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Training School Counsellors: What is the way forward?

Paula Spencer

Over the past eleven years, policy makers have developed a number of policies that relate to children’s mental health and well being in school; for example – Promoting Children’s Mental Health within Early Years and school Settings (Department for Education and Employment (DFEE 2001), Every Child Matters (DFES 2003) Children and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) Review for young People (Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF 2008), and Targeted Mental Health in Schools, (DCSF 2008) to name a few.

The aim of these policies is to provide effective services for students who are vulnerable and perceived to be at risk of harm, therefore, putting increasing responsibility on schools to develop and deliver mental health services that target students who display emotional, behavioural and mental health concerns. Schools are expected to work closely with other professional agencies such as CAMHS, Social Services, Adolescent Outreach Teams, Youth Offending and voluntary agencies who provide services to children and their families. Many schools have responded to this by either buying in counselling services from local authorities, external agencies or by directly employing counsellors to meet this need and to fulfil their pastoral role. I am fortunate enough to be in a London borough where school counselling is taken seriously. Most Secondary schools either have full time or part-time counsellors. I am employed full time and I work with a part-time school counsellor and a trainee student counsellor.

As a school counsellor, pastoral care is the foundation of my work, managing a student counselling service and support service in a Secondary school with just over one thousand pupils aged 11-19 who come from a range of different cultural backgrounds , speak different languages and have their own individual needs is not an easy task. The service offers individual and group counselling to students, information to parents and carers and more recently has developed parent – child mediation sessions, where parents and students have the opportunity to discuss conflicts relating to home or school. Other aspects of the work involve:

  • Attending case conferences
  • Acting as a mediator between teacher and student
  • Working with external agencies, ongoing development and evaluation of the service.

The role of a school counsellor is extremely demanding. No two days are ever the same. Sometimes before I reach my office, I feel like I have done a day’s work already, just walking through the school, encountering students who have issues that need to be dealt with immediately. By the time I get to my office, there is often a student waiting for me “because of something that happened at home last night” or “this teacher is annoying me”.

Every October I receive a number of phone calls from college or university students who are doing counselling certificates, diplomas or degrees and are looking for a suitable placement because they require counselling practice hours a part of the criteria for course completion. Many of them have an interest in school counselling as a career, or working with young people generally. I respond to these requests by offering placements to student counsellors for a number of reasons:

  • It helps me to reduce the list of students waiting for counselling
  • It gives the trainee counsellor an in sight into how schools function, the differing needs of adolescents, how different theoretical approaches can be applied in school settings, and they are able to consider school counselling as a viable career choice.

Over the years I have developed a comprehensive induction training program for trainee counsellors. This is important because the trainee student counsellors have all come from courses that are generic and aimed at working with adults rather than specifically with children and young people and not courses specifically aimed at training school counsellors.

Supporting trainee student counsellors is not just about clinical supervision; I have become a teacher/trainer and developed a comprehensive induction program for student counsellors before they start practising with the students.

The training I have developed covers topics such as:

  • Understanding the role of pastoral care in the school system, mental health, government policies and legislation relating to children and young people;
  • Child protection policies and procedures, confidentiality and its limitations working with external agencies;
  • Professional boundaries;
  • Understanding the Education Acts, different schools policies, the role of the school counsellor, and much more.
  • The training is adapted to meet the level of counselling of the trainee.

With the introduction of government policies that are putting schools under increasing pressure to deal with students mental and emotional well being and the changes in how schools are expected to provide pastoral care and the increase in demand for counselling in schools, this raises questions about the way forward for the training of school counsellors.

I recommend that colleges, universities and training organisations need to consider the issue of providing a course specifically aimed at counsellors wishing to work within a school setting. School counsellors, who already work in the school system, need accredited specialist courses for their continued professional development.

Academic and training institutions need to recognise the importance of developing degree courses in School Specialist Knowledge and Skills, at post graduate and under graduate level, and incorporate the specialist training for those counsellors wanting to work specifically in a school environment.

I believe this is the way forward as it can only mean that counsellors will develop best working practices aimed specifically at school children and students will get the best help that they can.

Paula Spencer is the Head of Student Counselling & Support at a secondary school in North London.

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