An end to the misery years;Briefing;Research Focus

8th May 1998 at 01:00
Schools can learn much from a new study of measures to tackle bullying, says its co-author, Derek Glover

The misery of school bullying has received much media attention recently. Research at the University of Keele that I have directed has also confirmed that the problem is widespread.

More than 20 per cent of pupils suffer teasing and abuse frequently, 6 per cent experience frequent physical abuse, and 7 per cent report that their property is repeatedly damaged.

However, the newly-published book about this research - which I co-wrote with Netta Cartwright and Denis Gleeson - goes beyond such frighteningly high figures to look at the ways in which schools are responding.

The study involved 25 secondary schools, partners in Keele's PGCE training programme. A questionnaire was completed by 4,500 pupils and another l50 pupils were interviewed to tease out more information about their motivation and attitudes.

Education tutors also interviewed staff in the participating schools and examples of good practice were recorded.

The case studies of schools passing along a continuum from no-policy to fully implemented and evaluated policies provide a mirror for schools to reflect their own progress. They also show that anti-bullying work cannot alone combat outside pressures which have prompted the "self-first" viewpoint. Schools which have changed attitudes have worked continuously with parents and the wider community.

But probably the most important preparatory step is for pupils and staff to want change. Willingness to admit that there might be a problem is often the most encouraging sign. Policy development, however, has to be carefully managed.

We found that a top-down anti-bullying policy was likely to be less effective than one which had grown from a long period of consultation between pupils, staff, and the school community, including parents and governors. Where the whole school has negotiated the details of the policy, the readiness to share problems is enhanced - even to the point of acknowledging that staff can also suffer from bullying.

We have built up case studies of pupils who have been bullies and victims - and the fortunate 14 per cent of non-participants. Three-quarters of all pupils admit to bullying, and a similar percentage consider that they have been victims at some stage.

The greatest problem is that while policies may be effective within the school day, community influences may counter these. The culture of "giving as good as you get" has predominated in poorer areas. In more favoured areas the culture of materialism can lead to misery for those pupils who are "picked on" because they do not have fashion wear.

There is some evidence that boys fare better than girls. For them, bullying is often more violent but quickly over while girls appear to suffer longer - two detailed in the research endured misery at school for two years.

Part of the problem is that victims often fear retaliation if they "grass". Some schools have responded to such problems by developing peer counselling and no-blame approaches, and by reducing the timetable demands on staff who have skills as counsellors and mediators. There is no panacea, but we have been able to detail the way in which partnerships between school and youth groups, school and parents and school and the community have lessened the "bully culture".

Some schools still do not, however, accept the need for separate anti-bullying policies and have a strong behaviour policy which embraces all issues of inter-personal relationships. Others believe that highlighting the issue would only encourage pupils to "find problems where none exists".

Scrutiny of the Office for Standards in Education inspection reports for the schools involved in our study suggests that this may be a short-sighted policy - the contribution of anti-bullying strategies to school effectiveness is still under-rated by some staff.

Our finding that 7 per cent of pupils suffer misery because of bullying is supported by research in the USA, Canada, Scandinavia, and Australia. This equates to 70 pupils in the average secondary school. Action to reduce this figure is essential if schools are to become not only more humane environments but more academically successful.

* Towards Bully-Free Schools: Interventions In Action by Derek Glover, Netta Cartwright with Denis Gleeson, Open University Press, pound;14.99.

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