Student buddies to nip the bullies

19th November 2004 at 00:00
Pioneering mentoring scheme takes an individual approach, says Beth Noakes

Peer mentoring is not a revolutionary concept now. In 1993, however, Acland Burghley school's pilot scheme to combat bullying through individual counselling - set up in conjunction with Sheffield university psychologists - was a pioneering one.

Acland Burghley, in Camden, is an inner-London comprehensive school with more than its fair share of statemented pupils (10 per cent of this year's intake), and 27 per cent on free school meals. The anti-bullying campaign - ABC - is a central part of its ethos.

The ABC scheme is not just about bullying. Student volunteers are trained to help with problems including settling in, friendship worries and general teenage troubles.

Anyone from Year 8 upwards can apply to become a counsellor. Applicants fill in a detailed form and attend an interview with other peer counsellors. Some then decide it is not for them, or not yet.

"This is an inclusive school," says Vavi Hillel, one of the originators of ABC and still its co-ordinator. "We don't want to select or reject people."

Those who proceed have eight two-hour training sessions in brief therapy practice, a programme of solution-based therapy where counsellors support clients in finding their own solutions to their problems.

The training programme uses videos, role-play and games to help trainees identify positive qualities in their imaginary clients. They are given a toolkit of skills, such as grading feelings on a scale of one to 10. They are trained to help clients realise their own strengths and generate their own solutions.

Zac, in Year 9, appreciated the seriousness of the training. "We were trained like adults rather than children. I joined because I had already helped someone who was being bullied."

Acland Burghley's anti-bullying policies work because they have the support of the entire school community, including parents, teachers and management, Ms Hillel emphasises. She is based in the learning support department and works on primary to secondary transition.

"It's part of the school culture now: everyone feels responsible. People in the office, caretakers, the children themselves - they are the ones who notice when something is wrong. They notice a child who is always on their own, or who keeps getting tummy-aches, and they tell us."

The Chill Out club is a new initiative where a small group of Year 7 pupils who are having difficulty settling in are invited up to the ABC room at break to play games.

"It's a subtle circle of friends," explains Year 9 pupil Gwen, "because they don't know that they've been specially chosen."

The school tries to pre-empt transition problems by sending trained students into Y6 classes in local primary schools to run drama workshops.

"We introduce anti-bullying in a fun way," says sixth-former Catherine. "We do improvisations on ways of coping with bullying, so they realise that if there is a problem there are loads of options and lots of people they can talk to."

In a pilot scheme this year, some prospective pupils were identified by their primary schools as particularly likely to have problems moving on.

They were invited into Acland Burghley for five morning sessions in the summer term, run by student mentors. They played social games, went on treasure hunts round the school, and sampled meals and lessons.

By the time the rest of the new cohort arrived for the induction day, they had already made friends and knew their way around.

"We had three pupils with Asperger syndrome coming in this year, as well as some children with behavioural difficulties," says Ms Hillel. "After these sessions, all of them settled beautifully. Our philosophy is to be pro-active: to identify problems before they arise."

Many of these children also have literacy problems and the peer mentors have kept in touch, meeting them once a week to help with their reading.

For headteacher Michael Shew, the anti-bullying campaign is an important part of the ethos of the school. "We are saying to students, we trust you and we want to give you more responsibility. It keeps the issue high on the school agenda - that bullying won't be tolerated. All schools have bullying; it's how they deal with it that is the issue. And there's little high-level bullying here, because of ABC."

Pat Cattell, chair of governors, says: "One of the great things about Acland Burghley, and something that visitors often comment on, is the way students talk about 'our school'. They care about it and they are proud.

And ABC has contributed to that culture in a big way."

Perpetrators of bullying are dealt with from both a disciplinary and a pastoral viewpoint. "It depends on the nature of the bullying and on what the complainant wants," says Ms Hillel. "It may just take a chat and a no-blame approach. More serious cases are sent to the head of year. The bully might be offered counselling too, as they are likely to have issues to deal with. We're unlikely to exclude them - as the kids say, they'll only do it somewhere else."

ABC has contributed to a real sense of community within the school, students agree. Counsellors, as well as clients, benefit. Some have become seasoned public speakers, spreading the word at conferences.

"I was very shy when I arrived at Acland Burghley," says sixth-former Hannah. "I'd been badly bullied at primary school. Joining ABC was one of the big things that really boosted my confidence. You get to know people you wouldn't usually meet, and look on them all as potential friends."

Originally nearly all the volunteer counsellors were middle-class girls.

The base has since broadened to include equal numbers of boys and girls from all backgrounds.

Many schools now seek advice from Acland Burghley on setting up similar schemes. Dedicated anti-bullying funding would make a huge difference.

"What you see here costs a fortune. You need the support of senior management and you need money. Everyone has to be committed to making it work."

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