Drawing on his personal and professional experiences, Mark Prever highlights how important it is for schools to actively seek ways to enhance the emotional wellbeing of their pupils. He also makes the case for pupils to have an entitlement to counselling

Take a few moments to reflect upon your school years and consider what was happening for you at that time. School may have been fun and purposeful or painful and damaging. Indeed, I’m always surprised by the number of people I meet who regard their school years as negative or in some way detrimental to their sense of self worth. It would also be useful to remember what was happening in your home life and whether these were years of security and growth or whether there was sadness, loss or fear. You might also like to consider the relationship between your school and personal life at this time and how your behaviour, relationships and performance was affected for good or ill.

As I write these words I recall my own school years in Hackney, East London, where I came from a busy extended family and attended a boys’ comprehensive school. My home was in fact where the family business was located and I was used to seeing my parents, uncles and cousins at work every day. We made ladies’ coats in those days and I enjoyed my surroundings, although I am aware that over time we may create a more censored set of memories in a way that makes sense to us today.

At the age of 16 after my O-levels I decided to attend another school, this time in Camden Town, partially because my own school didn’t offer the subjects I wanted to study at A-level, including sociology.

These were to become two very unhappy years. I never quite fitted into a new sixth form where it seemed that everybody already knew each other. I became self-conscious and very lonely. My self-esteem tumbled and already overweight, I developed an eating disorder which was to affect me for many years. Largely isolated, with no real friends and unknown to most of the teachers at the school I began to lose weight noticeably and rapidly to the point of physical illness.

However, during those months of torment and break and lunchtimes hiding in the school library, I do not remember any adult at school asking me if I was OK! I desperately wanted to talk to someone who would understand, but to whom? I suspect that the beginnings of my interest in mental and emotional health and counselling with young people have their roots further back in childhood but I have no doubt that unconsciously the basis of my commitment to emotional support for young people in schools was very much embedded at this time. It is now with an adult professional perspective that I ask how I could have gone so unnoticed and unsupported. Why was there no one to listen to my heartache and fear?

On one level I would like to feel that this could not happen today in any of our schools, but I am also aware that that behind the faces of the learners in front of us there are a multitude of emotions, some of which are overwhelming, acute and debilitating. Sometimes these come to the fore as behaviour suffers, causing problems for both teachers and parents and indeed sometimes the wider community. Unfortunately, and to some extent understandably, schools focus on changing that behaviour which often undermines discipline, destroys teachers’ sense of wellbeing and often adversely affects the learning of others.

Optimism and concern
In 2001 the DfES distributed the guidance document Promoting Children’s Mental Health Within Early Years and School Settings but its impact was limited and anecdotal evidence suggests that very few of these booklets established themselves beyond the bookshelf of the deputy headteacher. Of course, we are hopefully entering a new era where a concern for mental health and emotional wellbeing is seen as crucial for school success. The Every Child Matters agenda mentions this dimension specifically while the new National Healthy Schools Award has made it an essential component. It is also encouraging that Ofsted inspections search out evidence that this aspect of school life is being addressed.

However, on a bad day I do worry that these ideas and perspectives will not reach fruition and go the way of other initiatives. I sometimes reflect with sadness on the power that sometimes distorts that which is good and which has the child at its heart. The pressure to produce results and achieve targets sometimes sways schools towards a narrow focus on outcomes that can be measured and are observable. Inevitably, resources are placed in areas where schools will be judged. Where support is offered I discern a realignment away from the personal to the academic.

It is important not to see my words as an attack on the academic and curriculum side of schools, which remain the main reason why schools exist. I simply draw attention to this tendency to shift the balance further away from support of the personal and emotional kind. I also struggle with the concept of reducing the responsibility of teachers in pastoral work in favour of an exclusively teaching and learning role. Didn’t we all believe years ago that schools were to reduce the pastoral academic split?

Of course it should be said loudly that a concern for academic excellence (an admirable goal I dearly wish for my own daughter) is not incompatible with a similar pursuance of excellence, in terms of emotional health and wellbeing. Indeed, it is strongly argued that a concern for the latter is essential for real learning to happen. We all recognise that young people learn best when they feel safe, secure, valued and listened to.

