The listening bank
There's no shortage of counsellors at Wembley High School. In fact there are two dozen of them, on hand twice a week to provide a sympathetic ear.
This is a counselling service with a difference, staffed and run by students themselves, some as young as 14. Since its launch last April its success has inspired several other schools in the London borough of Brent to follow suit.
Such peer counselling is an idea whose time has come. While it is already well established and researched in Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, it's still a relatively unknown concept in the UK.
In the last couple of years a handful of schools in Staffordshire, Sheffield and London have started to try out some version of the idea. At its heart lies the assumption that in certain circumstances, a student is more likely to share a problem with someone their own age than with an adult.
"I think we underestimate young people's capacity to show empathy and be supportive and understanding," says Helen Cowie, editor of a book on peer counselling in schools to be published later this month.
At Wembley High, the service focuses on problems that affect attendance. Recurring themes are the pressure of exams, bullying, personal relationships, difficulties with individual teachers, and problems at home.
Each peer counsellor is a volunteer, and has been through a demanding 21-hour training programme, run by a professional from the charity Relate. They've learnt how to listen to their "clients", how to interpret body language, how to be non-judgmental, and other essential counselling skills. Keeping a confidence is essential.
Those who don't seem suited to the task may become receptionists for the service, or help with administration and publicity. "The commitment and dedication of the students has been inspiring," says Jo Scherer-Thompson, the school's peer counselling co-ordinator. "I've been struck by their insight and resourcefulness, their energy and enthusiasm."
Chantelle Addow, a warm and confident 16-year-old, signed up because she remembers her younger brother being bullied. Her first session was with a girl new to the school. "She didn't speak very good English, so she brought a friend with her to translate. I was quite nervous, I wasn't sure if I'd find things to say. It's all very well doing role play in training, but when the time comes it's different.
"My client said she was being bullied by two boys, and this had upset her. The teachers hadn't really helped, and she wanted to know how to stop the bullying. I told her she must stand up for herself, and not be afraid to speak out. I also told her it was important to tell the teacher every time it happened.
"When I next met her she said the situation had improved, because she had stood up to the boys, told them to go away, and also told the teacher. That gave me a lot of satisfaction."
Confidentiality is a key element in the service. Although the client has chosen a name from the register of counsellors, the counsellor doesn't know who is coming until they walk into the room. Afterwards, in a debriefing session with a member of the staff support team, no names are mentioned, so the teachers are not aware of who the client is.
There is however one circumstance in which confidentiality will deliberately be broken, and counsellors mention this at the beginning of each session. If the client's problem relates to drugs, pregnancy, child abuse, or anything else that affects their health and safety, the case is immediately passed on to the staff support team or any other adult of the client's choice.
How successful is the service? The answer is not straightforward because most students only come for one or two sessions and don't feel obliged to report back. However, one of the clear benefits to have emerged from similar schemes in Canada and elsewhere is an increase in confidence and self-esteem in the peer counsellors themselves.
According to both staff and students, this has happened at Wembley. "I've been amazed at their maturity with it," says Roddy Gilbert, upper school co-ordinator. "I think they'll reap the benefit of developing these skills for the rest of their lives."
Being a counsellor certainly seems to have helped Esther Acheampong, at 14 one of the youngest in the team. "In my first year at the school people were rough on me because I was African, and I ended up crying in the toilets," she says. "So having had problems myself, it was easier for me to understand other people's. Now, if one of my friends is in trouble, I feel more confident about going and sorting it out."
Jo Scherer-Thompson emphasises that the service is not a substitute for the school's pastoral system, but an addition to it. "It's a first-aid post, but not an advice giver. The idea is to enable students to come to their own conclusions," she says.
The project is a joint initiative between Brent local authority, Harlesden City Challenge and Cities in Schools, and one of five set up to tackle the question of non-attendance in Brent schools. An evaluation shows it has improved communication, time management and other skills in counsellors and has improved the general ethos of the Wembley school.
Meanwhile it is accepted that some effects will remain hidden, at least from adults. "It's not just about what goes on in the counselling room," Jo Scherer-Thompson observes. "It's what goes on informally, what's happening all the time in the playground."
After Easter she is moving on to help another Brent school set up a peer counselling service. A new co-ordinator has been appointed at Wembley High where 20 more counsellors are being trained and the staff support team has doubled. An OFSTED inspection last year showed the school scoring well on social and moral education, and noted that children's self-worth was encouraged by giving them responsibility.
Headteacher Stephen Armstrong believes this is crucial if such a service is to work. "The ethos has to be right," he says. "We're a 'telling school', with a climate of openness and friendliness between staff and students. On the other hand, if that were not true in a school, introducing peer counselling might help to make it so, to encourage more of a sense of community."
Peer Counselling in Schools: A Time to Listen, edited by Helen Cowie and Sonia Sharp, will be published on March 21 by David Fulton (Pounds 13.99)