'Schools shouldn’t be judged on incidents of bullying but on how they deal with them'

Sweeping bullying under the carpet for fear of what it will do to a school’s reputation isn’t an effective way to tackle the issue and nor is posting an ultimately meaningless 'anti-bullying policy’ on a website, writes the DfE’s mental health champion

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Fans of the weekend newspapers may have seen an article by me on the topic of bullying in schools.

If you missed it, here is the gist: I spoke to campaigners, education professionals and charities who believe that Ofsted has created a situation whereby schools are disincentivised to record instances of bullying. This is because anything above a "moderate" number of bullying incidents will result in a school being denied an "outstanding" rating. Therefore, those schools that work hard to try to create a culture of complete transparency and that encourage children to report bullying could potentially be undone by Ofsted’s new wellbeing criteria.

It’s controversial stuff and I have no doubt someone will bollock me for writing it (it wouldn’t be the first time my compulsive desire to support the underdog has got me into trouble). What The Telegraph didn’t publish, however, was how my interest in the subject started.

Hidden victims

A few months ago I was emailed about a horrific case of bullying involving a 16-year-old studying for his GCSEs at an independent school in the home counties. He is at a school rated outstanding by inspectors.

Since primary school, the boy – let’s call him James – has endured severe bullying at the hands of other boys in his year group. He describes the incidents as "too numerous to list", but examples include: James was attacked in November last year (during Anti Bullying Week), leaving him with a broken arm. Subsequently one pupil was excluded and a "safe space" was created for James at school. The following week, while still physically recovering, he was left unattended in the safe space, during which time bullies targeted and surrounded him. Later, James was cornered during PE and verbal abuse was hurled at him, instigated initially by the bullies but eventually by virtually every member of his class.

Later I was forwarded protracted correspondence between James’ father and his school and thereafter with the local authority, who were asked to intervene as a mediator. James’ parents believe they are being pushed "from pillar to post", partially as a result of the reluctance to label the incidents as "bullying". The school also argued that there were issues with James’ behaviour.

His father explains: "Every day that I don’t get a satisfactory answer is another day James is being bullied. He is anxious, stressed, suspicious and becoming socially isolated and introverted, often just waiting for the next thing to happen and looking over his shoulder."

James is now experiencing feelings of "helplessness" and has also begun to self-harm.

Far from black-and-white

So far, so unacceptable. The school concerned of course had a right to reply, so I found the email address of the head and the chair of governors, told them what I was writing and asked them if they had anything to add.

What I didn’t remember was that I’d already met the headteacher concerned at a conference. When she rang me it all came flooding back. I remembered how totally lovely she was and how committed to ensuring the wellbeing of the young people in her school. My feeling that this was a black-and-white issue was immediately compromised.

The conclusion I reached was that, whilst Ofsted clearly aren’t helping the situation, this ultimately boils down to stigma. The schools I visit are always quick to assure me they "don’t have any bullying, here", as though I’ll judge them if they do, but as the founder of Kidscape Michele Elliott famously said: “a school without bullying is a school with one student”.

Schools shouldn’t be judged on incidents of bullying, but on how they subsequently deal with it. Trying to sweep issues under the carpet for fear of what they will do to a school’s reputation isn’t an effective way to tackling bullying behaviours and neither, in my experience, is a nicely crafted but ultimately meaningless "anti-bullying policy" on a website.

Bullying is a fact of school life

While "low-level" bullying has apparently reduced under the current government (whether because it is recorded less we do not know), severe bullying has remained constant, affecting 6 per cent of children for the past decade. That’s just over one in 20 children who are less likely to achieve their academic potential, more likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to develop depression in later life.

In the words of Paul Vodden, the father of an 11-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied on the school bus: “For years, we have tended to regard a school with bullying as a school that is failing. It would be much more useful now to be saying that bullying, heinous as it is, is what children do. As a society we should be applauding schools that are able to deal with bullying speedily and effectively and those methods shown to be effective should be disseminated into other schools.”

Hear, hear. 

Natasha Devon is the Department for Education’s mental health champion. She tweets at @natashadevonMBE

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