When you mention the word bullying, everyone instantly seems to know what it means. They can see it, understand it, and in some respects feel it. And in schools, the term is an alarm bell, a call to arms. We are on high alert for bullying.
Yet how often do we really interrogate our interpretations of bullying and how accurately or appropriately is the word being used in our schools?
It goes without saying that there have been a number of abject failings by schools to deal with bullying, which have ended in unspeakable outcomes. The media reporting on these tragic cases has led to a greater awareness of bullying and a greater focus upon practice and policy to tackle it.
But there is, almost paradoxically, a danger that this increased concentration on bullying – and hyper-awareness of it – can lead to the word being diluted and its application to incidents in schools being dangerously erratic. And that ultimately fails students who are bullied.
Local newspapers, in particular, have named and shamed schools for not tackling bullying based upon the words of a child and their families, often without checking the accuracy of the claims. Such reporting, which can be sensationalist in its nature, causes parents to believe, often unjustly, that a school is turning a blind eye to bullying. And in turn, this can lead to schools, wary of potential column inches, to feel pressurised into taking action in line with their anti-bullying policy – even if the incident wouldn’t necessarily warrant a classification of bullying.
To further complicate matters, there appears to be no nationally agreed school definition as to what type of behaviour constitutes bullying. Numerous national anti-bullying organisations – and even Ofsted itself – have developed their own definitions, with schools often adopting a particular version of these definitions.
As a practitioner with responsibility across the personal development, behaviour and welfare agenda, I sought to unpick this complex issue. Concerned by the volume of calls and emails regarding bullying that I was receiving, it was clear that a new approach was needed.
My starting point was to review each incident our school had recorded as bullying within the last academic year. I explored the context of each of the incidents and cross-referenced each with the school’s own anti-bullying definition and policy.
After careful analysis, two things became apparent: firstly, the majority of incidents didn’t meet the threshold the school had set for bullying; and secondly, though the issues that did constitute bullying were successfully met with short-term support, interventions did not that did not always ensure that issues were dealt with effectively, robustly and sensitively in the longer term.
Reflecting upon my initial findings, it became evident that a two-pronged approach was needed.
Firstly, the school needed to engage more openly with parents and the wider local community to ensure that, along with all the students, they understood what constituted bullying and, equally as importantly, the steps that would be taken in light of a bullying incident.
This level of transparency and engagement allowed parents a voice and developed their trust in the processes and in the school as a whole in combating bullying.
In addition, time was allocated to ensure that the pastoral team could immediately deal with parental concerns regarding behaviour. Regardless of whether they used the term “bullying”, an immediate response would be provided to alleviate the parents’ worries.
Over a period of time, the number of reported bullying issues reduced dramatically. That reduction was partly down to a clearer stipulation of bullying, but it is possible that another factor was that the word bullying was used in the past as it tended to get a quicker response – the new school policy of immediately reacting to every concern meant that “advantage” disappeared.
The reduction in bullying claims meant that when an issue did constitute bullying, considerable time and support was available to deal with the matter. Our approach to tackling each incident became increasingly transparent, with those involved being at the heart of the process, heightening the chances of long-term resolution.
In no way have I intended to downplay the issue of bullying within schools: when bullying occurs, it is a horrific experience and one we need to prioritise tackling in schools. But my point is that the only way we can tackle it effectively is if, as schools, we unpick exactly what we mean by bullying. Engaging and involving parents, students and the wider school community is critical in ensuring bullying is reported accurately and dealt with thoroughly.
Simon Pearse is academic coach (behaviour) for Greenwood Academies Trust