No boxing ring in pupils' anti-bullying haven

Esther Leach

Pupils' blueprint for an anti-bullying playground includes a fishpond, a quiet garden area with seats, more rubbish bins and a graffiti wall.

The "bullying blackspots" in Middleton Park high school, Leeds, have been listed in a wide-ranging survey of the 570 pupils, three-quarters of whom believe that their school environment aids and abets bullies.

Over the past two years they have photographed high-risk areas such as the girls' toilets (where gangs tend to gather) and a concrete ramp between the playground and the second floor (children fear being pushed off, or spat at while walking underneath).

They have also complained of "hidden corners where bullies can hide or can take you" and a school layout which offered bullies a variety of escape routes. The trouble spots were places where pupils were most likely to be bored or unsupervised. The canteen was one of the safer places to be, said one pupil, because everybody was kept busy eating.

The survey, published last week, was carried out by Health for All, a partnership between Leeds City Council, Leeds Health Authority, Voluntary Action Leeds and Leeds Service Users and Carers to discover how bullying ranging from name-calling to sexual and racial harassment affected children's physical and mental health. It also asked for their suggestions for change, some of which have already been taken up under Middleton Park's whole-school anti-bullying policy.

An overhaul for the playground - currently, pupils say, "dull, noisy, cold and boring" and dominated by football and illicit gangs of smokers smoking - is high on the agenda. Pupils have asked for more activity areas for playing hopscotch, badminton and rugby, more seats and greenery. One request - a separate playground area and separate toilets for younger pupils - had already been met.

Other suggestions for improvements include smoke alarms in the toilets to discourage smoking and a roof and doors for the ramp, with seats and a tuck shop installed at the bottom half of the ramp.

Headteacher Perry Gardner will probably not be taking up one pupil's suggestion - a boxing ring where arguments could be settled - although he is giving all ideas serious thought.

Mr Gardner said behaviour in schools often mirrored what was happening in the community. "Bullying is not just a school problem. Children quite naturally reflect adults' behaviour in their homes and families, on the roads, in the street, in workplaces and leisure venues. If that includes bullying then that is what they will mirror.

"If this mimicry takes place in the one place where a child spends most time - school - then the responsibility to correct it is that of the whole community working together." The survey recommends appointing an anti-bullying worker who will operate both in school and the surrounding community.

Middleton Park's updated policy includes assertiveness training for pupils, closer links with parents, and introduction of a new school uniform (to eliminate opportunities for taunts about pupils' clothes).

The idea of a "safe room" is being explored for children who need quiet space. General environmental improvements have been made with more plants and attractive displays introduced and some classrooms repainted.

The survey showed that children were anxious about what they should do if they see bullying going on. They have asked for posters and leaflets in the school telling them who to approach and when they would be available.

The effect of bullying on health was readily recognised. One pupil advises victims: "Don't keep it to yourself, it might make you poorly" and another added: "People can get very sick with being bullied."

Survey respondents had suggestions for how victims could learn how to deal with bullies. One advised: "Tell someone you trust about it, tell them what it feels like, show them how much it hurts and show them that you need help. " Many children said that bullies needed to know what it felt like to be bullied. Others suggested they had problems of their own which needed to be tackled.

Some also wanted tougher punishments for persistent bullies including "pointing them out and disgracing them in front of the whole school", detention and exclusion. "I think people who bully should be taken out of school straight away," said one pupil. "I know I have been a bully but I regret it now. "

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