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Don't bully the school

In his second article, Ken Reid says an over-used word is in urgent need of a new definition

Bullying is becoming one of the most overused words in everyday usage. It has become a generic term meaning different things to different people.

Perhaps we need to stop and ask ourselves what bullying is.

It may be that we need some new nomenclature in our language. The term should mean something serious has happened. We need two new words - one to mean a minor act of bullying and another to mean an action which is capable of being interpreted as a serious matter.

Why? Perhaps because all of us could classify aspects of our relationship difficulties as bullying if we were so sensitised. However, often we would be using the term for the wrong reasons.

This is also part of the difficulty of attempting to manage bullying within schools. No anti-bullying strategies on their own will work without a culture of trust. A serious breakdown in interpersonal relationships can affect any school at any time, no matter how good or prepared it is.

To an extent, all caring schools can do is to educate pupils to the dangers of bullying and ensure that all pupils, teachers and parents are aware of the signs that it may be taking place and that everyone knows the school will not tolerate this behaviour.

When a perceived act of bullying has taken place, and is first reported by a parent or carer, a school needs to establish that it is speaking a common language with the parent. What does the parent mean by the term bullying? There is a need to ensure that the parents and pupils are expressing themselves sensibly.

One experienced headteacher of an excellent school in north Wales has found that more than three-quarters of incidents of reportable bullying emanate from within the community and not inside schools. Nevertheless, the parent will tend to blame the school because she feels a need to blame somebody.

Similarly, there is an increasing need to distinguish between group bullying and one-to-one bullying. There is also a need to distinguish between harassment and bullying, systematic bullying and spur-of-the-moment incidents.

In recent years there has been a growth in e-bullying created by the pressures of modern society, and for young people to grow up quickly - often before they are ready to cope with the pressures of adulthood. The break-up of a relationship with a girl or boyfriend or with other friends is a normal part of this process. Yet for some it creates pressures which they are unable to handle.

Most caring schools will use their anti-bullying strategies to manage a reported incident of bullying. These strategies are often formalised through pastoral care meetings. Reportable incidents are logged and often relevant case conferences (which may be multidisciplinary) held.

Nevertheless, for serious outbreaks there is often a need to involve the police, more especially when aggressive acts are involved. The police can often support schools, pupils and parents in a very effective manner using their own formalised procedures.

Within Wales, most staff are generally well trained on bullying issues.

However, teachers alone cannot stem the tide of diminishing standards within society. Schools depend upon trust and individual courtesy to take place in relationships between pupil and pupil, and pupil and teacher.

This is against a societal backdrop of verbal abuse, anti-social behaviour and a tendency towards physical retaliation - especially in urban areas.

Perhaps we should start by asking whether we need a better community response towards acts of bullying rather than being over-reliant on schools to resolve difficulties. Managing bullying is becoming more complex for other reasons too. On the one hand society is all for instant fixes. On the other, bullies have their own rights and their parents have their own views about justice.

Proving an act of bullying, especially if it is psychological or there are no witnesses, is never easy. The point is fast being reached in which society is backing everybody while, at the same time, not providing the individual care and protection needed. So it is becoming increasingly difficult for individual professionals to make moral stands.

The fact that bullying, especially group and psychological bullying, is becoming more common among girls than boys is adding a whole new dimension to the phenomenon. Even with some cases of persistent absenteeism or truancy which are brought to court, the defence being cited is often bullying, even when there is not a shred of evidence to back it up.

This is where the Assembly government could help. It could launch a high-profile campaign to make it clear that any form of bullying will not be tolerated in Wales. It could reassure teachers that it understands that from time to time, acts of premeditated or spontaneous bullying will take place.

But when and if this occurs, schools will not be blamed or have to live through a sense of failure or shame, especially when they become named in high-profile media cases. After all, it is up to the whole of society to ensure that bullying is never an option.

Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education

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