Matter of trust. Children's rights activists are campaigning to improve counselling services in schools
When 15-year-old Sophie's parents separated, her world fell apart. She lost interest in studying and her grades began to slip. Sleep problems meant she was groggy and irritable at school. Eventually she confided in her form tutor, who suggested she see the school counsellor.
"My parents were blaming each other, arguing about who was going to live where and who owned what," she recalls. "I felt they were burdening me with problems that were too 'adult' for me. I thought talking it over with someone not involved in the situation might help."
While Sophie clicked with her counsellor right from the start, she felt uncomfortable about the way the service was run. "The counsellor was only in school once a week. There was this weird system where you had to write your name up on a list on a noticeboard if you wanted to see her the following week. It was hard to keep it secret because you often had to leave lessons to go to counselling sessions, so I had to put up with some teasing. Some teachers would grill you about where you were going in front of the whole class."
Her situation is not unusual, says Laura-Liz Partoon, a year 13 student from Cannock Chase high school in Staffordshire. Partoon is part of a group of children's rights activists supported by the Children's Rights Alliance for England (Crae), which is campaigning to improve counselling services in schools.
Launched last November, the youth-led Sharing Secrets Safely campaign aims to make school counselling services more accessible for children and young people, ensuring everyone involved - children and professionals alike - understands the importance of confidentiality in counselling sessions. The 19 young campaigners (aged 10 to 17) have helped devise an online survey on counselling services in schools, which is running until the end of July.
Seeing friends experience unsatisfactory school counselling motivated Partoon to get involved. "One friend was referred for counselling because she was struggling to cope with the workload at her school, which was causing her stress. She found the counselling helpful, but found that suddenly all the teachers seem to know about her difficulties. She felt she was being judged. Then she heard the counsellor talking to one of the dinnerladies about some of the children she was working with. It really worried her."
In 2008, Crae carried out a nationwide investigation to find out how well children and young people's rights were protected and respected in England.
Last June, a group of 12 children and young people travelled to Geneva to present their findings to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, an international body that monitors the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which is an international human rights treaty that grants all children and young people, aged 17 and under, a comprehensive set of rights, including access to education and health services.
Three priorities were identified for action: the negative portrayal of children in the media, the right to education for young refugees and asylum seekers, and the need for more accessible and confidential counselling services in schools. Many of the children have chosen to take on further work in these areas.
Like Partoon, 13-year-old Jessica Timperley, chair of the Sharing Secrets Safely committee, is motivated by friends' experiences. "Several of my friends have experienced mental health issues. It often seems to start because they are not sharing their problems. I think better school counselling could definitely prevent this happening."
She may have a point. Last year's review of Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services found that, although services to support children's mental health have got better, there is room for improvement, particularly in relation to young people accessing support.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has made 124 recommendations to the UK government, including increased funding for children's mental health services, improved and accessible counselling services for teenagers, and more professional support for children having problems in school.
Crae's children's rights survey, involving 1,700 children and young people, showed the majority thought access to a counselling service was important, but just 35% knew how to contact a counsellor, and many of those children had concerns that promises of confidentiality were not upheld.
"We found that access to someone to talk to in confidence was an important concern for many children," say Samantha Dimmock, head of policy and public affairs at Crae. "Our young activists are now researching this issue in more depth with their peers, finding out what children need to encourage them to use existing provision in schools, and how they would like to see these services improve."
Dimmock says children's understanding of the word counselling can be wide-ranging - from talking to a qualified counsellor to chatting to a peer mentor or friend. Often, children simply see a counsellor as "someone to talk to".
"Looking at this issue from the perspective of a child is extremely important. When deciding who to confide in, structures and processes often mean very little. Children and young people have told us they want to talk to a person they feel they can trust, and this may not always be a teacher or a school counsellor."
Early indicators from the survey suggest children consider people from a wide range of backgrounds as counsellors, from school nurses to senior teaching staff to peer mentors. Responses suggest availability can be limited and that confidentiality is still a big concern for young people. "It's in the library, so people know where you're going," says one respondent. Another says: "Everyone knows who it is, so they know who you're talking to when you approach them."
The results, due to be published in full later this year, should give a unique insight into current provision and how it can be improved, says Lucie Russell, Young Minds campaigns and participation director.
"The Crae survey is vital in providing information from young people themselves about the levels of stress they deal with, their access to counselling in schools, its quality, and confidentiality issues. A key element of pastoral care in schools should be the provision of counselling services. Counselling develops emotional literacy and resilience in young people, which is just as important as the academic curriculum, and pays dividends in all aspects of school life, including behaviour, reduced bullying and results."
- Some names have been changed. Students can fill in the anonymous survey at getreadyforchange.org.uk