Research into practice

The 2001 Census reported that nearly half of all children in England and Wales were not living with both parents under the same roof, so the experience of parents who separate is not uncommon for children today.1

A recent study undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as part of its Family Changes series, looked at whether school-based programmes could support children.2 Although most children were positive about their involvement in the support work and the impact on their lives, it did raise issues for schools, families and individual children.

The study compared the impact of two forms of support for children whose parents have separated and assessed the suitability of the school as an environment in which to offer such support. Children aged five to 11 were allocated either seven sessions of group work or four sessions with an individual counsellor. There were informal interviews before the sessions and follow-ups six months after the project. The support aimed at coping with feelings, understanding identity and recognising positive aspects of their families. It involved seven schools, with 69 children from 50 families.

There was some positive feedback from many children who liked being with adults who had time to listen and let them talk. They also appreciated hearing about the experiences of other children in the groups. Children who attended group sessions were more likely to say that the work had sorted things out for them, they understood something better or they found something easier.

There were positive results noted by parents and schools, with improvements after six months on measures of self-esteem, perception of school relationships, perceptions of adult support and difficult behaviours. Once children’s background characteristics were considered, no differences were found in the effectiveness of different types of support.

But not all children benefited. Some felt uncomfortable about talking about personal issues and missing school work to take part. Parents reported that some children who had taken part in individual sessions had issues “stirred up” or “old wounds opened”.

The work was well supported by head teachers and staff in the schools. Most teachers reported that the work had caused little interference with life in the classroom. There were issues about running a school-based project. The children were missing lessons, some the same subject for several weeks. They concluded that “timetables, forthcoming events and the commitments and social needs of the participating children need to be taken up when an intervention is set up”.

Obtaining parental consent and procedures for dealing with child protection concerns were also raised, similar to all school-based group or individual work. They concluded a mixture of group and individual sessions “in a flexible format” may be a good idea. There were also issues raised about tensions being created in response to the confidentiality promise with children unable to talk to others about the issues raised.

This is a relevant and practical piece of research, which addresses an important issue for many children. Overall the conclusions were positive about this type of support with some useful suggestions for improvements. Social care workers may feel that similar groups could be negotiated with local schools or run at family centres after school hours.

1 Census National Report for England and Wales 2001, Stationery Office. Available for £65 or visit

2 Anji Wilson and Janet Edwards, School and Family Change: School-based Support for Children Experiencing Divorce and Separation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2003. Available for £13.95. Visit

Gaynor Wingham is director of the Professional Independents Consultancy.

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