Beating the bullies in Govan

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Over the past two years, staff at Govan High School and its associated primaries have made a concerted effort to reduce bullying. The evidence from the school's current Secondary 1 pupils suggests that their effort is bearing fruit.

It was apparent from surveys of S1 pupils carried out over several years that many pupils were worried about bullying, and many claimed to have suffered from it. Parents were also concerned.

Teachers had become dissatisfied with the materials we were using on bullying in the secondary social education programme, as they focused on the actions or responses of the "victim'' and on how to avoid bullying rather than on the rights of pupils.

Govan High and its associated primaries (six schools in all) have a 5-14 management group which was established at an early stage in the implementation of the 5-14 programme. This group, consisting of primary heads, and secondary head and assistant head, decided in 1994 that it would be valuable, given the degree of pupil concern about bullying, to adopt a common approach to the issue.

It set up a working group made up of one class teacher from each of the five primary schools (who between them taught the whole age range) and a principal teacher of guidance from the secondary. They decided to use the Strathclyde Regional Council's staff development package, Bullyproofing Our Schools.

Members of the working group were given funding to attend training on the use of the package, provided by Glasgow Division. They then arranged joint in-service in February 1995.

All teaching staff from the six schools met at Govan High. After an initial presentation which used the Bullyproofing video as stimulus material, they worked on common tasks in groups that were representative of the six schools. They discussed issues arising from the staff development pack and provided pointers for the way forward.

The teachers were almost unanimous on several points. First, that it was not helpful to think of any pupil as a bully; rather we should tackle bullying behaviour without attaching such a negative label to any individual. Second, tackling bullying meant that we had to consider the differences between the acceptable exercise of authority by adults (or indeed other pupils) and bullying. Since an imbalance of power lies at the heart of bullying, the issue was raised of how to distinguish bullying from accepted uses of power in a society in which power is not equally shared.

Third, we had to attempt to develop a climate in which pupils regard bullying as unacceptable and seek adult support in eliminating it. It seemed that there was often an association between bullying behaviour and what is described as natural leadership; where the latter might be accepted, indeed praised, the former was condemned. So, how do we make clear to children that by encouraging organisational skills and initiative we are not condoning bullying?

The teachers thought that some families encouraged bullying behaviour, and others accepted it as a normal part of children's lives. Neither is helpful to combating bullying.

Finally, we recognised that bullying is often verbal; it may be disguised as joking, or intended as initiation, but any behaviour which causes hurt is a form of bullying, however it is intended.

It was decided to deal with bullying through the curriculum and not simply through pastoral care for victims or disciplinary systems for perpetrators. It was to be included in the curriculum of each primary school, with a brief reminder only in the Govan High S1 social education course that the same values apply in the secondary as in primary schools.

This year all S1 pupils were asked to complete a questionnaire on bullying within the social education programme, anonymously if they so wished. The results were encouraging. Many pupils kept an open mind about whether bullying occurred in Govan High School; a majority did not fear bullying, a majority claimed not to have been bullied, and few reported long-term bullying.

We hope that pupils continue to hold this optimistic view about their school and that it is sustained by a belief that teachers and schools made a difference.

We were cheered by the maturity of the pupils' attitudes towards bullying. Many were not looking for retribution and many expressed considerable understanding of why some pupils displayed bullying behaviour.

We have attempted to ensure that pupils continue to see we care about bullying. The anti-bullying code was discussed with all S1 pupils during social education; poems on bullying are displayed in the corridors; and, most obviously, all pupils from P6 to S2 in the six schools were invited to enter a competition sponsored by Govan Initiative, to design a poster on this theme. Copies of the winning poster are being distributed to public locations throughout Govan, while the runners-up are being displayed in the school.

We are not complacent, but we do think that joint planning, the availability of high-quality staff development materials, the training of staff to lead staff development, listening to pupils, learning from one another, and the use of supportive management structures, can make a difference.

George MacBride is principal teacher of learning support at Govan High School, Glasgow, which has been awarded money under the Scottish Office's Positive Discipline initiative.

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