A successful peer support scheme has encouraged students to participate at Flegg High School in Norfolk. Mike Ward, deputy headteacher, discusses the evolution of the scheme and how increased student involvement has had real benefits to the school

Flegg High School in Martham is a foundation 11-16 comprehensive school in rural Norfolk with 981 pupils on roll. In 2007 it achieved 60% five A*-C and was above the Norfolk average for attendance. In many respects Flegg High is a very good school, with a healthy reputation in the area and further afield for work beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Since the academic year 1999-2000, Flegg has enjoyed a growing reputation for promoting genuine pupil involvement in the school. Before this the school did not have a prefect scheme and although there was a school council of sorts, it only paid lip service to the notion of student voice and did not have any real bite. A change of emphasis was needed if Flegg was going to achieve its real potential and students were to be fully engaged not only in learning but in the wider aspects of school life, including the running of the school.

That change occurred in 2000 with the promotion of Cherry Crowley to headteacher. Her innovation and drive, and that of other key members of the senior management team, had a significant impact.

In our first year together in this new team, we took some bold steps to introduce the following: 

  1. Vertical tutoring to replace the more traditional horizontal system – we wanted mixed-age tutor groups so that the older pupils could set a good example to the younger ones.
  2. The prefect system – this involved older pupils being given status and the responsibility of working with the senior team to improve standards
  3. Student council – we completely revamped the existing scheme, deliberately selecting students from every form, and creating a pupil-elected committee.
  4. A peer support scheme.

Eight years down the line, these important aspects of the school are still in place and considerably enhanced. Providing this historical context helps illustrate that peer support is firmly embedded in the school and is not a one-off project or an add-on. It is an integral part of the school development plan, and the extended school and Every Child Matters agenda. Our commitment to the ‘making a positive contribution’ outcome is crystal clear in terms of pupil participation and voice, but it is also important to stress that meeting the physical, emotional and educational needs of the whole school population is at the heart of our work.

What we have, through peer support, is a structure that not only does this but also promotes the same approach in other schools in the authority. I talk about our reputation at various points in this article as I am proud of what we, but primarily the students, have achieved, sustained and developed over time.

The development of peer support
In my previous role as pastoral coordinator at Flegg, I introduced an anti-bullying policy in school. This work was regarded as innovative and we gained a reputation as a school efficient at dealing with bullying, a status that was in place when we began working in partnership with Childline through its Childline in Partnership with Schools Programme (CHIPS). As part of our involvement in the programme, we organised and hosted regional conferences at Flegg to showcase our work and promote the good work of Childline in supporting children in need. We also engaged in a lot of the creative work such as anti-bullying plays, now common in many schools.

We were always attentive to how we might further develop our work, however, and realised that one way to enhance what we were doing would be to establish a peer support scheme in school. We recognised that young people are often more comfortable speaking to their peers, rather than to adults, about issues that concern them and saw this development as a logical way of enhancing our anti-bullying work. Little did we know that the scheme would come to represent so much more.

A grant from the Barclays New Futures Scheme gave us the springboard from which to launch the scheme. We advertised it to students through assemblies and were careful to explain our rationale and the underlying ethos and philosophy for developing this service. We emphasised and encouraged the active participation of students and soon began our campaign to recruit peer mentors.

There was a great deal of interest from students and we were thrilled to receive more that 80 applications. We then organised a panel of interviewers comprised of a member of staff, a student council representative and a colleague from the University of East Anglia and subsequently appointed 24 peer supporters, including one student from each form. We were deliberate in our decision to select pupils from all year groups, acknowledging that a peer support scheme works best as a whole-school project. 

We then attended to logistics and infrastructure. Some of the funding was used to decorate and furnish a peer support room, now commonly referred to as the pink room. The room, designed by students, is a comfortable and confidential environment where students can feel at ease. We also set up an appointment system and continued to promote the service through posters and via presentations by peer mentors in assemblies. At the same time, peer mentors received training from Childline on a range of pertinent issues such as child protection, confidentiality and listening skills.

We also drew up, in conjunction with the peer mentors, some terms of reference, which all peer mentors signed up to. In doing so, they promised to maintain confidentiality and never to discuss any cases with friends and family; to be totally committed to the scheme and to be a listener and not a counsellor. It was decided that peer support would take place at breaks and lunchtimes but occasionally peer supporters can request permission to see a peer during curriculum time if they identified an urgent need to offer support.

One of the most important issues that had to be addressed was support mechanisms for the peer mentors. We could not overlook this and were acutely aware of the need for supporters to off-load and receive adult supervision. I am heavily involved in this as are other colleagues. As the scheme has evolved, heads of house, pastoral assistants and other senior student leadership groups have become involved in referring cases to peer supporters and in any necessary follow-up. Involving a range of staff is important for sustainability and also to maintaining this as a whole-school, embedded way of working.

Students had been involved in the selection of peer mentors, designing the room, advertising provision and delivering the service and we also saw the logic in following our student council model and electing a pupil committee to run the scheme. The committee hold regular meetings, and share ideas regarding publicity, appointments, referrals and good practice. They were also fully involved, when it became apparent that the scheme could be extended, in making the scheme more inclusive and overseeing its expansion. This gave us a forum that could discuss not only the important issue of bullying but also a wide range of other issues including (and this is not an exhaustive list) family relationships, falling out with friends, homework problems, issues with teaching staff and child protection.  

We now have 80 peer supporters covering all years and we work closely with our feeder schools to train suitable pupils before they join us in Year 7, so they are ready to start work in the September. Again this helps ensure sustainability and also spreads the news to primary students that this support is available when they move to Flegg.

