Hidden problem comes out of the shadows

13th June 2003 at 01:00
School bullying is back in the headlines, but in an atmosphere of openness it can be curtailed. Raymond Ross finds out about strategies to deal with incidents and modify behaviour

Bullying is back in the headlines with an Aberdeen girl suing her council for failing to protect her at Dyce Academy, and two teenagers at Blairgowrie High, in Perth and Kinross, taking out court orders against pupils who have subjected them to physical and verbal assault.

Childline Scotland says bullies are making life unbearable for thousands of children across Scotland every day. They receive 6,000 calls a year about it.

Does this mean bullying is on the increase? Andrew Mellor, director of the Anti-Bullying Network, based at the Moray House faculty of education at Edinburgh University, does not believe it is.

"I think it is a significant problem which affects a minority of children and young people but I don't believe it's any worse than when I started teaching in 1973 nor, indeed, when I was at school myself," he says.

"What has changed is that now there are strategies in place to deal with it."

How successfully incidents are dealt with depends to a large extent on what preventative measures are in place, he says. A school must first recognise that bullying is or can be a problem; there must be an atmosphere of openness which encourages pupils to come forward to discuss problems; and as many people as possible in the school community should be involved in an appropriate way.

"Anti-bullying should be embedded in the curriculum. That's vital," he says. "And pupil involvement in drawing up anti-bullying strategies is a pre-requisite."

The first thing to do is to protect the person being bullied and to modify the behaviour of the perpetrator, Mr Mellor says, remembering that his or her behaviour may signify other problems the perpetrator has. Most bullies, he believes, have very high self-esteem; low self-esteem is a myth if taken as a general rule.

"You have to condemn the action without labelling either the bully or the victim as such," he says. "We have to believe in the possibility of redemption or there is no way forward."

If a pupil is being bullied, it is not enough for a teacher or other adult to be told. The pupil should be encouraged to discuss the problem and possible solutions, so that he or she retains some control of the situation.

"The member of staff can't always guarantee to solve the problem, so there should be no Superman approach," he says.

"An effective strategy might be the group support method, what is sometimes called 'the no blame approach', a lousy name for it. One advantage of this method is that you're harnessing the power of peer pressure in a positive way.

"Within the group you will have the perpetrator(s), the victim(s) and the onlookers or bystanders. You invite suggestions on how the young people think they can help. You speak first to the onlookers, who will be positive and set the tone by the time it gets round to the perpetrator(s).

"You are trying to find out the nature of the problem and get everyone to feel the hurt that is being caused. But you have to be careful. If the others are not capable of empathy, you could make things worse by exposing the victim's hurt.

"You try to establish a sense of group responsibility. But success will depend very much on your previous pro-active work," he emphasises.

In many cases of bullying there is a lack of hard evidence. It can be very much a "hidden problem". The group approach method, says Mr Mellor, allows you to intervene where you have no proof.

Because bullying encompasses an array of behaviour, ranging from relationship problems, isolation in the playground and harassment to abuse, assault and racism, countering the problem means a range of appropriate responses and you need to be pragmatic.

"Pupils should accept they may be punished for doing wrong. If punishment works, fine. But I would estimate that less than 10 per cent of bullying can be solved by punishment, because punishment depends on proof and that's difficult to get," says Mr Mellor.

"Bullying may consist of a threatening look and that's hard to detect.

"Also, if the threat of punishment is the only deterrent, that does not make the problem go away.

"If you try exclusion - something which is becoming more difficult to apply all the time - the problem may return with the returning pupil. And what do you do with a whole class or a large group of pupils who have sent a child to Coventry, refusing to play with him or her, for example? You can't exclude a whole class and you can't punish someone for not playing with someone else.

"There are few sanctions and you can't rely on ineffective sanctions. A series of serious talks with the alleged bully is the preference of some Scandinavian countries."

Clear-cut cases of serious bullying demand the child is protected and that can mean police involvement, says Mr Mellor, who adopts the principle that a child has the right to the same degree of protection in school as an adult at work. However, clear-cut cases are few and far between.

"Often you will be presented with the 'I said X and she said X' scenario.

The only thing you're sure of often is the pupils' feelings.

