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Choosing and Running a School Counselling Service

17th July 2018

student with head on desk, submerged by books, feeling sad and stressedThe benefits of schools offering a counselling service are well recognised. As well as the advantages to students such as a reduction in psychological distress, increased confidence and resilience and movement towards personal goals, there are also benefits felt by the school and staff such as improved pupil attendance, attainment and behaviour which can in turn foster staff wellbeing and productivity. When it comes to implementing and maintaining a school counselling service, there are certain parameters to be considered, which I shall examine here, to ensure the provision is appropriate for supporting young people in a school environment.

There are distinct differences and considerations between counselling young people and adults and therefore the service you choose needs to be competent to respond to these differences. Young people are considered as a more vulnerable client group and there are clear statutory duties, governance, guidance and procedures that should be followed to ensure their safety and protection from harm is maintained. All counselling staff employed to work with young people need to have accessed relevant and ongoing safeguarding training and be able to act appropriately in response to disclosures or signs of harm. Young people can be particularly effective at concealing signs of abuse or harm and therefore the signs are not always obvious and require an astute, well informed counsellor to recognise indicators that could easily be overlooked or misjudged as normal teenage behaviour. Therefore counsellors need to continually refresh their knowledge of current trends and associated risks to keep up with the fast paced and continually changing environment of the adolescent world.

Skills and Knowledge

Counsellors deployed within an organisation will usually be subject to regular training, national updates and well integrated with other statutory and charitable services that will ensure their knowledge is current and will sit within wider internal and external networks of support and information sharing. Counsellors working independently may not have access to such a responsive, informed and connected network and so a school employing staff directly will need to make arrangements to ensure counsellors are staying up to date with the changing face of risk, by accessing safeguarding refresher training, signing up for safeguarding updates, joining local and national support networks, keeping an active interest in local and national news and using supervision to monitor and identify gaps in their understanding and development needs.

All counsellors will also be required within their professional memberships, to complete a minimum number of hours of CPD a year. BACP and National Counselling Society members are required to access a minimum of 30 hours a year and UKCP members have a minimum of 20 hours a year, although in total 250 must be reached in a 5 year cycle. This is often not monitored by governing bodies as a matter of course, although all members could be subject to spot checks. Counsellors who deliver within an agency will have their CPD monitored internally, whilst schools who employ counsellors directly will benefit from having processes in place to monitor CPD, to ensure their staff are improving, maintaining and refreshing their standard of practice and reaching the minimum standard to work competently.

There are particular skills and knowledge that are necessary for engaging, guiding and supporting young people. Schools must ensure that counsellors are fully qualified to a minimum diploma level 4 and are a current member of a recognised professional body such as the BACP, UKCP or National Counselling Society. Counselling is still an unregulated service and so membership with a professional body gives you the assurance that they have completed sufficient training to deliver counselling. In addition to this, it is important that they are competent to work with young people and have significant experience working with young people. The BACP and UKCP have issued competencies for working with young people (11-18 years) that identifies the particular requirements for counsellors to work safely with young people, and schools can cross reference against this matrix when recruiting counsellors directly.

Alongside basic counselling training, practitioners should have training in child development and mental health, familiarity with legal frameworks relating to working with young people, the ability to assess risk and client competency to consent to counselling, skills to engage and form trusting relationships and the skills to liaise with parents/carers. It is not essential that counsellors be accredited although accreditation with a professional body provides a quick and easy way of assessing the quality of an applicant, as it demonstrates high standards of competence and ethical practice, as well as assurance of considerable experience.

“Counselling staff with limited experience working with young people will require much closer monitoring”

Counsellors are not required, however, to become accredited and very competent counsellors may never choose to take this route. With staff who are not accredited, the burden of responsibility of assessing and monitoring competency falls to the school or the organisation deploying staff. Counselling staff with limited experience working with young people will require much closer monitoring and increased support either from the organisation they work for or directly from the school.

