Quack! Get out of town
BACP Children, Young People and Families, December 2018
Rachel Eastop continues her mini series in which she shares aspects of what the CYP arena looks like from where she stands. Here, she explains why she considers children’s counselling to be the ugly duckling.
This piece is personal and definitely ‘from where I stand’ – but I expect many readers will have similar stories of their own. I will be mentioning many people, including MSPs, local authority staff, and teachers, but I will not name any of them – it’s ‘my truth’, rather than the whole truth.
I am in Scotland. This is important as the Scottish counselling landscape is different from the rest of the UK. In 2003, the Sunday Times printed this headline: ‘Mental Health still “Cinderella” of the NHS.’1
It could be argued that children’s mental health is the true Cinderella. But my experience of managing a teenage mental health charity up here is that counselling is actually the ugly duckling of mental health provision across the NHS, central government, local authority education departments and the charity sector. Hence the ‘quack’ of my title.
In Scotland, counselling training and provision originated in the voluntary sector.2 Perhaps this fact sits in the collective conscience of the Scottish people and informs their view of its worth and validity in a professional setting.
In 2006, I ran a school counsellor pilot in a local high school. I gave my time one day a week as a volunteer. Everyone loves a volunteer, especially governments and local authorities, who love the idea of a low-cost or free service. The thing is, volunteering should be just that, voluntary. I have asked several people to tell me, over the years, what they think volunteering is. Most of them say it’s a mixture of low-skilled work carried out in your spare time that you probably do if you are financially secure or retired.
Like many of you, I’d completed my practice placement in a charity’s adult counselling service and continued offering a few hours a week as a volunteer. This is fine until, like me, you want to be a counsellor by profession. But even as a volunteer you incur costs: travel, CPD, insurance, supervision, resources, paperwork etc. Now, as a valued but volunteer member of this high school’s team, I was invited to looked-after-child review meetings and other wraparound care meetings for pupils whose life circumstances were putting them at an emotional disadvantage. Participants in these meetings included educational psychologists, CAMHS workers, school nurses, guidance teachers, social workers and police, all of whom agreed that many of the children needed counselling. Before long, my volunteering was taking up more and more of my time. I still had a paid job over and above this because I needed to earn an income, but soon it became obvious that I needed to turn my counselling volunteering into a paid job.
It then became clear that my role as a valued member of the team was conditional on me providing my services for free. The school had no financial resources to employ a counsellor. I suggested that perhaps the school could put forward a case for counselling to the council – that it would be greatly missed if the school counsellor left. Sadly, the school would not lift their heads above the parapet and speak out to their employers. My fine plumage and fluffy down had turned to the dirty brown feathers of the ugly duckling. It was difficult for me not to feel rejected. There were other charities offering a range of wellbeing services waiting in the wings with their round of funding and a name to make for themselves.
But I would not give up. As part of a charity, I was able to raise project funding for three years, not only for myself but for two other paid counsellors in two more schools, with additional volunteers and students bolstering the service. This was extended for a further two years, and new funding enabled more growth and development. Our service went by the name of Headroom and soon staff and other organisations were beginning to refer to us as an ‘essential’ service. Our beautiful plumage began to return. But of course, the funding dried up and it looked as though we would once again have to withdraw from the schools.
Not giving up easily
I naively thought that the ‘accepting’ reception I and my colleagues had received within schools would extend to the local council. I was much mistaken. A general understanding of school counselling and how effective it could be had not travelled up the chain of command. I began to play the networking game and attend meetings where no decisions were ever really made, and although I would give an informative presentation with proven positive outcomes and moving client feedback, interest waned once I mentioned funding, and I was not invited back.
However, when the work of Headroom was mentioned in a local newspaper, it caught the attention of a local councillor who then took up our cause and began to raise awareness of our service and the implications for children and young people if it were to stop. This surge of interest found its way to interested parties higher up in the council, which led to an unprecedented decision. A portion of the following year’s budget for schools was to be invested in providing Headroom with core funding so that we would not only survive but thrive. However, other decision-makers still had to be convinced, and I attended countless meetings where I was asked to explain what counselling was, why it was necessary and where it sat among the current provision. Ultimately, this funding was split between four charities, two of whom did not even provide counselling and core funding became project funding.
This funding lasted three years, and at the time of our service level agreement review we were praised for our professionalism, delivery and therapeutic outcomes. But this didn’t account for much, as the decision was made to have another review. And despite our excellent service, the question was asked: ‘Do we really need counselling?’ They encouraged me to think up a new, different project that could be provided, other than counselling. It could be anything. Anything except counselling. That’s like asking a teacher to do something other than teach.
Yet again, another round of funding bids, and I had to make a choice. Do I sacrifice my professional integrity and invent a new idea of how to work with young people who have mild to moderate mental health issues or do I stand by my profession at the cost of my colleagues’ jobs and survival of our service? It was unanimous, we would go for the latter. We lost our funding, and after 11 years, the service ended.
For a year and a half following this decision, I’ve spoken to MSPs, senior civil servants, parents, teachers and young people. I know BACP has done the same for many years.
Last month, the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announced a programme for Government that will include 350 school counsellors across the country.3 I have been asked if I would be willing to be part of the implementation of this programme. The problem is, people still think that counselling can be many things and use this word to describe activities that are not, by our definition,4 children and young people’s counselling.
I have, on several occasions, seen first-hand how funding pledged by MPs and ministers is redirected by administrators. I think it’s time for us to stand up and be counted. To be sure of who we are, of our skills and expertise. We need to shed the brown cygnet feathers and reveal the brilliant white of our true selves. I know school counselling works and I am privileged to be part of this growing profession. We can make a real difference, because we are very fine swans indeed.
Rachel Eastop MBACP is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice. She is Managing Director of The Wellbeing Academy, which provides school-based counselling and emotional wellbeing workshops for children, parents and teachers. Her Essential Training Associates delivers bespoke workshops and training packages to counsellors, psychotherapists, educators and healthcare professionals.
1 (accessed 14 October 2018).
2 Bondi L, Fewell J, Kirkwood C, Arnason A. Voluntary sector counselling in Scotland: an overview. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University; 2003. counselling/agencyreport.pdf
3 (accessed 14 October 2018).
4 bacp-school-based-counselling-for-all-briefing-dec15.pdf (accessed 14 October 2018).