Difficult to define bullying

11th April 2008 at 01:00
I was very interested to read the results of research into bullying, published in The TESS on March 7.

During my time as a rector and depute rector, I became very well aware of the problems associated with bullying and the challenges of dealing with them.

The first problem is in defining what bullying is. Pupils frequently tease each other; call each other nicknames and comment on each other's clothes or hairstyles. Much of this is done in a friendly way and is done face-to-face. Pupils, like adults, also spend a lot of time talking about others who are not present. Again this is normal and usually harmless. However, very serious bullying can be taking place within these activities.

The problem of defining bullying makes it very difficult to carry out surveys on the subject. To ask in a questionnaire "have you ever been bullied" might result in a figure close to 100 per cent, as we can all think of times when someone was nasty to us.

As bullying is so difficult to define, it is often difficult to legislate for and, when the bully is careful, it can be difficult to identify punishable offences. For example, is it an offence to say to someone: "I do not understand how you can be friends with X"? It is hard to call this an offence: yet, to get friends to leave the victim and join the strong group led by the bully is a very effective way to bully, and is devastating for the victim.

If rules and punishments are not useful in dealing with "subtle bullying", what can be done? Every school will have an anti-bullying policy. However, like many things in schools, being effective is not only about having policies and procedures, it is about the way we do things. Here are some examples of good practice:

- Teachers always treat pupils fairly and treat them with respect.

- Teachers never make fun of a pupil.

- Pupils are expected to treat all others fairly and with respect.

- Pupils are consulted and are encouraged to express their opinions about everything in the school.

- Pupils and parents are encouraged to let the school know of problems early. They are told this is helpful to the school.

- Guidance teachers treat all problems brought to them by pupils seriously.

- Every concern is dealt with sympathetically and thoroughly, and the outcome reported to all concerned.

- There is a high level of staff presence before school, breaks, lunchtimes, in corridors, at buses and so on.

This last point is important but raises further difficulties. Supervision and the provision of safe places is certainly important. Many teachers give up their time to help supervise pupils. Some run clubs and others simply allow pupils to come into their rooms at lunchtimes. These things are very helpful.

However, it is interesting to note that teachers cannot be instructed to supervise pupils. A school might have hundreds of pupils in the building at lunchtime with little supervision. Apparently, the school has a "duty of care" at that time, but staff cannot be instructed to supervise.

Another worrying time is on the bus. It can have up to 100 pupils on board with no supervision other than the driver. This is ideal for the bully who knows the same pupils have to carch it every day. If the bus had a similar number of pupils on an outing, it would require several teachers to be present.

I have not tried to define bullying. However, if all pupils are encouraged to let the school know of any problems bothering them, the teacher can decide whether it is bullying - or not. Bullying will be given the highest priority, but it is important that all problems are tackled and seen to be tackled.

Norman Roxburgh is former rector of Earlston High in Berwickshire.

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