Fair Play Scheme
As our peer support work developed, the school, and in particular the peer mentors, gained increasing recognition. In fact, they received the Princess Diana Memorial Award for all their hard work and commitment and disseminated the benefits of the scheme on national television and in the press. They also presented at Childline conferences with a view to encouraging other schools to follow suit and Childline trained nine peer supporters as trainers so we could help other schools set up similar schemes. Furthermore, Barclays New Futures gave us a further £10,000 to promote this work in other schools and to produce a video on the merits of peer support and how to develop a scheme. HMI also recognised this work as outstanding.

All this was tremendous recognition but the scheme received its greatest boost from Norwich City Football Club. During the 2004-05 season the team received an award of £10,000 for fair play, ie not many bookings and sendings off. We had already established links with the club when they donated £5,000 to work with us in establishing the Fair Play Scheme. This scheme, which is a natural extension of our peer support work and efforts to involve students in decision making in school, has three fundamental aims:

  • To promote fair play and student leadership among Norfolk High Schools.
  • The Study Support Centre at Carrow Road, the home of Norwich City, to be used to train high schools in peer support.
  • The conference facilities at the ground to host Fair Play conferences, highlighting good practice regarding student leadership and student voice.

Norwich City have given wonderful backing to the scheme and together we won the prestigious EDP (Eastern Daily Press) Business Award for the best industry/education link. The Norwich City midfielder, Darel Russell, is patron of the scheme. He and ex-player Jeremy Goss, who is community ambassador for the club, have given magnificent backing to the scheme. 

The training
Currently, the peer support trainers at Flegg train one high school every half term at the Study Support Centre. The overwhelming success of the scheme is testament to the drive of students, their belief in the programme and the support of our partner organisations. To date we have trained 21 high schools and are now extending this academic year to train two feeder schools, one of which sent Year 4 pupils who were incredibly perceptive and aware of issues they should deal with. We pinch ourselves when we realise how far we have gone, especially when we see our young people training other young people in an area that is close to our hearts. Making a positive contribution is at the core of all of this work and it is very gratifying to see young people interacting so positively with each other in order to achieve the fundamental aim of caring for vulnerable people at school. This model is also sustainable: we cascade the training at our school, with the peer support trainers training the next cohort to take over and so on.

The training package lasts one day and emphasises a number of key skills needed to be a successful peer supporter. The day always begins with a representative from the football club doing warm-up exercises, icebreakers and team building. The 16 peer support trainers from Flegg then conduct exercises focused on developing good listening skills, using open-ended questioning, interview techniques, fogging (an exercise in dealing with name calling), confidentiality and a very important exercise called ‘sometimes, always, never’, involving trainees discussing what they can and cannot deal with as peer mentors and what cases must be referred for specialist support. The training day always ends with the participating school having to produce an action plan to take back to their school.

Feedback and evaluation is given by participating high schools at the Fair Play Conferences mentioned previously. It is frankly heartwarming to hear how schemes have developed because of our initial training.

What has peer support meant for Flegg High School
I could give all sorts of data to try and explain what peer support has meant for Flegg High School. Bullying is virtually non-existent, in fact, of the incidents which have occurred in the school from September 2007 to April 2008, only 0.7% of these were to do with bullying. We have also experienced improved levels of attendance as barriers to learning are identified and overcome. Such data, however valuable, does not tell the whole story. It fails to illustrate the ethos we have created and continue to promote, nor does it ‘personalise’ and bring to life the absolutely amazing commitment and motivation of the young people involved in the scheme. They have not only developed a wide range of interpersonal skills and have been given the opportunity to practice communication skills in their capacity as peer mentors, trainers and conference presenters, but have dedicated their time to caring for their peers and making a difference to their lives inside and outside of school. Active citizenship has meant shared responsibility and students have rose to the challenge. There is no doubt that relationships between all people involved on the site has improved as communication channels have opened up and students have been given a platform from which to have a real say and input into the planning of the school. It has confirmed, not that I ever had any doubts, that pupil responsibility is important and can and does work! Pupils have peers who are eager and well trained to listen to them and through all of this we have developed a partnership approach to this work, greatly enhanced by a student services team who themselves do referrals to peer supporters. We must not forget the increased self-esteem for pupils who have supported so many people and also improved self-esteem and wellbeing for the people they have supported. I am proud of what we have achieved and proud when the phone rings with requests for advice from other schools wanting to set up peer-support schemes – this is another indication of the importance and value of the work the peer supporters undertake.

Tips for success
The following are some tips which should go some way towards the successful implementation of such a scheme:

Evaluate why a peer support scheme is needed.

  1. Gain backing and support from senior management and from governors.
  2. Decide which style of peer support you need.
  3. Advertise the scheme to the whole school through a range of forums.
  4. Recruit peer mentors in a formal way. We used application forms, interviews and then selection. This was time consuming but ensured that our peer mentors had the personal qualities and commitment to make the scheme a success.
  5. Have clear ground rules and a role description for peer supporters so that they are clear about when they are on duty, and about important issues such as confidentiality, etc.
  6. Support the peer supporters – this is absolutely vital.
  7. Offer a suitable room for the service. One which is comfortable and confidential is a must in order to provide the right message and make the facility as welcoming as possible.
  8. Adopt a whole-school approach and recruit peer mentors from every year group. This will help ensure sustainability.
  9. Train the peer supporters – this is an essential ingredient for success.
  10. Constantly raise awareness of the scheme – monitor and evaluate progress.
  11. Be brave!

I thought it would be beneficial to end with a quote from one of our experienced peer mentors. Speaking at a Norfolk Mentoring Conference in March 2008, our head girl Sophie Child discussed what peer support has meant to her:

‘It has given me more confidence in dealing with serious problems and issues. It makes me glad to know there is always someone there who wants to be helped.’

Feedback from young people fortunate enough to access this support is equally positive and reassuring to all involved in the delivery and coordination of the scheme.