Guidance on counselling in schools

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The DfE is encouraging schools to employ or buy into counselling services. Here we review the situation.

Summary

  • The DfE has published the guidance Counselling in schools: A blueprint for the future.
  • This document acknowledges the good work already being done by counselling services, but also identifies areas that could be better.
  • There has been an increase in mental health difficulties and problems accessing child and adolescent mental health services.
  • Counselling can reduce psychological distress, support young people with relationships and help them manage their emotions.
  • Not everyone can be a counsellor. Schools can sometimes underestimate the skill and experience it requires.

Children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) is under pressure, and well-qualified, professional counsellors can help provide the immediate and targeted support that schools are looking for.

Of course, you will need to find the money for this from your budget. There are arguments to suggest that it is CAMHS funding that should be increased rather than schools encouraged to look elsewhere. However, as you battle to address your pupils’ needs, the politics are not your priority. Finding the right support is.

New guidance

To back its support for counselling services, the DfE has published the guidance Counselling in schools: A blueprint for the future. This is a useful document for you to study, as it outlines how a counselling service might be improved, as well as what you should consider if you are thinking about establishing one.

It describes counselling as:

‘a mental health intervention that children or young people can voluntarily enter into if they want to explore, understand and overcome issues in their lives which may be causing them difficulty, distress and/or confusion.’

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy defines school-based counselling as:

‘a professional activity delivered by qualified practitioners in schools. Counsellors offer troubled and/or distressed children and young people an opportunity to talk about their difficulties, within a relationship of agreed confidentiality.’

Why now?

Counselling has become an increasingly important feature of many schools. An increase in mental health difficulties and problems accessing child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), have led schools to seek out their own in-house or cluster alternatives. Most secondary schools and an increasing number of primary schools offer some level of access to counselling.
Counselling can reduce psychological distress, support young people with relationships and help them manage their emotions. Issues that are brought to counsellors include family issues, anger, bereavement, bullying, self-worth and relationships in general.

The current situation

Counselling in schools acknowledges the good work already being done by counselling services, but also identifies areas that could be better. These include:

  • the extent to which practice is evidence-based
  • greater use of outcome monitoring ensuring equal access to under-represented groups, such as black and minority ethnic groups (BME)
  • increasing children and young people’s involvement in developing better integration with other mental health and well-being support within the school and beyond – allowing for improved assessment and referral.

The DfE expresses a ‘strong expectation’ that over time all schools will make counselling services available to their pupils. The document provides advice for those schools that already have such a service and information for those that need to set one up.

The DfE has commissioned the PSHE association to provide guidance for schools on teaching about mental health safely and effectively. This will include a series of lesson plans for Key Stages 1 to 4 and will be available in September 2015.

Schools without a counselling service

There are different ways in which counselling can be used by schools:

  • as a preventative intervention – where there are emerging signs of behavioural changes
  • for assessment purposes – including assessment of risk, goal-setting and referral to other services where appropriate
  • as an early intervention measure
  • as parallel support alongside specialist CAMHS
  • as a step-down of intervention following the closing of a case by specialist mental health services.

You need to consider the following questions:

  • What model of counselling will you use, i.e. contracting individual counsellors directly; engaging with the LA or contracting a
    third party?
  • How will you ensure that counsellors are properly trained, supported and professionally supervised?
  • Where will counselling take place and for how long?
  • Will there be drop-in sessions?
  • How will referrals be made?
  • How will the appointment system be organised?
  • How will you ensure that pupils attend?
  • How will the clinical supervision, as well as line management of the counsellor, be secured?

Where to start

The guidance does point out that if you believe there will be a positive impact on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils then pupil premium funding could be used for this purpose. There are advantages to having a counsellor on hand who can pick up your priorities quickly and support staff in providing the help pupils need.

The models schools can adopt include:

  • contracting individual counsellors directly
  • engaging with a local authority (LA) team of counsellors
  • contracting with a third party, e.g. voluntary sector
  • paying for time from a specialist CAMHS counsellor.

Counsellors need to be properly trained, supported, professionally supervised, insured and work within agreed policy frameworks and standards. The staff employed should:

  • have a minimum of a diploma in counselling (typically two years part-time study)
  • be on an accredited voluntary register
  • ideally hold accreditation with a professional body.

If schools are considering developing the role of existing staff, such as learning mentors, they will need to consider issues such as training and facilitation of links with other professionals.Counsellors are required to have line management within the school as well as clinical supervision.

Not everyone can be a counsellor. Schools can sometimes underestimate the skill and experience it requires. The new guidance document aims to ensure that the quality of guidance and support available is retained. It is possible to have existing members of staff trained to take on this role. However, you must ensure that they meet the professional requirements.

Further information

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:

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About Author

Dr. Suzanne O'Connell

Dr Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance writer specialising in education. She is also the Managing Editor of Attendance Matters Magazine. Prior to this she taught for 23 years and was a headteacher of a junior school in Nuneaton for 11 years.

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