Get tough without being rough

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Dealing with Bullying in Schools: a training manual for teachers, parents and other professionals

By Mona O'Moore and Stephen James Minton. Sage Publications pound;60 hbkpound;19.99 pbk

The Theory and Practice of Preventing and Responding to Bullying in Schools

By Val Besag. Positive Behaviour Management. pound;8.65 inc pp from PBM, 7 Quinton Close, Ainsdale, Merseyside PR8 2TD

The language of school improvement - data-driven, target setting, residual-focused - comes and goes, but some aspects of school life seem destined to be eternally with us. Bullying, in various forms, is a feature of many organisations, not just schools. It is an issue that cannot be ignored.

Dealing with Bullying in Schools is described as a "training manual for teachers, parents and other professionals". It starts with a disarming address to the reader: "If we, as the authors of this text, have not succeeded in picking up exactly what it was that you, as a reader, hoped that you would gain from a so-titled text - then please let us know."

This conciliatory approach characterises the authors' stance. They strongly criticise any approach to bullying that simply emphasises punishment. This, they say, fails to address the root causes of the bully's behaviour. They recommend a "no blame" approach, which "offers a way to escape the 'violence begets violence' cycle".

I have always had problems with the message contained in that "no blame" label -the implication that bullies should not be held responsible for their behaviour. But the philosophy outlined here feels right, a kind of "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" approach. Bullying is definitely not being ducked; rather, the authors urge us to avoid the belief that we can cure it through traditional sanctions such as exclusion.

The book is strong on practical information, including handouts and overhead projector sheets, for training staff, students and parents.

Where it could give more guidance is on how to manage the response to a bullying incident. If we are to avoid the traditional punishment-through-exclusion response, we need clear strategies to address its root causes while also signalling publicly that bullying is unacceptable. That means knowing exactly how to deal with the bully and the victim. We get it wrong at our peril. While the authors take us through the process of policy writing and provide a range of useful resources, I would like to see more guidance in the section on conflict resolution.

If this were the Eurovision song contest, I fear Val Besag's pamphlet on bullying would receive nul points for presentation. It feels as if it's been printed direct from a desktop printer on cheap but shiny paper. Yet in 32 pages it provides a reassuring overview of the issues, ranging from "facts and figures" (actually a bit short on figures) to a detailed analysis of potential causes.

Part two of the pamphlet looks at preventive and protective action; part three at effective responses. This, I suspect, is where we need more explanation, though the list of possible approaches provided (friendship networks, adult mentors, conflict resolution, and so on) usefully reminds us that a range of strategies is available to support the victim and tackle the bullying.

Inevitably the condensed nature of the publication leaves gaps. A reference to the "Pikas method of common concern" refers us to another publication by the author; the "circle of friends" strategy points to another pamphlet in the series. Neither strategy is explained in the booklet itself. What is striking is that so much research has been synthesised into so small a book. There is something reassuring about this. My shelves sag under the weight of books I have received about behaviour management and bullying strategies. Often the sheer length and tone of a book suggest authors and publishers who forget the need in schools for highly accessible, rapid-read texts that will help make our lives simpler.

This booklet does that. It maps out the issues and counsels caution in several key areas. For example, on "restorative justice" it describes this potentially powerful process for getting the perpetrator to meet the victim in a safe environment and hear the effect of his or her attacks. The author says: "It is best left to professionals or trained and experienced practitioners." Quite so. Val Besag's booklet won't provide a ready-made bullying policy, or a set of tips for teachers. It is a helpful and easy-to-read overview of the issues, and its low-budget format somehow adds to its unpretentious clarity of purpose.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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