The BACP requires that its members access a minimum of 90 minutes of supervision each month with an appropriate supervisor who is competent to provide the supportive, educative and managerial functions of supervision for work with young people. Schools hiring counsellors directly will need to make arrangements for their counsellors to have access to an appropriate supervisor with extensive training and experience in counselling young people and suitable training in delivering supervision. Again supervision is an unregulated service and there are no requirements for supervisors to complete certain training modules. It is therefore crucial that supervisor credentials are carefully checked by organisations, schools and counsellors themselves. Supervision is the main source of monitoring and support for staff delivering counselling independently and so it is crucial that it is fit for purpose.  Supervisors of counsellors working directly for schools must be accountable to the school and have a responsibility to alert the school to any concerns they might have relating to the practice of the counsellor. Counselling services provided by an organisation will ensure their staff are accessing appropriate frequency and quality of supervision and supervisors will be directly accountable to the organisation who will respond to and manage any concerns and involve the school if necessary.

It is essential that counselling staff have a good working knowledge of the Data Protection Act (1998) and the new General Data Protection Regulations. Private counsellors are not required to keep notes, although it is best practice to do so when working with young people; to record any concerns and to document and evidence appropriate action in matters of safeguarding. Agency staff are accountable and so will be required to keep notes, usually on a secure database. It is important to check if and how private counsellors are keeping notes, to ensure that sensitive data is being kept secure and that accurate and professional notes are being recorded should the data ever be subpoenaed by court.

“When working with young people, you can’t take any risks “

Should staff employed directly be unavailable for any long term reason, it is useful to have a plan of how vulnerable students who have already started their counselling will be supported with as little disruption as possible. Stand-in or replacement counsellors should be sourced and consideration should be given to how and if notes will be accessible to substitutes and how this is communicated to students in initial consultations. A benefit of commissioning an external organisation is that notes are often stored on a central secure system and confidentiality is explained as with the team not the counsellor, allowing appropriate professional replacements to retrieve notes, risk assessments, agreements and appending referral documents for a smooth handover. The organisation will also be responsible for securing additional staff, relieving the school of that pressure.

Whether you choose to directly employ your own counselling staff or you choose to do so via an organisation, when working with young people, you can’t take any risks and need a safe, informed and reliable counselling service to ensure that your students are appropriately supported and that your statutory duties for safeguarding young people are followed.

Commissioning an organisation such as CXK to deliver your counselling service will ensure your students are receiving a service delivered by appropriately trained, informed and supported professionals, removing the need for schools to check and monitor the practice and professionalism of counselling staff. Schools that do decide to employ counsellors directly will need to put processes in place to take this on themselves through meticulous recruitment procedures and ongoing line management from a member of staff knowledgeable in safeguarding, the requirements of a school-based counselling service and familiar with therapeutic ethical frameworks. If you have staff with the expertise and capacity to undertake this comprehensive regular assessment and review of counselling staff, then this can sometimes offer a more affordable option for schools. Where schools do not have such resource, contracting with an agency or organisation is by far a much safer and accountable route for your school counselling service.

CXK’s Emotional Wellbeing Service is a paid for service available to schools and colleges across the south-east. As part of the service, we provide person-centred counselling and brief solution-focused interventions which build emotional resilience and coping skills in children and young people.

Useful documents and additional reading:

Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-together-to-safeguard-children–2

Keeping Children Safe in Education: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/keeping-children-safe-in-education–2

Counselling in Schools: A Blueprint for the future: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497825/Counselling_in_schools.pdf

BACP/Welsh Government School-Based Counselling Operating Toolkit: https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/2057/bacp-school-based-counselling-toolkit-welsh-english.pdf

BACP competencies for work with young people (11-18 years): https://www.bacp.co.uk/media/2335/bacp-competences-map-for-working-with-young-people.pdf

UKCP Child and Young Person Proficiency Marker: https://www.psychotherapy.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Child-Young-Person-Proficiency-Marker-Approved-July-2013.pdf

NSPCC and TES Safeguarding in Education Self-Assessment Tool: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/services-and-resources/working-with-schools/esat/

CXK’s Emotional Wellbeing Service is a confidential counselling service committed to improving and promoting the emotional health and wellbeing of children and young people across Kent.

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