Grief and rage in safety

When a third of schoolchildren are dealing with distress at home, counselling becomes a vital adjunct to education, writes Diana Appleyard
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The Independent Online
Statistics on the number of children facing serious problems in the Nineties make troubling reading. The most recent Department of Health figures show there has been a 50 per cent rise over the past three years in the number of children under 10 suffering from psychiatric problems caused by family break-up, poor parenting or bereavement.

A survey by Rainbows, an organisation set up to provide discussion groups for children with problems, reveals up to half a million children each year under 16 are affected by parental separation, while 5,000 children under 16 are affected by parental death. National director Nigel Bavidge says, "Go into any classroom now and you're talking about up to a third of the children in the grieving process."

All of us know children whose parents have split up. What is perhaps underestimated is the psychological effect that has on the child - and how it affects their behaviour at school.

Nigel Bavidge, whose organisation now helps around 2,000 children a year in 106 schools, says: "It's reckoned that it takes an adult around three years to get over the most intense grieving when they've been through a very traumatic event. Research shows children take much longer. This flies in the face of what so many people say about children's grief, that they're resilient, they bounce back. The evidence is that they don't - they learn to bottle it, and the danger is that if it isn't dealt with, symptoms like difficult behaviour will emerge later. What it means is that you're getting a lot of children labelled as bad kids or difficult kids, and what they really are is sad kids."

Many more schools are now turning to trained counsellors, as they accept that existing pastoral care systems are inadequate in the face of serious problems.

Lynne Cubbage, chair of the Counselling in Education section of the British Association of Counsellors, explains that formal school counselling began in the Sixties, with courses set up at the universities of Keele, Reading and Exeter. At its height, there were around 350 counsellors employed in state schools. "Then, with pressures on school budgets, counsellors were increasingly seen as a luxury, and began to be phased out," she says. Their numbers dwindled even further in the late Eighties, as some schools struggled to prevent teachers being sacked to save money. But now counselling is back in vogue.

"In the past," says Lynne Cubbage, "British people have been rather against counselling. It was the 'stiff upper lip' attitude, and a reluctance to go down the American route. But now we're beginning to accept that it isn't a weakness to be talking to a counsellor."

Most schools "buy in" the service on a half-day or full-day basis from counselling centres, social services or the local health authority. Others rely on independent organisations like Rainbows to set up therapy groups within the school, and pay a one-off fee for training and information packs.

The main drawback for schools is the cost. The only education authority in the country running a free counselling service for its schools is Dudley in the West Midlands. The leader of the eight-strong counselling team there is Jeanette Newton.

"All our counsellors are also trained teachers and have diplomas in counselling," she says. "We provide help for all our secondary schools - but we do have a waiting list in the primary sector. The pastoral care children receive in our schools is usually very good - but often there are children who need much more specialised help. For example if a child's acting out the distressing behaviour he or she may have seen at home, that's very hard for a teacher to deal with."

There are also a number of independent counselling schemes, such as "The Place to Be", run from Southwark in London. A registered charity like Rainbows, the project part-funds therapists who set up a counselling site within a school.

"A school contacts us, we go and talk to the head, and discuss the help they need," says project manager Michelle Lain-Tebbs. "They find us a room, and we equip it with paints, toys, an area for dancing - and outside there's the logo "The Place to Be". Our therapists are usually people training to become counsellors, who need a work placement, and they're given full supervision."

If a child is dealing with a problem without any help it can become all- pervasive, says Nigel Bavidge of Rainbows. But once they're given the time and the space, they can begin to put their grief in what they see as a "safe place". One child recently said to to him: "It's great because now I don't have to think about Mum and Dad all the time, I can think about them at Rainbows.

"It means he can get on with play, on with learning, on with friendships, without that constant worry. That does an awful lot for a child's self- esteem"n

Contacts: The British Association of Counsellors, 01788-550899; "The Place to Be", 0171-233 0906; Dudley Education Authority Counselling Service, 01384-814225; Rainbows, 0113-2740344; Catholic Children's Society, 0181- 668 2181.