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Blog: Why counsellors have a place at the heart of our school

At a time when schools are being urged to pay more attention to pupils’ mental health and wellbeing, headteacher Angela Anterkyi explains why this ethos has long been part of the lifeblood of her own school. 

I have been a teacher since 1987 and to save you the trouble of calculating how long that is, that is 30 years. Of those 30 years, 24 of them have been at Gladstone Park.

As you can imagine, the school has changed a great deal over time. The most significant change has been in the children that come through our doors, and the extent to which they reflect the volatile situations that have erupted in the world: at the outbreak of war in Iraq, we received many Iraqi refugees; before that, the outbreak of war in Somalia brought us children from that region; more recently, we have taken in children fleeing the terrible war in Syria.

These children find themselves in a country with a language and way of life that is alien to them, and then put into an unfamiliar education system where, in top of everything else, they are expected to learn - often for the first time ever. Given all they’ve been through when they come through the school gates, how can we even begin to support them?

The unique nature of our school community means that we’ve long been aware at Gladstone Park of the importance of looking after children’s mental health and wellbeing – something which is now receiving welcome attention on the national stage. Equally important for us though, has been recognising our own limitations in terms of capacity and expertise to deal with certain issues. Which is why we began working with a counselling service, Place2be.

Nine years on, and I can’t imagine the school functioning as effectively without this service. Children don’t always trust new adults but the children in this school absolutely trust the adults in Place2be and that is a huge credit to the work they have done here – not just with the many youngsters arriving from war zones, but other pupils facing difficulties that are having a devastating impact on their lives.

We have had children who have been at risk of exclusion, mostly due to unfortunate home lives and the lack of belief that someone will take time out to listen to them. We have children who have witnessed high levels of domestic violence and have taken a long time to verbalise this to someone in order that the right support be put in place. We have children who experience abuse of different natures and have only opened up as a result of the work of the counsellors. All of these children deserve a childhood, and to access the same opportunities as their peers.

Now, more than ever, schools are having to manage very tight budgets which can often involves cutting additional support systems they have in place for their children. But I don’t believe you can put a price on enabling a child to at least start on a track of healing deep hurts, or becoming emotionally literate. These are things that will never be forgotten and are life skills that could lead them anywhere. I feel privileged to be part of a school that values this kind of work.

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