Emma Burstall visits a south London school where the pupils police the playground.
Deputy head Pauline Quinton was hopping mad after attending a residents' meeting near her home in Dulwich, South East London. The meeting had been called to discuss falling educational standards and, she hoped, possible solutions. Instead, she listened with growing disbelief to a team of "so- called educational experts" effectively writing off state schools and young people in general.
"They told the audience that bullying was rife, the youth of today were growing up as muggers, and there was absolutely nothing anybody could do about it.
"I was furious," she said. "We work very hard at my school to prevent bullying and are making great strides, yet none of the experts seemed remotely interested in what actually goes on." In fact, staff at 475-pupil Dog Kennel Hill primary school, East Dulwich, where 60 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, feel they have the problem of bullying pretty well licked.
A group of concerned teachers - the Behaviour Working Party - of which Mrs Quinton is a member, meet on a monthly basis to review existing disciplinary practice and discuss any new problems brought to their attention.
A year ago last Easter, Mrs Quinton attended a three-day anti-bullying course at London University's Institute of Education. She came back with lots of ideas and, with the Behaviour Working Party, drew up a questionnaire for 200 junior children asking about their experiences of school life, good and bad.
Although 102 children said they liked school "very much" and only four said "not at all", it became clear that some bullying did go on, almost always in the playground rather than corridors or classrooms. "Only 16 children said they were often bullied, but 37 said they had been hit, 54 had been called names, and 12 had been made to do something they didn't want to. Twenty six said that when they told a grown-up about the problem, nothing happened.
"We soon realised that although we didn't have group bullying at our school, it did happen on an individual basis. We felt we had to act," Mrs Quinton explains. The teaching and support staff agreed on a definition of bullying and produced a statement saying it would never be tolerated in the school. Throughout the summer term, 1994, children and staff talked about bullying in assembly and class time, and discussed ways of dealing with it. Older children drew cartoons to show what bullying is, and the following October, "dinner- time friends" came on the scene for the first time. These are about 30 specially trained children from Years 5 and 6 who once a week don yellow sashes and patrol the playground looking for signs of trouble.
They carry notebooks listing possible ways of responding to problems they might encounter, and are encouraged to jot down any incidents that occur. "They know if they think anything is serious, they must hand it over to an adult, " Mrs Quinton says. Another initiative is the lunchtime club, run by a member of staff. Here children - especially infants - who feel frightened in the playground, can sit quietly inside, away from the hurly burly.
"Small children can be quite unhappy at playtime, but aren't necessarily able to say why," Mrs Quinton explains. "After a term or two in the lunchtime club, they are usually ready to go outside."
Two teachers also run a Thursday Club for aggressive children. Staff and pupils have lunch together, then go the library where youngsters, who normally attend for a term, are encouraged to discuss their behaviour.
"It's a bit like a psychotherapy session," Mrs Quinton explains.
And bullies are sometimes forced to confront their actions by talking to the children they have picked on. "Both children are encouraged to say why they felt as they did and often the bully is horrified to discover how upset he has made his victim."
Finally, the school regularly withdraws privileges for children who intimidate others. They may be forbidden from playing football in the bottom playground for a week, from going on the "tiger" climbing frame, or playing their instrument at music assembly on Friday. "We believe it's terribly important to praise and be positive, so, for example, we might say in assembly that someone can't play for us today because her teacher isn't very happy with her, but that we hope we'll hear her next week. That gives the child a way back in," Mrs Quinton maintains.
"For the vast majority of children this works. We find there are very few who couldn't care less. But if a child does something really bad like trying to steal someone else's lunch money, he or she is immediately suspended."
Teachers and pupils say the school's policy has been a great success. Head Pat Boyer says: "Lunchtime staff and children report a decrease in incidents and I know there are fewer happening. Everybody is far more aware now of what's acceptable behaviour and what isn't. "I can't promise new parents that there won't be any bullying at this school, but I can promise that it will be tackled."
Mrs Quinton adds: "I think the biggest improvement is that if a child is bullied and tells a teacher, he or she now feels that something will definitely be done about it. All the pupils know that there's no way bullying will be tolerated."
Amy Sharpe, 10, a dinner-time friend, is very happy with the school. "I think it's got much better," she comments. "When I was an infant there were lots of fights in the playground and people running round pushing each other. That doesn't really happen anymore.
"When people used to get bullied they were scared to tell the teachers in case they got ticked off, but now they're not scared any more and they know the teachers will do something about it."
Four-year-old Jake, meanwhile, is a great fan of the lunchtime club: "When l was little I didn't like the playground because it was too loud and I was frightened so I went to the lunchtime club for a while. But now I've got my favourite friend Ruby, we always do things together and I like playing outside," he adds.
The Department for Education's 1994 anti-bullying pack for schools advises pupils:
When you are being bullied:
* be firm and clear - look them in the eye and tell them to stop * get away from the situation as quickly as possible * tell an adult what has happened straight away After you havebeen bullied:
* tell a teacher or another adult in your school * tell your family * if you are scared to tell a teacher or an adult on your own, ask a friend to go with you * keep on speaking up until someone listens * don't blame yourself for what has happened When you are talking about bullying with an adult, be clear about:
* what has happened to you * how often it has happened * who was involved * who saw what was happening * where it happened * what you have done about it already The pack, Don't Suffer in Silence, was sent free to all schools in England last year. Additional copies cost Pounds 9.95 from HMSO bookshops