Counselling service is the talk of the school

The classroom erupts with laughter at the suggestion of making a smoothie out of onions, garlic and cabbages.

By Catherine Salmond
Wednesday, 12th October 2011, 1:01 pm

Twenty-something P4 pupils giggle uncontrollably as city chef Stuart Muir proposes testing the eye-watering creation out on their teachers.

“Yeah!” they shout, their eyes brimming with enthusiasm for the cookery lesson that has taken over their classroom for the afternoon.

For the hour-long session, as they learn about dragon fruit, vanilla pods and figs, all cares are forgotten. All that matters is what is actually going into the blender set up in front of them – and it is not onions, garlic or cabbages – and what the end result will taste like. After all, Stuart has agreed to put the “St Catherine’s Wow-ee Smoothie” on the menu at his Forth Floor Restaurant at Harvey Nichols.

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As in any school across Edinburgh, the children at St Catherine’s RC Primary have a lot on their minds. At the moment it is fruit smoothies, but tucked away at the back, some less hidden than others, there are worries and doubts. And sometimes the youngsters need someone to talk to.

“We’ve been in the school for ten years now,” says Catherine Henderson, business development manager for the counselling service The Place2Be. “About 70 per cent of pupils in the school use our service. It’s all about trying to say that it is good to talk about your problems.

“Worries range from ‘my gerbil has died and I feel sad’ to ‘my mum was upset last night and I don’t know why’. We deal with a wide spectrum of issues.”

Executive chef Stuart is in the Gracemount school to support The Place2Be’s annual fundraising campaign, A Place At The Table. He is one of many well-known faces across the country – including Antony Worrall Thompson, Sophie Dahl and Lynda Bellingham – to offer their support to the campaign that asks people to “invite friends round to enjoy food, drink and conversation” this month in support of the charity’s work.

Giving their time and energy, as well as helping to raise much-needed funds in the process, the celebrity supporters know they are backing a worthwhile cause that can often be the difference between a child succeeding at school or not.

“Every child has problems or worries at some stage,” says Catherine. “Sometimes these problems can get in the way of their schooling. This service is here for every child, whether they have a big or small concern.”

The Place2Be was established in 1994 in response to concerns about the depth of emotional and behavioural difficulties displayed in classrooms and playgrounds across the country. The charity arrived in Edinburgh in 2001 as part of a two-year pilot project by the Scottish Government and is now in ten schools across the city, including Balgreen, Niddrie Mill and Forthview.

“Ideally, we’d like to be in every school in Edinburgh,” says Catherine.

In St Catherine’s RC Primary, the service is housed in a brightly decorated room packed with blackboards, sandpits and wallcharts. Next door is an office, its chairs covered with fleecy throws, its walls with eye-catching artwork, used by both children and parents when sometimes all that is needed is a chat. “It’s all about early intervention to give children a chance by not bottling up their worries. Hopefully they will then get the most out of their school life,” says Catherine.

“We give them the opportunity to talk about their worries and we can be the difference between them getting excluded or not.

“The parents here get involved too, as we have sessions for them as well. It’s very rare that they’re not co-operative. I think that is because we are in the school and part of its environment. We’re not housed in a health centre or hospital outwith the neighbourhood.

“Of course, sometimes the problems the children face are too big for us to handle alone, especially if there are child protection issues involved. We work well with other services, including social work.”

In the school foyer a bright red post box is attached to the wall, the yellow and red logo of The Place2Be emblazoned on the front. It is here that children use designated slips to write down their worries, or simply draw a happy or sad face, and note down their name or initials. In some cases, staff refer a pupil to the service, concerned that they need extra help to cope with their worries, especially if they are severe enough to be impacting on their behaviour.

A member of The Place2Be team will make contact, discreetly and sensitively, asking if they would like to have a chat. Some come alone, some make an appointment with friends, either way children as young as five years old at St Catherine’s are willing every day to admit that something is troubling them and they need help. “It shows great maturity,” says Catherine. “But that is part of the culture here now.”

Back in the classroom, the budding P4 chefs are still on a high as their “Wow-ee” smoothie is finally poured into paper cups for them to taste. Stuart may have made it, but they have shouted out their requests for ingredients, some of which they have never seen before, never mind tasted.

“Can you chop really fast?” one pupil asks politely. “Could you come to our houses and make this every day?” begs another.

“When did you start cooking?” inquires another child. “1985,” says Stuart, carefully pouring the bright red mixture into the cups. “1985? I think that was when my grandma was born,” ponders the child.

The smoothie is given the thumbs up and Stuart is applauded and cheered. The well-behaved P4 pupils quietly put away their chairs and file out of the room as Stuart clears up the remains of blackcurrants, jars of jam and mangos.

“They’re great kids,” smiles the Blackhall father, whose Harvey Nichols restaurant is a favourite with Harry Potter author JK Rowling, a fact that stunned the P4 pupils just minutes beforehand.

“It’s been great to come here today to support The Place2Be. These children are at such an important stage of their lives and it is vital they are always given support.”