24th March 2006 at 00:00
Ten years ago a counsellor working in a school was a rare sighting. But with Every Child Matters requiring schools to promote children's safety and well-being, with young people perceived to be under increasing pressure and with child and adolescent mental health services stretched way beyond capacity, counsellors in schools are much more commonplace.

When did it all start?

Back in 1898, apparently, a Jessie B Davis was recorded as notching up 10 years of service as a counsellor at Central high school, Detroit, and the first "occupational information and guidance service" was established in the US Office of Education in 1938. School counselling began significantly with the American School Counsellor Association in 1952. The therapeutic, person-centred counselling approach inspired by American psychologist Carl Rogers and his seminal work of 1942, Counselling and Psychotherapy, did not take off until much later in the UK. In 1963 the Newsom report focused on the needs of pupils failing to reach their potential and recommended the employment of school counsellors.

In 1965 courses were established at Reading and Keele for applicants with five years' teaching experience; by the 1970s there were nine full-time courses. Devon was one of a number of local education authorities that sought to provide a professional counselling service in the early 1970s, though there was argument at that time about the need for discrete provision and specialism, as opposed to teaching which incorporated the counsellor-related values of respect, empathy and trust. However, after the Children Act of 1989 counselling as a provision of professional expertise in schools has grown to be regarded as a desirable and necessary support to children's lives.

Why has it developed?

From the 1990s behavioural issues have dominated the education agenda.

Twenty per cent of children and young people suffer from some form of mild to severe mental illness and over the past 20 years, with teachers' time consumed by the demands of the national curriculum and meeting targets on standards, they have felt unable to tackle students' emotional needs.

According to Young Minds, the national charity committed to improving the mental health of all children and young people, a school of 1,000 pupils will have 50 likely to be suffering serious depression; 100 in a distressed state; up to 20 with an obsessive compulsive disorder and 10 with an eating disorder. With the child and adolescent mental health service severely overstretched and early intervention regarded as crucial to successful recovery, schools in more recent years have employed counsellors. At first teachers tended to be employed in a dual capacity, but schools now turn to professional counsellors as those best able to build up necessary trust and to tackle the pressing emotional and psychological difficulties that young people increasingly suffer.

How has it developed?

On an ad-hoc basis with individual schools employing counsellors, largely part-time, though in some areas local authorities provide a counselling service across a range of schools. In 2005 Margaret Hodge, the children's minister, said psychological counselling should be available in all schools because it provided a lifeline and turning point for many pupils. The Welsh Assembly has pledged to kick-start pilot schemes in Welsh local authorities this year and the National Council for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has created school counselling services in 37 schools across Northern Ireland and wants to extend provision to all schools in the province.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) has played a major role in the increased professionalism of the service, recommending that school counsellors be properly trained and accountable, that they work within a recognised code of ethics and practice, and that they obtain BACP accreditation and registration with the United Kingdom Register of Counsellors.

The differences

In some authorities, such as Dudley, the service is a peripatetic one, with a team of counsellors working on a caseload across a range of schools on the basis that they can react quickly and effectively to need. Others, such as the Durham Counselling Service, deploy counsellors on long-term secondment to schools, so that they can monitor the effects on their clients on a daily basis, over months and years.

Counsellors operating in secondary schools tend to work on a one-to-one or group basis providing a listening ear and guidance. In primary schools, where increasing numbers of children display nurturing and attachment problems, appear isolated and lacking in social skills, counsellors use play and art therapy, using puppets, sand and paint through which young children can express themselves. Counsellors often also provide support to carers and parents.

The caseload

Boys are often referred because they display anger, are involved in crime, suffer depression, bullying, anxiety or bereavement. Girls will also present with depression and anxiety but family tension, even more than peer relationships, is often recognised as a major difficulty in their lives.

During the course of counselling boys will often reveal that family fracture is also at the bottom of their problems.

The method

Counsellors do not give advice: the idea behind the prevalent therapeutic model is that counsellors "work alongside" their clients, listening first and foremost, so that young people can explore their feelings and learn important things about themselves and their relationships by reflecting on difficult events within a safe environment. The counselling relationship is based on respect, understanding and openness. Its role is to guide young people, not tell them what to do, in creating strategies to cope with difficulties and so develop their emotional intelligence, a tool for life.

Does it make a difference?

According to the Counselling in Schools project, one of the most detailed and comprehensive attempts to evaluate the effectiveness of school counselling, pre and post psychometric tests reveal a significant reduction in levels of psychological stress. The University of Strathclyde project, written by Mick Cooper, a senior lecturer in counselling, and funded by the Greater Glasgow NHS Board, found that up to 88 per cent of young people were satisfied or very satisfied with the service and 91 per cent said they would use it again. In the first year of the Glasgow pilot offering counselling in three secondary schools, teachers gave a 7.34 out of 10 score for effectiveness, but in the second year they gave 8.47 out of 10.

They believe it to be of substantial benefit to pupils.

Strathclyde is now evaluating whether counselling has any impact on raising attainment in schools. It is generally accepted that a child suffering emotional distress cannot be an effective learner, but no research has yet assessed the effect of counselling services on school standards. However, Philip Bowden, the headteacher of Ferryhill business and enterprise college, County Durham, which subscribes to the authority's counselling service and buys in a counsellor for 20 hours a week (see case study), says the youngsters who use it are "very grateful" and that it has become a crutch for those with low self-esteem. Counselling, he says, is just one strand in a package offered by the school's health centre, and just one strand of the school improvement plan, but during the four years the counselling service has been on offer, results have risen from 28 per cent of pupils gaining five GCSE A*-C to 57 per cent last year.


