Offload your stress on a fellow student

A school in Salisbury not only offers its pupils a counsellor but also gives them the chance to talk to someone nearer their own age, writes Anna Moore

Anna Moore
Sunday 07 May 1995 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Sarah Stoddart, a 16-year-old GCSE student in Westwood St Thomas school in Salisbury, strides towards me. Pale, wise-eyed and dressed in black, she says, "I'll just go and get my client," before disappearing down the school corridor. A few minutes later she returns, a small, freckled 14-year-old fellow pupil trailing behind her. Kevin Moody approached Sarah for counselling sessions one month ago. "I'm not being beaten up at home or anything like that, I just have behavioural problems and a bad temper," he confesses. "I'm looking for a way to let out my feelings without going into classrooms and just exploding."

With this aim in mind, Kevin spends an hour each week off-loading on to Sarah - telling her which classes he has been thrown out of, which teachers he's having particular problems with - and Sarah listens skilfully. When appropriate, she takes Kevin's teachers aside, tactfully explains that they may not be dealing with him in the best way possible, and goes on to suggest alternative coping strategies. "Some are co-operative, but others obviously feel really uncomfortable about it," she says, breezily. "They fall silent, or just say 'I'll consider it'. Then they walk away."

Contrary to recent press reports, the Manchester school that has appointed a full-time "stress counsellor" for its pupils is far from breaking new ground. Indeed, the number of school counsellors registered with the British Association of Counselling (BAC) has doubled in the past nine months and now stands at 340; there are plenty more who are not registered at all. Some schools, such as the one Sarah and Kevin attend, have gone far beyond this. Having just pioneered the country's first Youth Listening Service, in which pupils are trained in counselling and allocated "clients", it also offers workshops for parents feeling stressed by their teenagers. Coming next is a helpline pupils can ring in their lunch break.

This all sounds very American, and indeed it is - the first record of a high school counsellor in the US appears in 1898, and most American schools now have sophisticated counselling structures to support teaching departments. The service arrived here in the Sixties, peaked in the Seventies, then almost disappeared in the Eighties as budgets tightened, and counsellors were seen as luxuries that most schools could do without.

Their comeback is partly linked to the fact that the counselling industry is booming everywhere - the number of requests received by the BAC has trebled in the past two years - but it also reflects a growing awareness that children suffer from stress, too.

According to a recent guide for parents published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, titled So Young, So Sad, So Listen, depression is one of the most common problems among the school-age population, affecting children as young as seven. Symptoms include a persistently unhappy mood, disturbed sleep patterns, changes in appetite, aggressive behaviour and excessive worrying.

Marilyn McGowan, the counsellor at Westwood, a comprehensive of 900 pupils, lists some of the everyday problems faced by her clients. "There's family breakdown, the growing divorce rate, high unemployment putting more pressure on them to achieve. There's the general insecurity of the job market - this generation will, on average, change jobs 15 times. They have bullying, teenage pregnancy and Aids to contend with. There's more of a drug culture, more awareness of child abuse ... Need I go on? It's not that we have more problems than any other school - just that we're quicker to recognise them."

And where better to offload them than in Marilyn's office, tucked beside the first aid room, decorated with a Star Trek poster - "The Unknown Defines Our Existence" - and poems by pupils, with titles like "I just want to give up". It's the sort of place you want to hang out in, and Marilyn is someone you want to hang out with. Nothing like your average stressed- out teacher or exhausted mother (though she is one), she's calm, glowing and peachy, with definite shades of Marie Helvin, dressed in a flowing skirt and lacy waistcoat. Pupils book appointments, sit down and tell her everything. As one pupil puts it: "She's not like a counsellor, she's more of a friend."

Marilyn argues that school counsellors have a very separate role to teachers. "If a pupil is going to talk openly, then it should take place over time, in private, with someone who isn't going to see them later in a classroom surrounded by their friends." Because of this, she distances herself as far as possible from teachers, always assuring clients that she only ventures into the staff room on business matters. Everything they tell her is confidential, unless they are at risk from abuse, drugs or suicide.

She devised the Youth Listening Service for children who preferred to talk to people their own age. Thirteen pupils chosen for their "warmth, empathy and discretion" were given intensive training by Marilyn and outside agencies, to begin work shortly before Easter. Marilyn supervises closely to ensure that their problems don't stray into more serious areas.

So far, everyone has found it a positive experience. "I'm relatively problem free, so I like trying to understand other peoples problems and to do something about them," says Sarah, whose latest coup is to have persuaded staff to allow Kevin more counselling sessions, instead of detentions. "Some teachers just see Kevin as naughty, without considering why he acts this way."

"It's been really good to have someone to tell my side of things to," says Kevin. "I used to get so worked up, I'd hit my bedroom wall to let out my feelings. When I started with Sarah, I was on report for all my subjects. Now I'm only on report for three!"

But isn't there a danger here of problem creation? Visit a counsellor and it's soon hard to imagine how any schools cope without them, yet most do. In the words of one education officer, who prefers not to be named lest she appear "unfashionable", "I wonder if we're being too influenced by America, and seizing on yet another marketing ploy now that schools are having to compete for pupils. There's also a sense that by providing the service, you create the need. As soon as you say, 'Here's someone who'd like to discuss all your problems', out of the woodwork crawl hundreds of children with problems they hardly knew they had."

Certainly, there are waiting lists for both Marilyn and the Youth Listening Service. Even Kevin is the first to admit that when he first opted for it, he didn't have the best intentions.

"A lot of students go to Marilyn just because she's there, and it's a good way of missing lessons," he explains, "and that's why I went to Sarah." He takes a glance at Sarah, who calmly nods. "It's true that some clients come because they don't want to go to class," she agrees. "But if they're doing that, it's a problem anyway." She gives Kevin an understanding look, then speaks like a pro. "And the best thing for them is probably counselling."

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