Reports from the front line of a decile-one school

by Donna Chisholm / 30 November, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Teenagers decile-one school

Guidance counsellor Kathryn Barclay says she’s surprised by the statistics. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

As risky behaviour in teenagers decreases, a guidance counsellor of 20 years shares her experiences.

Kathryn Barclay is at the counselling coalface at a decile-one South Auckland school. She says the downward trend in risky behaviour isn’t translating into fewer troubled teens in her office.

“I’m seeing as many kids as ever, and the issues are just as big, so for me it doesn’t feel like it’s changed. It surprises me how big the trend is – if I hadn’t seen the statistics, I wouldn’t have said there was one.”

She suspects that’s because the students she sees are often the ones engaging in the risky behaviour, rather than those who aren’t having problems.

In nearly 20 years as a school guidance counsellor, Barclay has worked at both a decile-10 school on Auckland’s North Shore and in one of the most deprived areas, where she’s spent the past 11 years. One thing that has changed, she says, is the number of unplanned pregnancies. When she arrived at the decile-one school, there were up to 18 pregnancies a year resulting in girls leaving school. This year, there were none, a drop she attributes in part to the school’s health service, which gives away condoms and supplies contraceptives for girls, including long-acting implants.

Barclay, a member of the School Guidance Counsellors Advisory Group, says most students’ problems relate to adolescence: they’re moving away from their families, developing their own identities and sexual identities, and dealing with peer group pressure and the need to fit in. “That’s always huge: kids who have had friendships fall apart that have turned into bullying or mocking.”

Teens appeared to have ready access to cannabis through local tinny houses, and smoking the drug was “quite normalised. One kid said to me that in the holidays, they get stoned a lot, because it’s easier to get hold of cannabis than alcohol. They say they can’t rock up to the dairy and buy [alcohol] – it takes a long time to stand outside and con someone to go in and get it for them.”

Cigarettes are expensive, but it isn’t uncommon for students to buy a pack and sell single cigarettes for a profit. “They cost $2 each – when I started it was $1.”

Many students binge-drink regularly, she says, and the area probably sees more drink-driving and car conversion than higher-decile suburbs.

But Barclay says social-media bullying is particularly problematic. “It’s really emotionally damaging because young people will say things on social media that they wouldn’t say face to face. When you have a post on Facebook and 20 people send you abusive messages and everyone sees those posts, it’s hugely shaming and embarrassing. Some kids don’t want to come to school because they feel everyone is laughing at them.” She’s often frustrated when adults weigh in on the online fights, escalating the abuse.

Most students have a smartphone, even if pupils in lower-decile schools are a bit slower to get them. Sometimes parents confiscate them for misbehaviour, but students usually find a way around bans – for example, borrowing a phone from a friend to update Facebook.

Students aren’t permitted to use their phones in class, unless the teacher allows it. “But kids are sneaky, and they do,” says Barclay. “In my high-decile school, if I couldn’t find a kid with a ‘runner’ to the classroom, I could text them and within minutes, get a message back. With the old phones, they could send texts from their pocket because they knew the keyboard.”

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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