Michael Prestage describes a pioneering scheme for older pupils aimed at throwing light on personal relationships. In a pioneering project, Relate (formerly the Marriage Guidance Council) is sending trained counsellors into schools to discuss personal relationships with pupils in an attempt to cut the divorce rate in the long term.
The work in a handful of schools in north and west Wiltshire highlights personal expectations for both relationships and marriage, as well as communication and listening skills. The 40-minute sessions are intended to complement a school's sex education programme.
Sue Cooper, who teaches personal and social education at St Laurence School, Bradford on Avon, said the course was important in helping to develop students for adult life, looking at such areas as commitment in relationships. The school was among the first to take up the Relate offer.
"Relate fits into our comprehensive PSE programme. If we are looking at emotions, feelings and how relationships work it helps to have people in who are dealing with these issues all the time and can put them into a real life context," she said.
She added that the children represented a range of maturity: feelings about relationships differ depending on family life, peer relationships, and whether they have had close relationships with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
The sessions deal mostly in general terms rather than concentrating on pupils' lives. However, sometimes children's personal experiences come to the fore and generate lively discussion. Children who are in families where relationships are disintegrating also find the course helpful.
The work started two years ago and Joss Green-Armytage, Relate's centre manager in Trowbridge, said the response from schools has been phenomenal. It was not always so. In the early days schools were reluctant and saw Relate more as a last resort at times of marriage break-up rather than a positive resource.
The project's counsellors have taken on additional educational training to prepare them for their work in schools. The bulk of the course is targeted at Year 11 and sixth-form pupils. Funding is a difficulty and the organisation itself is paying for much of the work but hopes there will be financial support later.
Ms Green-Armytage said: "If we are talking about the problems we see in relationships as an organisation, I would say the biggest factor is that two people's expectations are so different. One of the reasons we are keen to work in schools is so that we can let children explore the expectations in relationships and set realistic targets."
She said that with one in three marriages ending in divorce, anything that gives young people more options and help in preparing for marriage has to be valuable.
For Year 11 GCSE pupils, the course looks at personal choice and the different relationships around them. It includes their role in those relationships. Marriage is talked about. But so is celibacy, and one-night stands.
"We hope they will become more knowledgeable about what to expect and might avoid some disasters later in life. Most young people tend to have a fairly rose-tinted view of marriage and relationships," said Ms Green-Armytage.
Relate does not counsel individual pupils or give advice, but the sessions are a framework for discussion and can highlight pitfalls.
Sex within relationships is also discussed. Ms Green-Armytage thought this was an area where Relate counsellors could handle the subject much more easily. In counsellors' work with sixth forms, a teacher is not present. After a Relate lesson, Alison Camborne, 15, said it had been valuable to look at different relationships and what led them to be successful and what did not work so well. "I think it will be of value to me later in life. Some of the things I hadn't even thought of."