Safeguarding Around the World: Student stress

A headteacher discusses the downsides of the pressure to achieve high grades in Japan and how students are taught to guard against risky online behaviour
14th December 2023, 6:00am


Safeguarding Around the World: Student stress
Safeguarding around the world: Academic pressure and online safety

We head to Japan for the next instalment of our safeguarding around the world series, in which international school leaders talk about how they manage this vital area of school life.

In this interview, Mark Beales, principal at Osaka YMCA International School, Japan, discusses issues caused by the pressure to succeed, how his school uses restorative justice where possible and how it helps students understand the dangers of being unguarded online.

What are some of the common safeguarding issues you face?

The main issues we see relate to the pressure to succeed academically, staying safe online and, to a lesser extent, domestic conflicts.

In Japan, the pressure to “succeed” is culturally significant and has led to many safeguarding cases relating to self-harm. We therefore focus strongly on offering several pathways that best suit the needs of students rather than forcing students to follow a single path.

Like most schools, we also deal with issues relating to online safety. Students are often tech-savvy but not always tech-smart, and therefore may not be aware of potential dangers.

We talked to our students recently about what they wanted from their pastoral curriculum and adapted it accordingly, with a greater focus on staying safe online as a big part of this.

I occasionally deal with safeguarding issues related to students’ domestic situations. We work closely with external agencies in cases like this and have two counsellors who talk with students and report to me.

Because of Japan’s strict laws and enforcement, we see few issues relating to drugs or alcohol.

How do you ensure a consistent approach to safeguarding?

We have robust policies and procedures for dealing with safeguarding issues and a range of staff dedicated to supporting students, including two social-emotional counsellors (one for each campus) who work closely together.

One of our counsellors is Japanese and the other is fluent in Japanese, which enables us to talk with external agencies and understand cultural issues. These agencies also provide training for staff on dealing with safeguarding issues and clarity on Japanese law in specific situations.

We have a head of inclusion, whose whole-school role involves collecting data and building an overall picture of students. I particularly wanted this to be a whole-school position as there needs to be a 360-degree understanding of a student as they move through the school.

Have you seen online safeguarding issues grow post-pandemic?

I’m not sure if they have grown but they have certainly changed and a lot of discussions now relate to helping students stay safe online.

One issue we see is students striving to understand who they are and what their role is in the world; this means they can sometimes behave and speak very differently online from how they do in school.

We have redesigned our pastoral programme to have a greater focus on this and make students more reflective and aware. If things do go wrong, we use a restorative justice model and encourage students to talk and think about their choices.

Another issue is that students can lack awareness about their digital footprint and the consequences it can have, while some need to be made aware about the dangers of communicating with and trusting strangers online.

Where students have been negatively affected by online issues, our homeroom teachers and counsellors support them.

How do you stay aware of new safeguarding issues?

There are several local groups in our area, such as the Japanese Council of International Schools, International Baccalaureate Association of Japan and the East Asia Regional Council of Schools, which provide regular training and the chance to talk with other safeguarding leads.

I also suggest professional reading articles each week, during our leadership team meetings, and these often touch on current safeguarding trends and the ways we need to address them as a school.

Our counsellors have regular training and we have professional development sessions every Wednesday afternoon where safeguarding issues are often shared and discussed. We also have occasional safeguarding training with providers who update us on local laws.

Does the mix of nationalities among pupils present an extra challenge?

Yes, it does. We have 330 students from 34 countries, which means a wide range of cultural backgrounds and, equally, a wide range of associated issues that can occur.

For example, we sometimes take students who have had challenges fitting into local Japanese schools because they come from different cultural backgrounds and are not always accepted. It can take time to adapt to the more progressive culture of our school.

We are fortunate to have three teachers for every homeroom so that also means extra levels of support to help them adapt.

Generally, though, I find diversity is an advantage and we look to celebrate differences and encourage students to be curious about other cultures.

What about with parents?

In my experience, this hasn’t been such a problem. Our parents, including local ones, tend to be broadly international in outlook. We also run coffee mornings and evening information sessions each week that are held online to connect with parents.

However, I have noticed a culture where parents occasionally wish to resolve conflicts by talking directly with other students and their parents, which is not something we encourage.

What are your processes for following up on any incidents?

Initially, we tell staff that any suspected incident must be reported. We also have an anonymous form where anyone can report an incident, and QR codes for this form are displayed around school.

Our safeguarding committee then collects evidence and discusses the case, documenting each complaint in writing. Where necessary, we can contact external agencies which offer support options and will also advise us on legal issues where necessary.

How do you keep your own safeguarding knowledge up to date?

Talking with other principals and school leaders helps me know about issues they are seeing and how they are being dealt with. At times there are incidents that may involve several local schools, so we must maintain strong links with each other.

I also read research-based reports to stay aware of current thinking and strategies and, where possible, I will join webinars or workshops, either online or in person.

Mark Beales is principal at Osaka YMCA International School, Japan

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