Counselling is often touted as a solution to challenging behaviour and as a way of meeting needs that are beyond the scope of a school’s pastoral care mechanisms. But is it? Adrian King, independent health education consultant and qualified counsellor looks at what it can realistically deliver.

You may already provide strong pastoral support at your school. The current push to develop Healthy Schools has enormous potential for increasing pupils’ feelings of wellbeing and competence to cope with pressure and adversity.

If your school is working towards Healthy School Status, you will already be strengthening PSHE provision and thereby encouraging pupils’ personal development. You will have, or be working towards, ‘a confidential pastoral support system for pupils and staff to access advice, especially at times of bereavement and other major life changes, and working to combat stigma and discrimination.’ And you will also be ‘identifying vulnerable individuals and groups and establishing appropriate strategies to support them and their families.’ Counselling is but one strategy for providing effective support.

It is vital to understand what counselling is, what it is not, what its potential is and what are its limitations. The way counselling works is to encourage and harness a young person’s wish to change their situation. It can help them to explore the situation they find themselves in, to distinguish between what is within their power to alter, and what is not and to identify what changes they can make that might improve things.

 Helping them to express their feelings, the causes of these feelings, the options that face them and the consequences of each of these, can empower them to take steps that will alter both the circumstances within their sphere of influence and the way they feel about themselves and their lives. It can address long-established woes, or acutely stressful or distressing situations.

Supporting a desire for change

But it is not the counsellor who brings about change – it is the young person who ‘leads’ the process. The counsellor supports the exploration process that brings fuller understanding of how things are and the changes or decisions available for making improvements. They may also sometimes initiate action. But it is the young person who takes responsibility for deciding what to do and for taking action.

Motivation, conviction and self-esteem are all essential if counselling is to bring about satisfactory outcomes for any individual. The most important of these is motivation – the others can more easily be addressed within counselling sessions. If the school is putting pressure on a pupil to change, but the pupil is resisting it (perhaps because they feel OK as they are), counselling is unlikely to change anything.

On the other hand, for a pupil facing a dilemma, suffering bullying or other abuse, or experiencing serious negative self-regard, counselling may be a radical agent for lasting change. It may even result in a pupil who takes a more active interest in their schoolwork. And coping strategies learned now may serve a young person well right through their adult life.

The limitations of counselling

It is important to recognise, however, that counselling is not a panacea in every situation. It cannot simply be imposed upon an unwilling pupil. It won’t increase academic talent, stop young people wanting to experiment with drugs, or reduce the number of teenagers who rebel against authority by asserting their identity and their independence. Indeed, counselling is not something you can ‘do’ to someone.

Attempting to wield it as a tool to address rudeness, serious wrongdoing or apparent indolence is to misunderstand its potential to bring about desirable and lasting change. When it is skilfully executed, it can be a powerful force for improving young people’s long-term wellbeing. It can help young people to exercise greater control over themselves and their lives and provide a conduit to other specialist agencies when appropriate. Providing access to counselling is a powerful way to tell a child he or she matters. It may even reduce the likelihood of drug use progressing to misuse. But it is not a behaviour-management tool.

Like any skill, counselling is potent in the hands of those with expertise but otherwise is not something to be dabbled with. It is a recognised professional skill that should not be conducted without training and regular, competent supervision. However, some of the skills that counsellors use (eg listening, remaining non-judgmental, conveying empathy, gentle confrontation) may be common currency in your school – they are certainly not the exclusive preserve of qualified counsellors. Some LEAs or local Healthy Schools Partnerships offer training courses to help teachers develop such counselling skills.

Local services

Youth counselling may be available locally at no cost to school or pupil. In its 2003 document Transforming Youth Work the DfES called for local authorities to ensure young people had access to a ‘comprehensive generic, confidential information, advice and counselling service’, to bring an end to the somewhat sporadic provision across the country.

You may be lucky enough to live in an area where there is already an agency. You can check by visiting the Youth Access website (address below) and searching the Directory of Services. If there is local provision, you and your pupils are very fortunate. Perhaps you have already contacted them and clarified key issues such as how young people gain access to their services, how the agency manages referrals, whether they are prepared to consider on-site provision and how accountability would work? Agreed procedures may already be prudently recorded in your school’s pastoral care policy, ready for when they may be needed.

Most counselling services are confidential, which means that there is no routine feedback from them about their clients or any counselling sessions that take place. This does not mean that there cannot be feedback to the school if this has been agreed with the young person, although this will not be the priority for an agency whose main concern will always be helping their client.

Too costly?

If there is no service nearby and no current plans to establish one, you may want to explore providing your own, either by considering accredited training for one of your staff, or even buying in qualified help from a private source. In either case, funding may be a serious hurdle. But for schools that are able to find the requisite funding, there may be some difficult issues ahead. First, is the question of role conflict. Counsellors usually work hard to ensure that the nature of their relationship with their ‘client’ is one of equal status. This is very different from the role a teacher has, even when supporting individual pupils through some difficulty at school, and it may be hard for a teacher to make the adjustment.

Furthermore, the pupil may simply continue to ‘see’ the counsellor as the teacher they know. Even if the school is big enough for you to contemplate a dedicated non-teaching staff member, there can be another thorny issue. Counsellors may be bound by their ethical framework to keep secrets on occasions, but as headteacher responsible for all pupils and all staff, you will normally expect some feedback that ensures you are kept ‘in the picture’ about what is happening to the pupil.

Some schools have experimented with a counsellor as member of staff and found the tensions between their two roles too tough to handle. While it may be straightforward to explain to a young person that what they disclose to a member of your staff may not be kept secret, this could impoverish the counselling relationship to the point where some key issues may not be disclosed at all.

Confidentiality – not all it seems

You will already be aware that the need to protect children from significant harm means that no adult should guarantee a child absolute secrecy and the boundaries of confidentiality should be made clear to young people before they are encouraged to disclose information. The law does not define when a confidential relationship exists between two people. However, it is generally accepted that a duty of secrecy arises where confidential information comes to the knowledge of any person (known here as the confidant) in circumstances where that person has notice, or has agreed that the information is confidential.

In this connection, ‘confidential information’ means information which is not trivial, and not in the public domain. The essence of a confidential relationship is openness and agreement about what, if anything, will happen to sensitive information disclosed between the two people; for it need not necessarily take the form of a promise of secrecy.

The way in which disclosed information is subsequently used should always be clarified with the young person, together with the purpose of any onward transmission, and should if at all possible have the young person’s agreement.

The process of negotiating and clarifying what will happen to information defines the nature of the confidential relationship. Once agreement is reached, this confidentiality is binding and should not be broken. In situations where a counsellor cannot agree to secrecy, information should only be passed on against a young person’s wishes when it is unavoidable, and where a moral or professional duty warrants it, for example:

  • where there is a child protection issue
  • where the life of a person is at risk.

However, there is no statutory duty even in these circumstances to go against the young person’s wishes. The young person should always be informed and helped to understand the reason and what may subsequently occur. What is never pardonable, is to promise a level of secrecy and then to break that promise. Issues of confidentiality may create tensions but it is important to remember that, if they can be resolved, counselling can provide pupils with a vital lifeline unlike any other.

Useful websites:

A guide to Healthy School Status:

Children’s Legal Centre

Youth Access (offering a searchable Directory of Services to locate local agencies)

The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy