How to beat 'em

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Why are school bullies still allowed to get away with it? It's time for an overhaul of policy , says Liz Carnell

Bullying in UK schools has reached epidemic proportions. Why is that when every school is supposed to have a policy to deal with it? Schools have never had so much support to get to grips with this problem. Millions of pounds have been spent on initiatives including a merry-go-round of Department for Education and Skills conferences and anti-bullying rubber wristbands. The Anti-Bullying Alliance has been endowed with a massive pound;570,000 of taxpayers' money, but to what effect?

Bullying Online hasn't seen any reduction in the number of complaints we get, which totalled more than 8,000 last year and, according to ChildLine, the number of children seeking their help over bullying is rocketing. All charities are reporting increases and it's alarming that we are contacted by up to four suicidal children a day. It's a miracle that "only" 16 to 20 children a year actually succeed in killing themselves. We know many more try and fail.

It's time to face facts. Some anti-bullying measures are not working and it's time for schools to ditch those in favour of others which do. The DfES needs to take advice from those of us who work at the sharp end and have one-to-one contact with distressed children and their parents. Taking advice from businesses and large charities which belong to the Anti-Bullying Alliance is all very well but most of their representatives are unlikely to be manning helplines personally, so they may have a different perspective. Pushing the message that we should promote the "exciting" anti-bullying work in schools is all very well, but success should be quantifiable. I know of one school which is lauded on its local education authority's website as having anti-bullying accreditation, and yet we received a very serious complaint about it from a parent. This was also taken up with the authority. Although the victim was removed, the school is still held up as a shining example. Only when schools can show that there are fewer complaints about bullying can their policies be considered successful.

Punishment as a last resort is another trendy right-on politically correct view which would not find favour among the families who turn to us for help. If you were beaten up in your office toilet twice a week, or had money stolen from your briefcase, you would be able to complain to your employer, union and the police. School violence, often involving serious injury needing hospital treatment, is very common, so advocating punishment as a last resort is sending the wrong message to bullies.

Four years ago, the then Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, said he wanted to ditch the no-blame culture. So why is this controversial method still being used? Why shouldn't bullies be accountable for their behaviour?

Bullying Online is not the only charity that has complaints from parents and children about this method and its variations, which sometimes include mediation. No doubt some schools are operating successfully - or think they are - but I'm afraid parents tell a different story about others.

Here are some recent complaints we have received.

* A girl who had money extorted from her who was given "counselling" with the bully. After the second session, more cash was demanded. When her parents complained, the school said it was "only a small amount of money".

* A girl whose life was made a misery by a classmate was told she should feel sorry for the bully. Immediately she stepped out of the room the bullying started again.

* A boy forced to apologise to his tormentor to make a fresh start. This increased his distress so that he couldn't face going to school.

* A girl put into a room alone with the bully and told to "make friends".

Low-key, no-blame-style techniques are totally inappropriate for incidents in which children have suffered serious physical injury or had money extorted from them. It would be more appropriate to call in the police.

Parents tell us that once the sessions are over the bullying restarts, sometimes the same day. We hear the most positive stories from young people involved in peer support schemes where they're trained as "listeners" and can then help to sort out friendship disputes before they escalate into more serious conflict. Teenagers may be more likely to talk to someone of their own age than they would to a teacher. The problem with some of these schemes is that training is inadequate. We were recently asked by a sixth-former to give advice on two reasonably common bullying issues because he didn't feel his peer support training made him confident he was saying the right thing to those who asked for help.

I'd like to see all schools become "telling schools" where everyone knows that if the victim is too frightened to tell a teacher, witnesses have to do so. The bullies quickly get the message that they can't get away with it.

I'd like to make it mandatory for headteachers to report to governors once a term on all written complaints of bullying so that the bullying policy can be updated regularly.

I'd also like all schools to have formal complaints policies so that parents know what will happen next. It's amazing how many schools don't bother to keep parents in the picture. This leads to misunderstandings and an assumption that no action has been taken.

Training for governors is vital. Far too many children are being removed from schools because governing bodies are not doing their job. They need to remember they are not the headteacher's personal friend and that bad publicity over one bullied child will have long-lasting effects on the school.

Bullying on the school bus is a big problem, but schools rarely intervene in incidents off the premises since a High Court ruling that they didn't have to. Meanwhile, chauffeur parents take the strain.

It's time to ditch policies that were fashionable in the last century and to listen to what parents and children are telling us now.

Because they're the real bullying experts.

Liz Carnell is director of the charity Bullying Online:

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