Do wise counsels still prevail?

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Catherine Ormell's "Safe haven to clear the head" (TES, June 16) has stirred memories. I too had been surprised by the media's readiness to accept the conjecture by the head of Stretford High School that her appointment of a school counsellor might be "the first of its kind in the country". All credit, I had thought, to Jan Atkinson and her staff that they should have met the need for a counsellor by an apparently independent route. In the palmier days of the 1960s, encouragement and example were more readily at hand.

Who now remembers the case of Tina Wilson which was national news three decades ago when the young Southampton schoolgirl took her life? A QC's report recommended that every school in the country should have a counsellor. Other young people have taken their lives since then; countless others have suffered from the increasing pressures imposed upon them. Never has the need for counselling been greater. Yet, when counselling in every field from sexual abuse to bereavement has been recognised and increasingly practised, counselling as a full-time commitment within a school seems almost to have disappeared.

Catherine Ormell mentions the Newsom Report of 1963. In that year the National Association of Mental Health, under the late Lord James of Rusholme, reported that "most children need some help in realising their own potentialities . . . many find the common problems of personal and social adjustment difficult or disturbing, some . . . need help from expert agencies. Since these demands are not being effectively met . . . a need exists which might be met by counsellors."

Responding to such suggestions, the universities of Keele and Reading set up in 1965 the first full-time courses in the country in counselling and educational guidance. In the same year the former Leicestershire authority seconded two teachers to the Reading course.

When in the years 1967-9 the last of Leicestershire's grammar schools, at Market Bosworth, was planning its reorganisation as an upper school, there were yet more signs to read. The NAMH campaign "Minds Matter" warned that one girl in six and one boy in 10 would need treatment in a mental hospital at some time in their lives. Clegg and Mason (Children in Distress), the Seebohm Report on the social services, the Summerfield Report, all carried similar warnings in l968. No wonder then that a school which was due to expand from 400 selected 11 to 18-year-olds to 1,600 unselected 14 to 18-year-olds within seven years, should seek to provide continuity of care for all and safety nets for any who might need them. The Bosworth College appointed its first full-time counsellor (female) in 1971 and a second (male) in 1972.

Leicestershire encouraged but did not impose. A counsellor was allowed to count only 0.5 against the staffing quota, on the assumption that up to a half-timetable might be taught, But many Leicestershire schools still chose not to take up the offer: some headteachers liked to say that all their teachers were counsellors. And there are schools where counsellors would be unable to operate, as one authority in the early 1970s found when it chose to impose a counsellor upon all its secondary schools.

Even Bosworth now has only one counsellor and she does some teaching. When she was appointed in 1990 there were still some half dozen counsellors across the authority but only she was still supported on the 0.5 concession. When that was withdrawn in 1993, the governors agreed to meet the 0.5, and Community Education took on a further 0.25 of the cost of counselling adults as well as students.

Elsewhere, as Catherine Ormell confirms, there is some part-time counselling. Another Leicestershire community college, Beauchamp, which first employed a counsellor when two of its students were killed in the Hillsborough tragedy, has continued with the same counsellor for two days a week. Last year a television programme recorded the experience of a London comprehensive in using peer-counselling to help with a bullying problem. Centre 33 in Cambridge, which caters for young people between 12 and 25, has counselled 690 of them in the past year. But the British Association for Counselling did not know of any current full-time counsellor in a school. So perhaps Stretford High School is now unique. I hope not.

Timothy Rogers was formerly head of Bosworth College, Leicestershire

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