David Henderson finds that good relationships in a school are a key factor in the fight against bullying. BT's message that "it's good to talk" was the theme of a seminar on bullying last week run by the Scottish Schools Ethos Network at Moray House Institute. Schools that open up issues with young people in curriculum time reported that they have found a number of practical ways to improve relationships.
Two years ago, bullying was not discussed at St George's in Edinburgh, the 900-pupil independent girls' school. Now the issue is a key part of the pupil code on rights and responsibilities and talking about it has improved relationships between teachers and pupils, sixth-former Anna Sanderson says.
Anna told the seminar there was no significant problem in the school, although she had witnessed isolated incidents. "There was psychological bullying, usually a group of girls against one individual. There was a lot of jealousy because of the focus on academic achievement," she said.
The school's campaign on bullying, launched early in 1995, led to staff "being more sensitive to pupils", Anna said. A better atmosphere was created.
Tricia Lancaster, the school's head of guidance, told the seminar, the fifth in a series held around Scotland, that every school had evidence of bullying. "Bitching" could be a problem in the intense surroundings of a girls' school. "Sometimes we long for the diluting influence of boys," she said.
Staff training involved primary and secondary teachers and led to a wider involvement from office staff to groundsmen. Dinner ladies, for instance, were able to spot girls who were repeatedly isolated at lunchtime. Pupils were involved through circle time in prep school and personal and social development in secondary. Every form class was asked for its views and a "huge mountain of paper" was sifted through.
Ms Lancaster commented: "The girls felt we were listening to them really seriously, no matter how trivial their problem. The overall effect was an opening up and a much easier feeling. Nothing dramatic happened but we had more people coming to us wanting help."
Judy Arrowsmith, co-ordinator of the ethos network, said: "The right ethos is fundamental to the right learning and teaching process and it is associated with relationships. Life is not just a picnic at school and there is an emotional aspect to it that we can sometimes miss if we see schools in mechanistic terms." Teachers could sometimes make pupils unhappy in unintended ways.
Talking to and involving 925 first to third-year pupils at Buckhaven High in Fife in drawing up "golden rules" for school behaviour has "created a climate of respect", Ian Scott, the school's assistant head, said.
A review of rules and the introduction of a positive behaviour strategy three years ago have cut punishment exercises and referrals at Buckhaven, a 1,400-pupil secondary in a community with high unemployment levels. More pupils were coming forward to tell teachers of their problems.
The school originally timetabled four one-hour sessions for S1-S3 pupils during the May-June exam period. Mr Scott observed: "It was a two-way thing. For a lot of the staff it was the first time they had worked something out with the kids. I honestly do believe we have benefited from taking time to do this exercise."
Ritchie Cunningham, headteacher of Inverness High, which last week picked up a training award from Scottish Enterprise for its work with staff on behaviour and relationships, highlighted the incidence of bullying among second-year girls.
The school's Discipline for Learning training package involved staff and pupils in drawing up rules that were displayed in every classroom. Pupils are praised more, better behaved, work harder and have better attendance. Staff say stress has been reduced.
Mr Cunningham said: "Pupils have to believe that if they have got a problem, you will deal with it however trivial."
Circle time shows the way
Circle time has made an important contribution to raising primary pupils' self-esteem, Lina Waghorn, adviser in personal and social development in Dundee, told the seminar. Learning and behaviour improved when pupils were in a safe, secure and caring school. Circle time once a week used a "listening system" to raise pupils' confidence.
Ms Waghorn said: "We as adults come to work every day with emotional baggage. We are different every day and it is the same with children. They have maybe not had breakfast, witnessed a row or had trouble in the playground. But do we take this into account in our teaching?" Many of the activities in circle time were enjoyable. "Sometimes we have forgotten how to have fun in education, " Ms Waghorn said.
Similar methods were applicable in the early years of secondary when the transition could cause difficulties. She had also tested the approach with parents who wanted to know what circle time involved.