Bullying is a political issue

30th November 2012 at 00:00
Ian Rivers ponders whether the behaviour we witness in schools reflects the political discourse

Four years ago I found myself in the somewhat daunting position of being interviewed for a post at an American university. During a dinner hosted by the head of department - and after two gruelling days of being interviewed by academics and chaperoned around the campus by even more inquisitive graduate students - one professor turned to me and said: "Bullying is political, isn't it?"

His argument was simple yet effective. Schools do not exist in apolitical vacuums; they are governed and affected by the politics of the day - local and national.

Four years later, while conducting other research on bullying, I found that this conversation had remained at the back of my mind. To what extent are the behaviours we witness in and around our schools influenced by the political discourse of the time? Does racial bullying increase when political statements are made on immigration? Do disabled young people find themselves increasingly the subject of abuse at a time when we are told that many of those receiving benefits are not disabled at all and have been "allowed to fester"?

I have previously argued that the political pronouncements made in the wake of the Olympics on the value of competitive sports were not helpful when it comes to tackling bullying. As a society, we put such value on sporting success that we must guard against devaluing the efforts of those who do not come first.

Mark Hatzenbuehler, an assistant professor at Columbia University in New York, has shown in a series of population-based studies that a perceived negative religious or political climate within a community can have a significant impact on the health and well-being of young people who are members of the group being targeted (in this case, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth).

By way of contrast, while in the UK there has been political acknowledgment that section 28 had a detrimental effect on the educational experiences of many sexual minority youth, we have not considered the impact of statements by political or religious leaders - or, indeed, party politics, particularly during election years - on the school environment.

If one looks at the issue of immigration in particular, did its high level of visibility during the most recent general election make racism more acceptable? Were messages construed in such a way that bigotry seemed to be at the heart of the debate? Readers may remember Gordon Brown's faux pas when 65-year-old Gillian Duffy tackled him on this very issue. If the sitting prime minister can interpret a question on immigration as bigotry, so can children of school age.

Following the events of 11 September 2001 in New York, a number of schools in the UK felt it necessary to hold assemblies and classroom discussions to counter the myths and rhetoric (some of it political) that ensued. Subsequent research conducted in the North of England showed that pupils who had classmates or friends who were Muslim tended to be more positive in their opinions about Islam and "Arabs" than those who had little or no contact.

Thus, in hindsight, while the fears of some of the teachers who organised those events may have been unfounded - particularly in schools serving multicultural communities - some Muslim pupils in predominantly white schools did experience difficulties. The lesson learned here is that all schools should be sensitive to the impact of world events and related political statements upon young people.

Don't be misunderstood

So, how do we ensure that we respond effectively to messages that may be misconstrued by pupils? All schools now keep detailed records of incidents of challenging or inappropriate behaviour and these can be the starting point for assessing, historically, the impact of local and national events or politics on schools.

"Spikes" (frequent or increased occurrences) in particular behaviours such as racist incidents can be explored by conducting searches of local and national media and also by talking to colleagues who live in the surrounding areas in an attempt to determine if there have been any events or incidents that could have prompted the behaviours seen at school.

Subsequently, regular analyses of the data can be used to inform anti-bullying initiatives - particularly if the issues raised can be incorporated into the curriculum. Furthermore, for inspectors, the effective use of this data can be an indicator of a school's commitment not only to combatting bullying but also to providing an inclusive environment that meets the needs of pupils regardless of age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University and visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University.

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