Counselling strategy will require teachers to refer children with mental health issues
Teachers will be spared from acting as counsellors under plans for a national counselling strategy for Wales's schools. But they will be expected to refer pupils - some as young as 10 - after being trained to spot mental health problems.
A trained counsellor will be deployed in every secondary in Wales under the strategy, launched last week. A pilot scheme is also proposed for some primaries.
Officials want to test whether the trauma some children experience on transition to secondary - as well as other problems - could be avoided with earlier intervention and counselling.
But the scheme, which starts next month, may mean finding and training many more specialists. The Assembly government estimates that up to 200 extra counsellors could be needed.
Keith Towler, the new children's commissioner for Wales, said: "The strategy is good news, though it's a shame it took so long.
"But there are concerns about resources. And if there's a lead-up time to implementing it, that should be clear. Part of my role will be to monitor how this will work. You also have to consider children outside normal education."
The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), which was commissioned by the Assembly government to advise on the strategy, has warned that in-school counsellors should not be teachers because it could compromise their independence. Confidentiality will be crucial for pupils to trust the service, it says.
Children will be consulted on the plans during the year, and the service should start gearing up towards the end.
It will also complement the government's suicide prevention action plan. It has committed pound;1 million in 2008-9, pound;2.5m in 2009-10 and pound;3m in 2010-11 as the counselling strategy rolls out. Next month a co-ordinator will be appointed. Yet the government concedes lack of funding is a worry for existing services and that it is hard to estimate what an expanded service will cost.
One solution could be to pool budgets between health services and local authorities. Currently, only around half of Welsh LAs have school-based counselling. The campaign for secondary-age counselling was driven by Peter Clarke, the previous children's commissioner, who died last year.
The BACP recommends a minimum one-year full-time or two years' part-time training for practitioners. The government says too few existing counsellors have specialist training to work with children and young people. They will also be required to train school staff in identifying pupils.
Dr Heledd Hayes, NUT Cymru education officer, feels this should be done at the outset of a teacher's career. "If staff are taken out of normal duties, money should be there for a supply teacher," she said.
Future Estyn inspections will cover the school-based service and seek pupils' views.
Charity backs Wales, page 19
Holistic service leads the way
Pupils from five secondary schools in Wales already have access to their own counsellor and therapies.
Valerie Taylor, a former teacher and assistant head in England, helped found the first school-based counselling service in the UK - in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire.
She retrained after realising the lack of time she had available for each pupil. Now Ms Taylor believes Wales is ahead of the game, with the benefits of holistic therapy, concentrating on mind and body.
"With workforce restructuring, traditional pastoral roles were going from schools," said Ms Taylor. "But for some children, emotional baggage is a barrier to learning."
Working for the Carmarthenshire Youth and Children's Association charity, Ms Taylor helped to devise Moving On, a counselling project for secondary pupils aged mostly 11 to 14. The three-year project, backed by Big Lottery funding, is supported by Carmarthenshire local authority. Trained staff visit schools regularly to run counselling sessions and yoga.
The project focuses on younger teenagers. "It's a time when emotional difficulties start to come out. They want to appear grown up, but underneath they can be vulnerable and troubled," she said. Pupils can request treatment themselves under the system.
Ms Taylor admits that some staff were unconvinced and reluctant to excuse children from lessons. But she believes that is changing as the government launches the national school-based counselling strategy.