Emotional health and wellbeing
Schools are being asked to place mental health and emotional wellbeing at their core and this is to be applauded. Good schools have effective special educational needs provision whose influence permeates all aspects of school life. Schools have for a number of years been concerned with addressing bullying. As a counsellor working with young adults I often listen to the torment they experienced at school and it is long-lasting legacy which has at the very least exacerbated and compounded their present problems. Peer projects of all kinds, mentoring, school councils and all attempts to involve young people in the life of their schools and to give them voice are highly welcomed and contribute to students’ sense of belonging. Effective and active policies with regard to drugs, sex and relationships education all contribute to pupils’ wellbeing as does a comprehensive programme of personal, social and health education and citizenship education taught specifically and across the curriculum alongside a more than superficial concern for the spiritual, social, moral and cultural side of school life.

Mental health problems
An interest in the mental health and emotional wellbeing of all students (and of course the adults who work in the school) which translates into real action is desirable, not only because it makes schools nicer and more purposeful places but because it changes the culture of the school.

However, this wide focus is not enough. There will always be young people in our schools who would benefit from specific interventions. Organisations such as the Mental Health Foundation and Young Minds have documented just how many of students in school may be suffering from a mental health problem at any one time. Depression is on the increase and statistics show an alarming rise in the number of young people who are self-harming. Eating distress of whatever kind can be viewed in every school and more and more young people are refusing to go to school or are exhibiting a wide range of anxieties. Issues around poverty, prejudice, gender, divorce and separation, abuse of all kinds and addiction all contribute amongst a multitude of other risk factors to mental health problems in young people.

Government is quite rightly encouraging schools to work even more closely with outside agencies in a multidisciplinary way although differing language and professional priorities remain as challenges to be overcome. However, there are so many ways in which schools can support pupils with mental health problems. The first relates to the point made earlier which is concerned with identification and an intelligent understanding of symptoms. This takes some care as schools become preoccupied with behaviour rather than underlying causes. The second is concerned with addressing stigma and the attitudes which may prevent a young person asking for help.

Counselling in schools as an effective intervention
As someone who has been involved in the provision of counselling in schools I also wish to make the case for this kind of support. Many different kinds of interventions are available to young people in school. These include: behaviour support, social workers, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) teams, educational welfare services, learning support within the school and via specialist agencies and so on. All are to be valued as contributing to a comprehensive range of advice, guidance and support offered to young people in need.

Person-centred counselling, which is advocated here, originates from the work of Carl Rogers in the United States but has its foundation in the humanistic psychology tradition. It is normally associated with the ‘core conditions’ of acceptance, congruence and empathy. Often criticised for its lack of academic rigour as compared with say, psychodynamic approaches, it is I believe the most powerful of all forms of support because it focuses exclusively on the world of the young person as they view it. The person-centred approach is most often associated with quality listening with less of a concern for outcomes that can be measured in numbers or lists.

If you take just a few moments to think about a time when you felt listened to, really listened to, not judged, or advised in a way that felt alien to where you were at that moment in time, then you will understand. When a young person is offered real time and space and a high degree of (albeit not complete) confidentiality, this may be the first time a child has experienced such complete attention.

I believe that all young people should have access to counselling as an entitlement and it is encouraging to see increasing numbers of schools making this service available to students on site. Of course, good listening should not be confined to the specialist counsellor and all who work with young people in schools could enhance the quality of their work with young people through the use of counselling ‘skills’. I know as a teacher that I am far more effective when I am empathic and prepared to listen. I believe that with the very best intentions we guide, coerce, encourage and attempt to motivate our students but we could do a little more to listen, just listen. It was this kind of support perhaps I was looking for so many years ago.

Mark Prever is student development leader at a Birmingham secondary school, counselling development officer at the Open Door Counselling Service in the city and a former chair of Counselling Children and Young People, a division of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. He is author of Mental Health in Schools: A Guide to Pastoral and Curriculum Provision published by Sage (2006).