Space to talk things through
Headteachers' associations and the teacher unions continue to call for better protection from violent and disruptive pupils. But in inner London's Hackney, a pilot scheme by black-run charity Peoples' Place is putting counsellors into secondary schools to provide a form of emotional first aid to troubled pupils - and to reduce the strain on teachers.
Hackney Free and Parochial School, once dubbed "Britain's worst school" by the tabloids, but subsequently recognised as a school that has turned around, has on-site counsellors. For four days a week Mark Donnelly and Georgia Benjamin offer individual counselling and group sessions on bullying. They have a counselling room - accessible and high profile since it is off the main reception area - and pupils can either refer themselves or be referred by staff.
The need for SPACE (Social Personal And Career Education) was in evidence on the day The TES visited. Donnelly, who is 32 and who devised the scheme, was called to crisis after crisis - a pupil fleeing a classroom in floods of tears, police investigating another pupil, a child vomiting and asking for Mark. "We overlap with educational psychologists, education welfare officers and social services," he says.
"But there's definitely a need for an immediate presence in schools. Students do seek us out and ask for help."
The project, which began two years ago, now reaches 7 per cent of the 700 pupils with one-to-one counselling. Some students have only between two and five 50-minute sessions, and typically may talk about being bullied, or facing up to the reasons why they truant.
Others have long-term counselling, which is defined as 10 sessions or more. "They may have suffered bereavement," says Donnelly. "Or they could be displaying disruptive behaviour, which may be linked to relationships breaking down in the home."
This focused attention is the only way to help some children, says form tutor Chrissy Brooks. "In most cases, we are not physically able to change the lives or experiences of these students," she says. "But through counselling we can at least offer them a chance to work through their experiences."
Some children use art materials to express themselves; the project also runs after-school drama and music workshops. And the SPACE project workers are increasingly involved in the school's personal and social education programme. Counsellors alert social services if children reveal that they are being abused, and support them through any proceedings which may follow.
The project - including the two counsellors' time plus outside workers brought in to lead the drama and art workshops - costs more than Pounds 600 a week. Until now these have been borne by Peoples' Place, which is funded by Dalston City Partnership. But that money is running out and Georgia Benjamin's contract is having to be terminated. An application for National Lottery funds was turned down this week. However, other schools are showing an interest in sharing a counselling service and negotiations at Hackney Free may produce funding for September. Prince Charles - patron of Peoples' Place - has responded to a begging letter from Mark Donnelly by making a personal donation of an undisclosed amount.
One head of year says she refers any pupil who is having emotional problems, being bullied, having problems at home or if she suspects they are experimenting with drugs. "It's very positive," she says. "Pupils can express themselves in confidence and, because they're not teachers, the counsellors are seen as more impartial."
She rings parents to get their consent. "Often things have become so stressful that parents are grateful. It's a support for them as well."
Some staff were initially defensive of their pastoral role , says Donnelly. "They have to be aware that we're not coming in with a total solution. Others feel that what these children need is firm discipline, not a talking shop. "
Does the presence of SPACE prompt some teachers to opt out of the pastoral role altogether? "Initially, I was overwhelmed," he says. "I was seen as a saviour for all those disruptive children, or at least somewhere for them to go. But we've encouraged discussion to stop that."
A one-off classroom spat would not be referred to SPACE workers; at the other end of the spectrum, a fight involving a weapon would be deemed beyond their remit too. But for a whole range of everyday problems, pupils go to the counsellors.
The head of Year 8 says that some are "crying out for help. But I'm responsible for 150 children, and teaching as well. I haven't really got time to take half-an-hour for a counselling session."
Counsellors have also supported staff: newly-qualified teachers in particular have benefited from talking through their worries.
Does SPACE reach the most difficult and distressed children? "We're very clear that we're not social workers, teachers or police officers," says Donnelly. "It's their choice to come and work with us and, if they don't want to, they don't have to. They're very responsive to that."
The counsellors have helped one child who was clinically depressed, and a school phobic who took permanently to his bed. They work intensively with excluded children, trying to get them back in to school.
Headteacher Mary Collier says: "A certain group of children, particularly very vulnerable ones where it is outside influences that are affecting their behaviour, have benefited enormously."