Students tend to say that the greatest benefit of counselling is the chance "to get things off their chest" and understanding that they themselves have the ability to make their lives change for the better. Many students who responded to the Strathclyde research said it was as if a "weight had been lifted". "It let out what was inside me".

Some children appreciated the counselling process of "getting alongside"

and said it made them feel "less alone". "If you were talking to your brother or your mum they might sort of twist what you say or take it the wrong way, and their personal feelings will be at stake, but they (the counsellor) are just completely focused on you, so you feel you can divulge more."

Most pupils in the research said counselling had changed the way they behaved for the better and that they were more able to walk away from situations when they felt angry.

Teachers in particular appreciated being able to offer a quick professional response to distressed pupils. Mr Bowden at Ferryhill says his school used to receive only 15 visits a year from the educational psychology service, that the child and adolescent mental health service in County Durham - as elsewhere - has long waiting lists and that social services can only take on child protection cases. Consequently the school counsellor provides crucial support to students who cannot access help in any other way.


Teachers say that confidentiality sometimes prevents counsellors telling them of a child's difficulties and therefore makes them feel unable to give the support he or she needs in class.

Children in turn are sometimes confused about what counsellors are there to do and come away feeling they weren't really told anything. Fifteen per cent of student respondents to the Strathclyde research said a "lack of input" by the counsellor had been a limitation.

Some critics say that the presence of counselling is just one part of a dependency culture being created by schools. In his book Therapy Culture: cultivating vulnerability in an anxious age, Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent university, says schools are being swamped with non-educational issues. Peter Jenkins, senior lecturer in counselling at Salford university, says some teachers also believe that students can misuse the service to get out of lessons; that it offers an easy route to adult attention when what they need to do is get on with lessons. Others believe education and therapy should be strictly separate and that counselling should be offered out of school hours. Such attitudes lead to fears that counselling undermines rather than supports the school's activity. "A good working relationship needs to be established between counsellors and teachers," says Peter Jenkins. "The counsellor should be well-known and their procedures understood so they do not conflict with the teacher's role."


Sixty per cent of students who responded to the Strathclyde research said they would have been less likely to attend counselling if they needed parental permission or if other pupils would find out. However, Peter Jenkins argues that schools have a limited understanding of how confidentiality needs to operate in a therapeutic setting, and that the rights of the child in this respect are distinct from the rights of the parent. Schools have a long-standing tradition of working with parents and sharing information in the best interests of the child, and 40 per cent of schools ask for evidence of parental consent before giving their students access to counselling. The BACP says that parents, teachers and outside agencies should only be consulted with a client's knowledge and consent, unless the client's safety is at issue.


BACP says there should be:

* a secure system of referral

* a complaints procedure

* procedures for how pupils best leave classes to attend counselling

* a soundproof room that is secure for case records, with a confidential telephone line. It should be away from main school thoroughfares.

A roving brief

Counsellors are widening their brief in schools beyond the one-to-one sessions with referred pupils. Some, as with the Durham service, run anger management courses and assertiveness training in school as well as peer mentoring programmes. At Ferryhill the counsellor runs two "Aim High"

sessions for boys and girls in Year 7 to boost self esteem and improve social skills. She also runs an on-line chat service for pupils and offers one-to-one counselling for staff as part of a staff health and well-being programme.


* "Guidelines for Counselling in Schools", produced by BACP, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy ( Tel: 0870 443 5252. Download free on

* "Counselling in Schools Project", the Greater Glasgow NHS Board. By Mick Cooper, senior lecturer in counselling, Strathclyde University. Email to ask for a copy.

* "The Dudley Counselling Service for Children and Young People Handbook".

(The Dudley service celebrated its 30th anniversary last year and is highly praised by Ofsted.)

* "LEA-Organised Counselling in Secondary Schools in Dudley: clients' views on services," by John Sherry.

* "A study of teachers' views on counselling and the implication of these on referral patterns". MEd dissertation by Janette Newton, head of Dudley Counselling Service, for University of Birmingham School of Education. For the above three resources, tel 01384 814 361.

* "Confidentiality: counselling and the law", by Alan Jamieson and Tim Bond (from BACP, BACP House, 35-37 Albert Street, Rugby, Warwickshire CV21 2SG), pound;2.50.

* "Good Practice Guidance for Counselling in Schools", BACP, pound;11.

* "Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy", BACP, pound;7. The three BACP resources are available on

* "The current provision of counselling services in secondary schools in England and Wales": report of preliminary research 2003-04, by Peter Jenkins and Filiz Polat (Educational Support and Inclusion Teaching Group, Faculty of Education, University of Manchester. A copy can be requested from has direct links to these websites Did you know?

* School counselling flourished after the 1989 Children Act when it began to be seen as desirable and necessary

* Last year children's minister Margaret Hodge said psychological counselling should be available in all schools

* Critics, however, say the presence of counselling is part of a dependency culture being created by schools. Some teachers also believe that students can misuse the service to get out of lessons

* In some authorities the service is peripatetic. In others counsellors are deployed on long-term secondments

* No research has yet assessed the effect of counselling services on school standards, but in a Scottish study most students and teachers said it was of substantial benefit

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