Brian Donnelly

16th November 2012 at 00:00
The director of respectme, Scotland's anti-bullying service, discusses why people are often reluctant to admit there is a problem, how strong leadership is key to combating bullying and the trouble with shows such as The X Factor. Interview by Henry Hepburn Photography David Gordon

SallyAnn Kelly of Barnardo's Scotland told us (15 June) that some schools were reluctant to admit they had a bullying problem. What do you think?

Sadly, some are. I've met many heads who openly say: "There's no bullying in this school." It's not as prevalent as it was, that attitude, but it still exists.

Why are people to reluctant to admit a problem?

I think there's a real fear that they'll find themselves under scrutiny, that peers will judge them unfairly and that there will be much more work in terms of accountability. They may feel that bullying at the school represents failure, which it really doesn't. I've been in an area where one school recorded 30 bullying incidents in a year, and another recorded 100. The school with 100 was far better at dealing with bullying.

What is the most important thing for a school to do in tackling bullying?

In our experience, strong leadership. A head committed to anti-bullying, who supports staff through training and development, who involves young people and their families - these all make a big difference.

What is the biggest misconception about bullying?

That it's a normal part of growing up, that it's character-building. Good relationships, trust - these are the things that build character.

There's a common view of the bully as someone insecure, but some experts argue that many teenagers who bully are self-assured and do it to assert social superiority. What is your view?

We've never labelled children bullies or victims. It's fundamentally about changing the way people behave. If you don't fit the stereotype, you find it very hard to recognise that what you've done might have been bullying - but anyone can make people feel hurt, frightened or left out. Many young people who bully are articulate, intelligent and have an abundance of self-belief.

Is cyberbullying as sinister as sometimes portrayed, or just the latest moral panic?

I'm leaning towards it being the latest moral panic. There's a significant fear from adults about this behaviour, and some organisations have been very opportunistic in the mileage they've got out of cyberbullying. What I see is behaviour that's always existed - it's just migrated.

Isn't there a difference in that things can go viral?

Yes. If you tweet something or post it on Facebook, it's outwith your control and young people can find themselves in a deep hole very quickly. But children can also feel empowered by the ability to block and report messages online.

Your last annual conference was organised with LGBT Youth Scotland. Is homophobic bullying a particular concern?

Yes. All children are affected by bullying, but LGBT and disabled young people can experience more severe bullying, more often. School for people who are perceived to be gay is still a challenging, and at times dangerous, environment.

One of your conference workshops asks whether labelling of children by adults is ever helpful. What do you think?

It's never helpful. I want people to understand that it's not about softening language, it's not because I have a social care background. When you label children, they can be burdened by those labels and live up to them. It's been one of the fundamental flaws of anti-bullying in the past 30 years, that it's focused on what type of people do things to what type of people, rather than "This is behaviour - how does it make people feel and what can we do to change it?"

How would you counter the suggestion that an over-emphasis on bullying can exacerbate a problem, or create issues where they don't exist?

We've always guarded against winding up the tension. It's good to raise issues, but don't do it in a way that makes people tense, because then they start to filter everything through that.

When does normal behaviour cross the line and become bullying?

Bullying takes something away from children - that capacity to feel that you can be yourself. But if I'm confident, people can be hostile and it will wash over me. I would say I've not been bullied.

So it depends on the perception of the person on the receiving end?

It's a mixture of certain types of behaviour, and the impact they have. What you do about bullying is far more important than how you define it. Your response should focus on how to get back what has been taken away from the person who's been bullied.

Programmes like The X Factor have been criticised for tacitly endorsing bullying. Is that a genuine concern?

There are lots of programmes where people are upset by what's dressed up as honesty - but you can be honest without being brutal. I don't have moral outrage about people like Simon Cowell. At times the debate is too superficial - that's the issue I have.

How would you sum up the root causes of bullying?

Bullying is about relationships - when they aren't working, or they're not built on respect, bullying flourishes.


Born: Glasgow, 1970

Education: St Maurice's High, Cumbernauld; business studies at Glasgow College

Career: Has worked with children since Camp America job in 1990; St Pier's School in Surrey, working with children with epilepsy; Strathclyde Regional Council residential worker, then manager (Glasgow City Council); NCH charity (now Action for Children) from 2003, set up an alternative to secure and residential service in Ayr; director of respectme since 2006.

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