Trainer Netta Cartwright outlines the principles that make peer support programmes sustainable in primary and secondary schools

Peer support is a process that uses young people’s natural wish to help each other. Even in the most difficult circumstances, where very few of the ideal conditions are present, peer support can work wonders in a school because young people and their adult allies are committed to it.

Helping each other

The term ‘peer support’ covers a range of approaches in a variety of settings. They all involve children and young people working with others to help them learn and develop emotionally, socially or academically so they can reach their full potential. Student peer supporters are trained in various skills that enable them to assist other students, including by referral to professionals. However, they provide the empathy, understanding, and practical support needed to resolve a wide range of problems without referral. Indeed, many of the problems they are helped with are ones they would not normally refer to adults. Peers can offer help that is often more appropriate and effective than adults; these problems are dealt with before they reach a crisis point; peer supporters can act as a bridge toward adult help; saving teachers’ time for the most serious problems. This division of labour can enhance student-teacher relationships and spread the burden of dealing with minor problems and disputes. Busy teachers spend a great deal of time resolving minor conflicts among students, which takes time away from their regular teaching.

Types of peer support

  • Befriending – Young people offer support and friendship to other young people of a similar age in everyday interactions such as helping new pupils or those who are lonely and helping in after-school clubs. There may be a specific focus such as bullying or the welcoming of asylum seekers.
  • Buddy schemes – These are proactive befriending programmes designed to prevent problems occurring or escalating. They are especially suitable for primary schools where volunteer peer supporters work mostly during break and dinner times to increase a sense of belonging and reduce loneliness.
  • Circle of friends – Peers volunteer to be part of a circle of friends for a young person who is having some kind of difficulty in her or his life. They support and encourage the student while being supervised by an adult worker.
  • Peer advocacy – Young people identify and represent views or interests on behalf of others. This can involve speaking on behalf of others or standing by them as they represent themselves.
  • Peer assessment – This is where students assess each others’ work in school. It is a valuable means of producing evidence of learning and can include activities such as observations of role-play, checklists, interviewing each other, video or audiotapes and marking each other’s work according to set criteria.
  • Peer counselling – This is formalised ongoing support based on a one-to-one counselling relationship. Peer supporters are trained in a wider set of counselling tools that include: active listening, reflection, empathy, verbal and non-verbal communication, confidentiality, problem-solving and self-esteem games and activities.
  • Peer education – Peer education means young people teaching other young people by delivering presentations and teaching courses to their peers on issues such as drug awareness, sexual health, bullying, and conflict resolution, safe sex and drug awareness.
  • Peer listening – Young people learn active listening skills to provide a range of services where children have the safety to talk about minor worries to deeper concerns such as bereavement or bullying. The ‘clients’ have their worries taken seriously and are encouraged to find their own solutions and decide what to do.
  • Peer mediation – Young people provide a neutral conflict resolution service for others. They encourage problem solving between disputing students often around bullying issues and being part of a ‘no blame’ approach.
  • Peer mentoring – Older students provide positive role models to younger students in schools. One way is for trained students to be attached to a new intake group or class to befriend and guide new students into the school environment. Another type of peer mentoring is where a peer supporter acts as mentor to one or two mentees over a limited period of time offering a supportive one-to-one friendship, listening and mediation.
  • Peer research – Young people undertake activities such as surveys, interviews and questionnaires to explore issues that concern their peers and to seek solutions.
  • Peer tutoring – Peer workers tutor others the same age or younger in reading, writing, thinking, spelling, maths and other academic skills. Sometimes referred to as peer assisted learning (PAL), it can be particularly useful where the peer tutor is only a bit more advanced academically; so both tutor and tutee benefit.
  • Peer support websites and email – Online services provide an opportunity for students too nervous for face-to-face contact to write for help.

Potential difficulties
A major problem to be overcome is that young people do not always take advantage of the help on offer. Some find the decision to seek help very difficult, and for many it is viewed as an admission of failure in their own and others’ eyes. A potential hurdle therefore is finding students who are confident enough to provide a service to challenge this and not be discouraged and disappointed when students do not readily take it up. Schoolchildren want to help peers they perceive to be in distress, but can be held back by negative peer pressure and lack of confidence in the adequacy of their help.

