By Caroline Doyle, Headteacher of St Sebastian’s RC Primary School 

St Sebastian’s is a Roman Catholic primary school in the city of Salford in Greater Manchester. Like many inner-city schools, our 232 children, ranging from nursery age to Year 6, come from a diverse range of backgrounds. There are lots of children who are new to the country when they start with us and have parents who don’t speak English. In total, there are 27 different languages spoken at the school and nearly half of our children speak English as an additional language. 

There are also high levels of deprivation in the local community - just over half of our pupils are eligible for free school meals and similarly high levels of mobility within the school. Many pupils will leave during their time at St Sebastian’s. As a disadvantaged area, people move in and out a lot. There’s a variety of reasons for this mobility. For instance, there are families that are made homeless and given a new home away from school 

With mental ill health on the rise among both children and adults nationally, it is sadly not a surprise to see children at St Sebastian’s struggling with their mental health at times. There are a variety of reasons for these mental health problems. We see children struggling with exam stress, family concerns, bereavements, friendship worries. Some of our children have parents with mental health problems and they worry about their parents and their families. 

I also think social media is a major player in this. There is often a fear among parents of their children missing out, so parents are letting them use Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, and not really monitoring what they are seeing. Children are being exposed to horrible things. We recently spoke in school about Snapchat and the kind of awful things that children say to each other on it - things they wouldn’t say in person. They are not emotionally capable enough to use these kinds of social media. 

At St Sebastian’s, we are incredibly fortunate to have the support of child mental health charity Place2Be, which provides the school with a dedicated mental health counsellor for two days every week. Since September 2022, Place2Be counsellor Helen has spent every Tuesday and Friday based in the school supporting pupils and staff. At the heart of Helen’s work is the 10-week formal counselling sessions she carries out with children struggling with their mental health. As vital as they are, Helen’s role at the school is not limited solely to the one-to-one counselling sessions. 

As part of Place2Be’s ‘whole-school approach’, Helen is embedded into various facets of school life. She has her own dedicated room, which has lots of toys in it, as well as a sandpit and dolls house. It’s a nice place for the children to be able to open up in a relaxed environment. There is also a post box outside the room where children can post a card anytime if they want to speak to Helen. In addition, Helen runs group sessions with the children – helping them to understand feelings and emotions.  

There is also a concerted effort from Place2Be to engage staff and parents with their services. Helen comes to staff meetings and is a fantastic source of support for school staff. She has made it very clear to staff that they can go and speak to her. What is nice is that she is not affiliated to the school and it is all completely confidential. Similarly, Helen does a lot of work selling the service to parents. Together, Helen and I hold monthly coffee mornings to talk to parents about Place2Be’s work in the school and Helen goes out to the playground once a week, so that she is accessible to parents. For those children identified as needing counselling, Helen meets with the parents to talk through what the therapy is about. 

Our funding for the Place2Be service came from the Law Family Charitable Foundation. We put in an application for the funding back in the summer of 2022 after seeing Salford City Council advertising for applications. We were one of 20 schools in Salford that were successful in our application. Before our Place2Be counsellor started, the Law Foundation gave us a presentation about the service and stressed the importance of data collection, in order to measure the efficacy of the service. As part of this, Place2Be sends regular surveys for parents, staff and pupils to complete. 

We are nearly halfway through a four-year programme with Place2Be. At the start, I wondered if we would have enough children for the service, but Helen doesn’t always have enough time to see everyone. We could have Helen in more than two days, but we only have funding for two days-a-week. 

Without Place2Be, we wouldn’t be able to provide the counselling that Helen provides. It’s an essential service and I think when it comes to the end of the four years, there will have to be serious discussions with the governing board about finding the money to continue the service. I think it would be devastating for the children if it was taken away.