Bully off

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Empathy for the perpetrators? A no-blame approach? Or a buddy system? Emma Burns hears from schools that have made headway tackling this problem

As the 11-year-old pushed back his sleeves to show the scars where he had cut himself after being so badly bullied that he wanted to die, there was palpable concern from those around him. "Why did you do that?" the other seven children asked. "Didn't it hurt? You'll get blood poisoning! You wouldn't ever do it again, would you? Promise me."

There was no clue that six of these children at The City Academy, Bristol, were there because they had themselves been involved in bullying others and had been referred to stop them getting worse. Only Tracy Morris, who runs the 12-week anti-bullying courses at the school, knew which six had been bullies and which two victims, and she was delighted to see the distinctions breaking down.

"This boy was quite a burly, tough lad who came across as confident, yet he told us that in primary school he was shoved into the toilets, stared at and threatened," she says. "He said he felt so isolated he wanted to kill himself because he didn't want to carry on, and he did self-harm. The others were really shocked and upset. They were sitting there saying, 'Oh my God, I didn't know it had this much effect on people'. It was lovely.

They developed this real bond and they still look out for this lad. They are a little support network for him."

It is the sort of success story the Government wants to hear as it pushes bullying up the agenda. It is launching Charter for Action across the country (to encourage schools to sign up to creating a community where bullying is not tolerated); it is spending pound;75 million for secondary schools to tackle bad behaviour; plus pound;750,000 for regional advisers from the Anti Bullying Alliance, a coalition of children's charities; it wants Ofsted to talk to pupils about bullying and check up on schools'

policies; it is holding an annual Anti-Bullying Week in schools; and magistrates are issuing orders to compel the parents of persistent bullies to improve their child's behaviour. It has become a hot topic for the Department for Education and Skills, at least in part because the drive to improve attendance and raise standards is being adversely affected by the impact of bullying on children who are so miserable that they stay away from school or become incapable of learning.

Bishop Wulstan Roman Catholic school in Rugby largely focuses its efforts on two of the DfES approaches: peer mentoring and the school's anti-bullying policy. Up to a dozen volunteers from Year 10 and 11 run the anti- bullying student support service, set up and overseen by the deputy head, Maria Lee. After two days' training, they staff an office and patrol the playground at lunch and break times. They act as buddies to new children from other schools who have been victims, and are a first point of contact for children who want to report something.

"Quite a few of them have had some bullying in the past but have come through it and have got a bit of perspective on it," says the headteacher, Brendan Higgins. "That puts them in a particularly good position to help others who might feel reticent about approaching staff. If we pick things up quickly, hopefully they can be dealt with and resolved there and then."

Every child in the school knows what behaviour is expected of them because of the importance laid on the mission statement and its anti-bullying policy. "At the start of every academic year we have a special assembly when we go through the policy and articulate what bullying is," says Mr Higgins. "We point out that bullying can be unintentional - for instance when someone is excluded from a group because the others haven't been thoughtful enough to include them or to notice they felt isolated. It can be an insult, such as 'slaphead', which is meant as a joke but may be the last straw to the other person.

"We revisit the issue of bullying when it seems necessary. Underlying it all is our mission statement, which says that it is your duty to achieve your potential, to show loving care for all God's people, and to go out and change things if they are wrong."

It is not always as simple as "nasty thugs torment innocent victim but once his or her pain is drawn to their attention they repent and all ends happily". Sometimes, as Brendan Higgins points out, the relationship is more complex.

"Sometimes children who have complained about being quite severely bullied hang around the person they have named, as if they want to make themselves vulnerable to further bullying," he says. "They get into a cycle of being a victim, wanting to be able to come back and complain. There's an attention-seeking aspect. You have got to be very careful how you approach parents with that message: it can be very hard for some of them."

In Tracy Morris's experience, the peak period for bullying in Year 7 is between autumn and spring half-terms. "At first they are getting to know the school and it's all quiet,"she says. "Then there's a big unsettled period while the pecking order gets sorted out and everyone finds out who the hard nuts are. That's when we step in and deal with the ones who are trying to run the year group.

"We often hear that the bullies have been bullied themselves. Sometimes it's in the family: the adults or their older brothers and sisters have been doing it. Sometimes they were really badly picked on at primary school and they arrive at secondary school thinking 'I'm not going through that again: I'll do the bullying instead.' We had one girl who was incredibly good and helpful at home where her dad was ill, but she took it all out on other kids at school.

"It doesn't really matter why they are doing it - what matters is that they change, and, with the very powerful no-blame, empathetic approach, they mostly do."

The student support centre that Miss Morris runs deals with all forms of behaviour management, making it possible to prevent bullying rather than just picking up the pieces afterwards. When there were problems between one child with Asperger's and some of his classmates, she drew up contracts for all of them to ban behaviour that the others perceived as bullying. Some students have 'time-out' cards which they can use to leave the classroom and go to the student support centre if they feel dangerously close to losing their rag. Others use it as a base at lunch and break times rather than going into the playground.

"We don't sweep things under the carpet here," says Miss Morris. "It's a very honest school. We never say to children 'Oh don't be so silly' or tell them that bullying is in their imagination. We investigate everything.

There is quite a culture of 'It's OK to tell'. For children who want to report something but don't want to be identified, they can email anonymously."

Ultimately, though, not even all this can guarantee to eliminate bullying.

Some children, Miss Morris has found, will carry on no matter what help is offered.

"I can think of two students who were really, really nasty bullies,' she says. "We put in every support, but they thought they were above and beyond everything we said and the effect they had on their year group was worrying. They got a posse following behind them because the other kids were scared and wanted to be in the gangs rather than outside them.

Fluffing over it does no one any good. In the end you have to think of the welfare of the majority and say 'Your behaviour is unacceptable, there is no place for you in this school.' "

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