The introduction of Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) has resulted in a dramatic increase in demand for, and availability, of school-based mental health support. The challenge for Primary schools is getting to grips with what differentiates the various school counselling providers.

A guide to school counselling providers

In this short guide, we examine the fundamental differences in service provision available and highlight the questions schools should ask when selecting the right service for their children. Typically there are three areas where service providers usually differ:

In these areas, there can be ambiguity around definitions and categorisations. Meaning schools can easily contract a service that is unsuitable or too basic for the needs of their pupils.

What is the difference between a listening service and therapeutic counselling?

There are wide a range of services which could and often do fall under the guise of counselling or emotional wellbeing support. However, there are fundamental differences, primarily in terms of what is known as ‘listening services’.

school counselling providers

Listening services are a first aid tool.

A listening service typically involves a voluntary or part-qualified individual utilising a qualification like COSCA Certificate in Counselling Skills to provide initial support to a child. This should be thought of as a mental health first aid tool. However, the extent of the service and how it is packaged can be misleading and imply a more in-depth service offering. A listening service might refer a child for further, in-depth therapeutic support. This would be provided by another external organisation or through additional in-school services. Often the limited scope of the provision is reflected in the low cost of such services.

A solution-focused approach to youth mental health

In contrast, a school-based counselling service is not just about listening. It is an active process of exploration between counsellor and child, a holistic solution-focused approach. Each child has the chance to talk about areas of their life that are causing distress, particularly ones they do not feel safe to discuss at home, with teachers or friends. Counsellors then work with the child to help them learn techniques to cope with their emotional responses and manage the associated triggers.

school counselling providers

Counselling creates an opportunity for children to learn new skills like coping strategies and emotional regulation.

This type of work can only be undertaken by an experienced counsellor with a specialist Diploma or post-graduate qualification in the field. Typically this will be backed up by the membership of a recognised professional governing body like the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) or Counselling and Psychotherapy Scotland (COSCA).

Appointing an individual counsellor vs. working with a mental health provider

Contracting with a self-employed counsellor can offer schools benefits like local knowledge or a reduced per-session fee for counselling, group work or teacher training. This can offer the ideal solution for some schools but it is important to consider a couple of key issues where such an arrangement is not as advantageous. Specifically, this can be in terms of the issues of risk management and counsellor supervision.

Supervision of counsellors

Supervision is where a counsellor uses the expertise of a specially trained Clinical Supervisor to review and monitor the way they work. This ensures professional and ethical standards are maintained and personal development is ongoing which safeguards the provision of quality therapeutic insights for every client. Supervision is most effective when it is challenging, supportive and insightful. In larger organisations like The Spark, supervision is handled in-house providing a rigorous process. This is usually set out in a service-level agreement between the school and counselling provider, offering peace-of-mind that they are working to an agreed model of delivery and quality standards.

school counselling providers

Supervision supports risk management in youth counselling.

Such transparency can be lacking with individual counsellors, particularly in terms of what they choose to bring to supervision, how often and from whom they are receiving supervision.

Risk management

All sorts of issues can emerge during counselling and even the most experienced youth counsellor is unlikely to have ‘heard it all’ during their career. Consequently, this raises the question of where the counsellor goes with that issue to seek advice, insight and guidance. In counselling, this is known as ‘holding risk’. Within larger counselling organisations a team of clinical experts are available to support each counsellor. This helps counsellors to appropriately identify levels of risk and ensure that they are always working within their areas of competence with each child. Individual counsellors find it very difficult to replicate such a robust approach to risk management. Similarly, this can be the case for organisations that have only recently added counselling or therapeutic services to their core children’s services.

Models of delivery and service-level agreements

Every school contracting any mental health support service should look for a detailed service-level agreement (SLA) with their provider, irrespective of whether they are a national charity or a self-employed counsellor. An SLA is the school’s guarantee in effect. It specifies the number of one-to-one pupil counselling appointments, group sessions and teacher training time provided. Ambiguous SLAs can result in additional student, parent or drop-in sessions eating into available hours or simply costing more money.

school counselling providers - example service level agreement

A service level agreement is a school’s guarantee.

The vast majority of school counselling providers deliver services using a cluster model. In some cases, agencies will appoint a counselling professional as cluster manager but deliver ‘counselling’, group sessions or training through a part-qualified, trainee or voluntary staff. This can be reflected in a reduced per session cost but needs to be weighed against the quality and value of the service on offer. A preferable and more effective cluster structure – as used by The Spark – is to appoint an experienced, accredited counsellor to every role and support them with a senior counsellor operating as the cluster manager. This ensures that every child receives the best possible therapeutic support and each school has the ability to access a professional counsellor in-school.

Why do schools across Scotland work with The Spark?

The ethos behind our school-based counselling and support services is distinctive in five crucial areas that differentiate The Spark from other providers. Combined with our track record of delivering tangible results, we have gained the trust of pupils and teachers across the country.

  • Relationships: our counselling and group sessions are focused through a relational lens. We are dedicated to supporting children develop healthier relationships with their peers, teachers and society at large. Translating into greater resilience, respect for others and a more responsible approach to their education.
  • Support: by helping pupils become happier, more resilient and better able to learn, The Spark supports schools to focus on being educators. Teachers are also able to talk to our counsellors to access extensive expertise in specific issues.
  • Access: many children could benefit from professional counselling but cannot access such services. Parental issues, unavailability of local NHS services or financial limitations can all contribute to a lack of opportunity. School-based counselling often provides the only means of access for the most vulnerable children in society.
  • Governance: as a COSCA-accredited organisation The Spark operates to the highest professional and ethical standards.
  • Reach: The Spark has the resources to provide services across Scotland with a bank of professional children and young people counsellors trained and monitored locally. This ensures a consistently high standard of service provision irrespective of location or region.

The Spark is committed to helping schools provide the right learning environment for every pupil. By working in partnership and embedding experienced and accredited youth counsellors in each school we are helping Scotland’s children achieve their potential. To find out more about The Spark’s approach to mental and emotional wellbeing support for schools, visit the Children and Young People section of our website. Back to top of page