Band against the bullies

18th December 1998 at 00:00
In an attempt to be rid of the blight that can ruin a child's life, Bellshill Academy, with ChildLine Scotland, has formed a peer counselling group. Raymond Ross reports

BULLYING is embedded in our culture from an early age. At least 20 per cent of calls to ChildLine Scotland are from frightened children and it is the biggest issue they hear about.

"The percentage is definitely increasing," says Anne Houston, director of ChildLine Scotland. "Perhaps one in four calls now concern bullying, which doesn't necessarily mean it is on the increase but that children are more willing to speak out."

A more encouraging statistic is that one in 10 of all calls is made by a youngster worried about a friend, and sometimes here too the concern is bullying.

It is this kind of positive peer concern which has led ChildLine Scotland to team up with Bellshill Academy in North Lanarkshire in a unique partnership scheme to help eradicate the culture.

Funded to the tune of pound;7,000 by the Barclays New Futures Scheme, which supports school-community partnerships tackling issues which are important to them, this "Bullyproofing Project" has been set up to deliver an extensive peer support and counselling programme.

It is hoped to provide a model which other schools could develop and it is hoped that, in the long run, some of those pupils taking part could become ChildLine telephone counsellors.

"They would have to go through our 10-week training schedule, one day a week, on top of what they may learn in this initiative," says Anne Houston, "At the moment all our telephone counsellors are 18-plus, but we are looking seriously at younger peer counsellors."

Bellshill Academy has a history of anti-bullying initiatives, including pupil and parent workshops, and is the only Scottish school to have received two Barclays awards for peer projects. "It is not the case that bullying is a bigger issue here than at any other school," says Derek Goldman, Bellshill's partnership officer. "But I think you have to develop an open climate to deal with it effectively."

Over 30 pupils have expressed an interest in becoming peer counsellors and the ChildLineBellshill partnership will be training 12 senior pupils from now until March to act as counsellors for new S1 pupils.

"The initiative grew out of our P7 roadshow," says Bellshill assistant headteacher Alan Clark. "The roadshow takes staff, senior pupils and parents to visit local primaries. At these afternoon and evening sessions the most commonly expressed concern is a fear of bullying.

"We get each P7 pupil coming to Bellshill Academy to link up with a senior pupil so that they know a friendly face. The Bullyproofing scheme intends to build on this."

Catherine McRoberts, assistant principal teacher of guidance at Bellshill, says: "The culture we live in is screaming out for this kind of initiative. The peer element is very important for an S1 pupil faced with 15 new teachers for the first time. If they know the senior pupil quite well, they're more likely to approach him or her with a problem."

This is backed up by one of the volunteer trainee counsellors, Louise McKinstry, who is a 15-year-old pupil in S5 at Bellshill. "Looking back to first year, you didn't know the teachers well like you did your primary teacher and I would certainly have found it easier to talk to a friend nearer my age," she says.

Louise was bullied at primary school and did speak to her mother and teachers about it, eventually learning to ignore what was verbal (non-physical) bullying.

"I was not scarred for life, but it was significant enough to make me want to do something positive about it. I'd like to help other people in a similar position."

Over the next term, staff at Bellshill Academy hope to develop a whole range of in-school programmes to support vulnerable S1 and S2 pupils who are having difficulties making the transition to secondary school or who are generally at risk.

Speaking immediately after delivering a training session to the Bellshill seniors, ChildLine's training and outreach worker, Bobby McKay, is enthusiastic.

"I feel the scheme has tremendous potential. The partnership aspect is new for us but I think it's a terrific idea that could be replicated in other schools.

"It's great to see youngsters harnessing their resources and talents. It helps empower them and helps them understand the many issues surrounding bullying.

"We've been discussing some pretty thorny issues such as why it is that most people hate to watch others being bullied, yet maybe only one in 10 will do anything about it."

Starting with the 12 seniors, it's hoped that more than 30 pupils can receive peer counselling training over the initial two-year period of the project.

"We hope to start work with S2s to S4s next. They are the eyes and the ears of the school," says assistant head Alan Clark. "It's not about a 'snitching' regime. It's about an open climate, getting away from the them and us situation to one where they feel comfortable to report bullying because they feel ownership of the school," he says.

Derek Goldman agrees. " We will include pupils in the programme who have either bullied or been bullied. It's not about swots helping teachers. This has to have genuine street cred."

Gordon Trahar, an educational psychologist with North Lanarkshire, who is involved in the workshops, says: "It's pro-active, using the strengths of all the pupils to help those who are vulnerable and to help develop their own potential in a positive way. Developing these skills in all pupils is central to making education successful."

The partnership intends to develop an "outreach service" to primaries, which senior pupils will visit in order to introduce incoming S1s to the programme.

"In two years' time," says Derek Goldman "our youngsters will be able to deliver their experience to other ChildLine counsellors and hopefully some of them will go on to become ChildLine telephone counsellors themselves."

"Over eight years," says Bobby McKay of ChildLine, "we've counselled 150,000 children from aged four to 19. But the fact that 10 per cent of children calling us are calling to express concern about others is in itself a positive message."

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