For ten years I co-ordinated a school peer counselling scheme. In my experience, the simplest way to describe the above is ‘a body of students who have volunteered to undertake training in order that they may offer support to other students experiencing particular problems, alongside an overall aim of reducing the amount of bullying in school’.

Through this and further articles I hope to give you examples of practices that developed over the years, which proved effective and which may help others when considering setting up these schemes.

So, what is going to be the role of these students?

This is a decision that needs to be agreed between the students and the senior management of each individual school. Here are some examples:

  • to reduce the amount of bullying in school by supporting those involved;
  • to be a ‘port of call’ for students with problems;
  • to act as an additional service to that provided by staff – complementing rather than competing with it;
  • to be accessible to pupils of any age, sex and background;
  • to provide support to pupils by listening rather than necessarily giving advice;
  • to act as a half-way house for situations which may need to be dealt with by those further up the school hierarchy.

In my experience the ongoing viability of these schemes relies heavily on there being a member of staff who acts as a coordinator. I cannot stress how important it is that this is someone elected by the group and not a staff member foisted upon the group because they do not have a full timetable! Remember that the coordinator rarely gets paid for this role!

What is the role of the Coordinator?

  • to provide ‘supervision’ for group members;
  • to look after the welfare of the students involved in the scheme – not only the important issue of their emotional welfare, but ensuring that, time-wise, they can cope with their academic commitments;
  • to organise and provide appropriate training;
  • to help the group maintain a flow of new volunteers;
  • to give assistance with general administration – especially when it comes to prising money from the school bursar to provide the group with an administrative budget for publicity, badges etc.!;
  • to act as a mediator within the group when problems arise;
  • to deal with difficult issues within the group, for example, a member breaching confidentiality.
  • The trainers I have used have, on the whole, been the school counsellors. The content of the training also needs to be agreed within school guidelines, but most often consists of issues such as:
  • confidentiality;
  • boundaries;
  • listening skills;
  • issues that can and cannot be dealt with by the students;
  • referring on.

After all the above, lets look at some of the benefits to the peer counsellors involved in these schemes!

  • it is voluntary and therefore students involved are motivated;
  • it helps self-esteem;
  • being an important part of a group;
  • role models;
  • a serious position (not all those who apply get in);
  • learn new skills;
  • can form part of community service/citizenship awards;
  • of benefit to the whole school community;
  • taking a role during emotional crisis – fitting in with school policy.

Sixth Form Mentoring

I had the idea for the Sixth Form Mentoring Scheme about four years ago. It developed to some degree as an offshoot of our Peer Counselling Scheme which was open to students aged 13 upwards.

At the time, I had just undertaken training as a mentor for the Wiltshire Youth Offending Team. I had been so impressed by the training that I realised it could be used as part of a more formal scheme, which would offer support to those students who were on the point of being expelled from school.

Unlike the Peer Counselling Scheme (where students volunteered to join) the School Counsellor and I selected a cross-section of sixth formers that included those who had faced their own difficulties (emotional or otherwise) but had turned things around along with those who had a more steady and enjoyable time in their school life.

This scheme usually consists of one volunteer (the mentor) who guides, advises or supports another pupil (the mentee) and can be an effective tool to help raise the confidence and levels of attainment of this pupil. This is achieved by:

  • offering regular, individual, personal support;
  • listening to the mentee and their concerns;
  • offering a positive role model
  • supporting the mentee in contacting others who may be able to help.
  • The positive aspects of mentoring are:
  • it enables the mentee to have support through transitional or difficult phases;
  • promotes feelings of being valued and heard by someone prepared to give up time to listen to them and discuss their concerns and frustrations;
  • provides a safe place to off-load feelings and explore new ideas or ways of overcoming difficulties;
  • assists the mentee to acquire greater self-esteem and skills to cope with awkward situations;
  • this may be the first real and significant experience of engaging in regular discussions with someone they can trust (I will be expanding this in a later article).

Although this scheme demanded a great deal more supervision, it proved successful in 80% of the cases I was asked to deal with. My role was very much to care for the welfare of the mentor.

My ten years’ involvement in the two schemes taught me a great deal – not least patience and a sense of humour! However, my greatest lessons came from the students themselves – their commitment, enthusiasm and a great sense of caring for each other.

It is the belief that well organised schemes can benefit so many, that has led me to branch out as an independent consultant offering Peer Counselling and/or Sixth Form Mentoring Schemes to suit individual schools and to offer advice to any schools whose schemes are not working as well as they would like.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, April 2005.