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Volume 22
Issue 10
December 2011

  • Category: Features

The Welsh Government is in the process of making the provision of counselling to all secondary school children a statutory responsibility for local authorities, assuring significant benefits for young people in Wales

  • Lessons from Wales

  • by
  • Andy Hill
  • Jo Pybis
  • Mick Cooper
  • In April 2008 the Welsh Government published a national strategy for school-based counselling, ensuring counselling services would be available in all Welsh secondary schools and piloted in a number of primary schools. In 2010 an evaluation of the strategy, led by BACP and the University of Strathclyde, and with colleagues from the universities of Newport and Newcastle, Ipsos/MORI and Cardiff educational psychology department, were commissioned to ascertain whether or not it had been a success. The final, definitive report was published in November 2011.

    The research team set out to answer a number of questions in order to assess whether the strategy had been a success:

    • What use was made of the counselling services?
    • Was counselling effective in helping the people who used the services?
    • What did people think of the counselling services?
    • Were services implemented according to the principles of the original recommendations?
    • How could the strategy be improved for the future?

    To help answer these questions, qualitative and quantitative data were gathered using a variety of methods: desk research analysing key reports and documentation; surveys using paper-based questionnaires; a telephone survey; outcome data from Young Person’s CORE (YP-CORE) and Goodman’s Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ); and semi-structured interviews held in four case study schools. Participants in the evaluation included school counsellors, local authority officers, headteachers, children who had used the counselling services, other school children, teachers and parents.

    What use was made of the services?
    Children who used the Welsh school-based counselling services were of a similar profile to other clients of school-based counselling services in the UK. The majority of pupils were from the middle schools years (years 9 and 10) and two-thirds of them were girls. Young people from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, and those with special educational needs (SEN) or disabilities tended to be underrepresented in the profile of service users.

    Referrals were mostly made through school staff, although 26 per cent of children self-referred. The average waiting time to be seen by a counsellor was one to two weeks and over 41,000 counselling sessions had been delivered since the inception of the strategy. Clients attended for an average of four sessions and the attendance rate was 92 per cent.

    The most common reason why children accessed counselling services was issues relating to their families, followed by anger, behavioural issues, bullying and bereavement issues. The average levels of distress experienced by children when accessing counselling was similar to the levels recorded in young people attending child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). However, just three per cent of the children accessing counselling were referred onwards to CAMHS, indicating that the vast majority of those referred for school-based counselling were treated within the services.

    Was counselling effective?
    An original recommendation of the strategy was that counselling services in Welsh schools should routinely monitor their outcomes, the majority of services opting to use either SDQs or the YP-CORE. These questionnaires are used to measure the level of distress at the beginning of counselling and again at the end, allowing conclusions to be drawn about changes in distress associated with the intervention. Pre- and post-data were available from 3,613 counselling cases and an overall effect size could be calculated. This statistic indicates how much improvement is associated with counselling: effect sizes of 0.2, 0.5 and 0.8, respectively, being considered small, moderate and large.

    The outcome data produced a large effect size of 0.93, suggesting counselling had produced significant reductions in psychological distress among the children using the services. Indeed the amount of improvement exceeded the UK-wide average effect size for school-based counselling of 0.81 found in an early study by Mick Cooper.1

    How did people rate the services?

    Ratings of the services were generally very positive with approximately 85 per cent of respondents indicating they felt better about attending school and more able to cope since going to counselling. Approximately 95 per cent of respondents felt that counselling was a good way to deal with problems and around 90 per cent of clients said that they would ask to see the counsellor again if they needed to.

    Counsellors, headteachers and local authority officers were surveyed and asked about their perceptions of, and satisfaction with, school-based counselling. All three stakeholder groups reported high levels of satisfaction with school-based counselling. Headteachers reported that the implementation of the strategy had led to significant improvements in any pre-existing school-based counselling provision and that counselling services had made a positive impact on the attainment, attendance and behaviour of young people who had used the services. At the same time, the introduction of counselling services had not led to any increase in the workloads of school staff.