Once peer supporters have been trained, establishing credibility with other students can be difficult. There is a danger of them being targeted, ridiculed and seen as ‘geeks’. If the staff are not kept informed they may dismiss the whole project if they feel that peer supporters are trying to do the work of adult professional services. They could feel threatened or annoyed if some peer supporters become over involved. Time management, lack of resources and lack of commitment from senior management are also a major challenge. Schools often find it hard after peer support has been set up to invest the resources needed for staff to supervise the peer supporters and keep the momentum going. Other problems associated with peer support are:

  • reduced confidence in peer supporters if inadequately supported 
  • frustration where raised hopes and expectations are not met
  • lack of adequate supervision
  • gender differences and imbalance
  • limited impact in reducing student violence.

Shared ownership

Peer support has a role to play improving relationships for everybody in schools, not just for the students concerned. By engaging a wider set of community members it can help enhance a school’s caring ethos. Peer support works best when its principles are embedded in the everyday workings of the school and there is a shared ownership and understanding of the key aspects of the programme. This position will take some time to establish though it can happen more quickly where a school already has an ethos of students taking responsibility for themselves. Ideally before setting up a programme the whole school and senior management need to be on board. If this is not the case, it is possible to proceed and work towards their involvement during the process. It is essential to ensure there are resources to properly support an established peer support service and make it sustainable.

Key stages

These are the key stages schools go through in setting up peer support programmes:

  1. Needs analysis – This involves identifying the needs of the school and assessing the resources available before moving to an intervention. A needs analysis can be kept simple or can be quite detailed depending on time and resources available.
  2. Appointing a coordinator – Coordinators can be drawn from staff or outside agencies. Often they are school counsellors or youth workers. The person needs to be motivated and committed, with enough non-contact time for the necessary administrative work. Day-to-day tasks include:
    1. drawing up contracts
    2. writing memos
    3. producing rotas
    4. sending out reminders for the peer supporters.
  3. Preparing for training – Ideally staff supervisors are trained in the same model as the students, either beforehand or alongside the students. Supervisors also need training in referral procedures, supervision of peer supporters and how to administer the project.
  4. The training course – The purpose of the training is generally two-fold: promoting the personal development of the peer supporters themselves; and training them in specific skills to support others.
  5. Sustaining the programmes – How the service operates from day to day will play a large part in how well the service is sustained in the long term. Key elements in the successful operation of a peer support programme are:
    • Launch activities: Communicating with the whole school community will include all or any of: presentation of certificates, producing publicity material, websites, email addresses, letters to parents, students and staff, school assemblies, talks to tutor groups, newsletters, press releases, media involvement, and presentations to governors and important local community members.
    • Ongoing publicity: Ideally peer supporters will be appointed to their specific roles with rotas and supervision sessions organised for at least a term at a time. The key worker will need to ensure notes are sent out and that continual communication with relevant staff and target groups ensures they and peer supporters are kept informed.
    • Regular supervision of peer supporters: Ideally supervisors should meet peer supporters once a week or, at least once every two weeks, ensuring that peer supporters are not stretched beyond the boundaries of their competence.
    • Follow up training: As the programme unfolds, opportunities for refresher or updating sessions will be helpful about once a term. This keeps the momentum going, irons out problems and ensures peer supporters develop further skills.
    • Follow-up activities: Students can network with other peer supporters in their neighbourhood or further afield by taking part in events arranged by organisations like the Peer Support Network, the Peer Mediation Network, Trust for the Study Of Adolescence and Re-evaluation Counselling.
    • Planning the next year’s programme: The training of the next cohort of peer supporters and supervising staff is best planned at least a term in advance to ensure sustainability of the service. Some programmes involve the current peer supporters in the recruitment and interviewing processes. Once selected, the next cohort of peer supporters could become apprentices learning ‘on the job’ with the older peer supporters.

