone else."

Mrs Mojsiewicz sees this kind of post as a very positive addition to any school. "There's a definite need for a post like this in schools. Guidance staff don't always have the time to deal with problems in depth and the effects on a child's self-esteem can be devastating if problems aren't tackled.

"On the other hand, health services tend only to see young people with serious problems. Anyone else who is needing mental health support is waiting a long time."

She believes having a student counsellor would be particularly beneficial for schools moving towards a community ethos. She defines her basic aims as:

* to create a safe environment where young people can explore their thoughts, feelings and behaviour;

* to create a self-referral system which gives young people options of where and when to meet;

* to foster self-confidence in young people;

* to encourage self-awareness, problem-solving skills and a growth towards autonomy;

* to encourage open communication between herself and staff andor parents, while respecting the confidences of each young person.

It is not always personal problems that pupils present. Sometimes they come with concerns about other family members' health or the way they are reacting to situations, such as bereavement.

"A lot of problems are underpinned by lack of self-esteem," she says. "I'm particularly interested in working with primary school boys with regard to this, getting them to express emotions early, before they become clammed-up S4 boys.

"It's not about badly behaved pupils. Often the quiet ones can be hiding problems. For example, one primary school teacher was very surprised when two of her 'best' pupils wanted to see me. But it turned out that they did have problems."

With the pupil's permission, Mrs Mojsiewicz can also refer them on to psychiatric services in extreme cases. The reverse also holds: psychiatric services, with the young person's permission, can refer them to Mrs Mojsiewicz for in-school support.

Her 23-month secondment is due to end next year. The work involved is being continuously evaluated and a final report will go before the city council's education committee.

"We would hope that the post would become permanent," says Northfield Academy's assistant headteacher, Susan Alley. "It is of great benefit to the school and is seen by everyone as part of guidance in the most positive sense."

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