"If your only response is punishment, then you might not be able to intervene. It's about inculcating responsibility, which takes us back to the pro-active measures already set up in your school. Research suggests that pro-active measures can reduce bullying by 50 per cent.

"But we've still got the other 50 per cent to deal with," he says.

The express aim in Norway is to achieve zero bullying, but Mr Mellor says:

"I can't see it being eradicated in the near future here.

"It's a bold move in Norway. Will they achieve it? I don't know.

"They started on this in 1969. We came on board 20 years after that. That's how much we are behind them," he says.

St Luke's High in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire, is an example of a school which has adopted a whole school pro-active approach to bullying.

It was very highly rated for its pastoral care by an HM Inspectorate of Education standards and quality report in February 2001.

Neither the headteacher, John Fitzpatrick, nor the assistant headteacher in charge of pupil support, Patricia Scott, believes bullying is on the increase in their own professional experience.

"I don't believe it has increased but it is better recorded," says Mr Fitzpatrick.

"I don't believe children's behaviour is getting worse and we're not dealing with any more or less bullying incidents than in previous years, but I think schools are now dealing with them more systematically."

The school roll is 600, with 20 per cent of pupils entitled to free lunches. Anti-bullying is embedded in the curriculum, especially through personal and social education, religious studies, English (in reading materials and writing), physical education (teamwork, looking out for others) and drama, which deals in depth with "bullyproofing" through scriptwriting, role play and production.

"There is a strong emphasis on community ethos and openness which promotes close relationships between pupils and staff, particularly guidance, and we have a very quick reaction time should an incident occur," says Mrs Scott.

"Part of the pro-active approach aims to minimise opportunities for bullying to take place. As a matter of course, senior management, guidance, support and janitorial staff are all highly visible during breaks. This is part of our ethos, of getting to know and catching up with pupils out of class in social areas of the school.

"We also have a lot of lunchtime clubs and extra-curricular activity which engages the pupils positively and keeps them focussed productively while out of class," she says.

All bullying incidents are recorded and dealt with according to individual circumstances.

"We'd be looking at why it happened. We would involve parents and other support agencies as required," says Mrs Scott.

"Addressing the problem might include anger management, examining a relationship problem or investigating causes external to the school.

"It's not about punishment. It's about changing behaviour.

"We certainly would and do exclude for violence, including violent bullying, and we'd have no hesitation in involving the police if we thought that necessary."

St Luke's High guidance, pupil support, learning support and behaviour support staff all visit the school's associated primaries to get to know the children before they transfer. They are placed in S1 classes with at least three friends and all S1 pupils are interviewed on a regular basis, in small groups and individually, by guidance staff, who make pro-active contact with parents as part of the school's openness policy.

"We keep individual profiles and can spot changes in behaviour or attainment which might signal a problem like bullying.

"If a pupil says they are being bullied, we work with them to solve the problem rather than taking it out of their hands.

"We encourage perpetrators to be assertive rather than aggressive, to learn how to listen to others, how to discuss issues and how to respect others.

This can be done in groups or individually, depending on the situation," says Mrs Scott.

Pro-active measures can lead to disclosure of problems, says Marie-Anne McGrattan, the head of drama.

"In role play and discussions in our S1 bullyproofing unit, pupils might admit to name-calling, gossiping, making nuisance 'phone calls or harassing other pupils and be surprised that these are forms of bullying.

"I've had two boys admit to being bullies while at primary school, quite openly. Then, in discussion, it turns out they have also been bullied," she says.

In the first lesson of the bullyproofing unit, Ms McGrattan takes the role of someone who has left school because of bullying. The pupils fire her with questions, the purpose being to highlight how bullying can adversely affect someone throughout their life.

Pupils prepare anti-bullying posters and poems, discuss the power and the stereotype of bullies, the reasons for bullying and how to protect yourself.

"The key point of the whole school approach is that we are working to a policy which is regularly monitored," says Mr Fitzpatrick. "If a major incident occurs, we deal with it, and we systematically go over the policy to see if it met the needs of all the pupils involved.

"The word 'bully' should be used very carefully. It's become very difficult to separate it from other incidents of falling out.

"There's a media spotlight on bullies in school and on violence against teachers. They seem to be running in parallel. But the impression that children are not as well behaved as they used to be is certainly not one I have," he says.

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