Time and funding

Key to sustainability is the provision of adequate time for peer support within the curriculum coupled with financial backing. Ideally, training for students and staff will take place during school time as part of the curriculum. Although many schools run courses at lunchtimes, twilight time or at weekends, this tends to undermine the importance of the activity and can exclude many students. It also relies on the goodwill of staff. Time pressure can lead schools to cut back on the amount they can allow for peer support and therefore limit its impact. As a headteacher of a primary school in Stafford explained: ‘The only factor that has limited the success is time – or lack of it – in terms of the number of changes, initiatives and improvements we are choosing or being forced to make. However, while we have not implemented all of the elements of this project as planned, we have altered the culture of the way that pupils interact and as such this has been a success.’ Mary Baginsky examined peer support schemes in 14 schools that had been provided with training and limited initial support by the NSPCC. The schools were then expected to assume responsibility for the scheme’s day-to-day functioning. After 12 months, it appeared that only four of the 14 schemes examined were reasonably strong and seen to be succeeding by the teachers interviewed. Another four schemes were either ‘limping along’ or said to be in temporary abeyance. This means that six schemes had effectively stopped, although a few teachers hoped that, when more resources were available, they might be revived. Financial resources are less of a problem once the initial outlay has been found. Sustaining the project afterwards is relatively inexpensive as the trained staff supervise and train each year’s new cohort of peer supporters.

Staff coordinators

When I surveyed schools where peer support had been active for over three years, I found that eight schools had been led by senior managers, four by teachers, four by learning mentors, three by heads of year, two by counsellors and one by a special educational needs coordinator. They all had at least one motivated and adaptable person with enough non-contact time for the necessary, but time-consuming, administrative work. This model entailed at least one member of staff regularly supervising the peer supporters, then evaluating and monitoring their work. The coordinator registered the students’ attendance at supervision meetings and their peer support activities. Although they liaise with other staff, the coordinator may at times work on their own with only their training, enthusiasm and commitment to maintain their motivation. This can translate into isolation and, when there is lack of support from senior management, peer support is at risk of simply fizzling out. Another factor contributing to the demise of a service is when the coordinator leaves and is not replaced, or when a person gets the job by default or is thrust into it without consultation or training. The headteacher of Flegg High School in Norfolk warns against ‘the mistake of giving the programme to somebody because nobody else will do it’.

Selection and training

When deciding on the age of peer supporters, most schools opt to train students who have one or two years left before they leave. This ensures there is enough time for them to establish themselves as peer supporters. Most secondary schools train some of Year 9 or 10 students and have a rolling programme. In the primary schools Year 4 and 5 students are trained. In middle schools Year 8 students are trained and in some schools Year 12 students are trained. This, though, is becoming less popular, with the increasing demands on post-16 students. It is important that schools have a clear process for selection with sensitivity to the backgrounds of the students and a commitment to ensure that peer supporters reflect the student body, particularly in relation to gender, ethnicity, and physical and academic ability. Some schools use formal selection with application forms and interviews. Others use positive selection with peer or adult nominations to ensure a balance of gender, race, and physical academic ability.

Tailored programmes

The key to long-term success of peer support is a programme designed to meet a school’s own unique needs and its ability to evolve over time. Many schools observing the positive effect of peer support in other schools justifiably wish to adopt similar programmes. Problems can arise, however, if school staff rush into a scheme without tailoring it to their school’s unique set of circumstances. One school may wish to focus on reducing bullying, another may aim to reduce exclusions and another to ease the transition from primary to secondary school. An evaluation of the Childline in Partnership with Schools (CHIPS) programmes found that even though schools can share good practice and learn from each others’ successes and mistakes, peer support schemes cannot be parachuted in from other schools. They must be unique to each school.

All projects must have regular adult supervision; otherwise peer supporters are at risk of feeling isolated and losing enthusiasm. Ideally supervisors monitor the service and provide guidance and support to the peer supporters on a weekly or fortnightly basis, as well as being available for immediate concerns on a daily basis. They are also points of referral when peer supporters are taken beyond the limits of competency.

Assuring sustainability

  • support, commitment and direct involvement from senior management
  • adequate funding and time resource
  • quality training
  • fully trained and supported staff coordinators
  • careful selection of students
  • maintaining the momentum
  • networking and sharing experiences
  • regular monitoring and evaluation.