    Although the roll-out of school-based counselling across the whole of Wales – underpinned by the support of the Welsh Government – was viewed very positively, there was a tendency for some counsellors to view the process of setting up counselling services as problematic. There were also indications among these stakeholder groups that services did not always meet the needs of Welsh speakers and concerns about funding and resources were expressed. Counsellors in particular were concerned that suitable accommodation for counselling in schools was not always available and that opportunities for both counsellors and school staff to engage in further training needed to be developed.

    Young people, parents and teachers from four schools took part in focus groups and semi-structured interviews describing their views of school-based counselling. Once again, levels of satisfaction with the services were high. Counselling was seen as non-stigmatising, easily accessible and allowing teachers to concentrate on the job of educating young people. It was also seen as projecting an ethos of a caring, supportive school environment. Its impact on clients was described in terms of increasing wellbeing, happiness and confidence, and reducing problematic, disruptive, and high-risk behaviours. Comments from clients included ‘…now I can control my anger’, ‘I’m still in trouble but I’m getting there’, and ‘Now I concentrate a bit more’.

    Were services implemented according to the principles of the original strategy?
    The findings of the evaluation provided a strong indication that counselling services had been set up along the lines envisaged in the original strategy, particularly with regard to having sustainable funding, employing qualified professional counsellors, offering a safe and confidential service and collaborating with other agencies. There were, however, a small number of areas where implementation fell short of the strategy’s original intention. The accommodation for counselling was identified as a potential problem by service users and counsellors, the main issues relating to privacy and having a designated room which is regularly available. There was some evidence that awareness of counselling services varied between schools; some services enjoying a high profile, others less so. The collection of outcome data across services was variable, with some services failing to collect comprehensive data on the majority of their clients. Client demographic data suggested that both BME and SEN clients and clients with disabilities were underrepresented in those attending the counselling service. Similarly, concerns were expressed by stakeholder groups that services may not always meet the needs of Welsh speakers, suggesting services may not always be responsive to the needs of diverse communities. A final area was that in some schools, there were difficulties with young people directly referring themselves to the counselling services.

    How could the strategy be improved?
    The report made several recommendations for improvements to the strategy, including:

    • The Welsh Government considers the establishment of secure streams of funding for counselling services in Welsh secondary schools
    • The Welsh Government considers rolling out the strategy to the primary school sector in an age-appropriate form
    • Local authorities and schools ensure counselling services have appropriate accommodation
    • Service managers, schools and counsellors ensure that school ‚Ä®students have sufficient information about the counselling service
    • Service providers implement systematic outcome evaluation
    • Service providers develop strategies for ensuring equality of access to, and promotion of, the counselling service
    • Service providers extend the availability of Welsh-speaking counsellors
    • Service providers and schools develop self-referral systems and ensure that all young people can self-refer
    • Service providers and schools develop training opportunities for school staff and counsellors
    • The Welsh Government develops further research into the aspects of school counselling that predict improvements and into factors that encourage young people to access the service.

    The evaluation was wide-ranging, involving data collection across the whole of Wales and from a significant number of key stakeholder groups. Response rates to surveys and levels of cooperation with the data collection were, overall, unusually high. Both schools and local authorities were enthusiastic in implementing the strategy. The value placed on school-based counselling by children, teachers and headteachers alike was similarly striking. Not only were key stakeholders very satisfied with school-based counselling, but also outcome data showed significant improvements to the psychological and emotional functioning of the young people who made use of services.

    Although some areas for improvement were noted, the introduction of school-based counselling across all Welsh secondary schools, by any criteria, can be viewed as an overwhelming success. Funding for the strategy has been guaranteed until 2014 and the Welsh Government is in the process of making the provision of counselling to all secondary school children a statutory responsibility for local authorities, assuring the future of the strategy and providing significant benefits for young people in Wales. England and Scotland may be able to learn much from the Welsh experience, in terms of how to provide effective support for their children and young people. The value of school-based counselling is perhaps best summed up by a secondary school pupil who took part in one of the interviews: ‘It’s easier to educate happier people.’

  • References:

    1. Cooper M. Counselling in UK secondary schools: a comprehensive review of audit and evaluation data. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research. Special issue: counselling in schools. 2009; 9(3): 137-150.

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