Bullying need not be a major problem. Clare Jenkins reports on a project which aims to tackle it through role-playing and storytelling.
Ten-year-old Gareth used to be a victim of bullying. "People were calling me names," he says. "They called me nigger and black bastard." "He wouldn't even have said those words before," says Sue Young of the North Humberside Special Educational Needs Support Service (SENSS). "Now he can, because it's all out in the open." What's opened up the issue is the Talking SENSS anti-bullying project. Young and storyteller Graham Langley recently ran a two-day arts programme in Gareth's class at Shaw Park Primary School. At the end, the bullies, Gareth among them ("Bullies and victims are often the same people, " says Sue), promised to reform. And the victims knew they had the support of other children.
Since Talking SENSS was launched in Hull last June, it's been experienced by 1,000 children in six primary schools. Today, it's the turn of Year 3 at Fifth Avenue school on the North Hull estate, where half the 600 children are on the special needs register.
The 25 seven-year-olds are sitting in a circle in front of Graham Langley, a spiky-haired, earring-wearing, former secondary school head of performing arts. To create a trusting, non-judgemental atmosphere, he tells stories - about a cat and a rat, about neighbours - which involve either a bully and a victorious underdog or people being nice to each other. The children are encouraged to participate - making sound effects, answering Langley's questions and listening to each other. At the end of each story, Langley asks for applause, emphasising the importance of praise. He also tells them to recount the stories to their families, making them part of the oral tradition of story-telling.
Then he shows the American anti-bullying video, Broken Toy. The children are shocked by the ending. They discuss how unhappy the boy must have been to run away from school, how they would have felt in the same situation, and what people could have done to help. Over the next two days, they will make up action songs and plays about feelings, play co-operative games, role play bullying situations in small groups, and maybe make a class "friendship" quilt or create a pictorial overhead projector story.
Gradually, having established an atmosphere of trust, Graham Langley encourages the children to talk about their own experiences of bullying and being bullied. All the time, he builds their self-esteem by listening, coaxing them to share stories, and keeping boisterous behaviour under control. Once awareness of their own and each other's feelings has been raised and they have begun to empathise with victim and bully, they will form support groups of bullies, victims and bystanders.
"Once they know what it feels like to be bullied," says Sue Young, "when Graham asks what they should do if someone is being bullied, they say things like: 'I'll be his friend', 'I'll play with him', 'I'll give her some of my sweets'. That's crucial, because the peer group are then withdrawing their permission to bully."
The project follows the No Blame approach developed by educational psychologist Barbara Maines and George Robinson of the University of the West of England. "We say bullying is not acceptable, but that's not to say you're not acceptable," says Sue Young. "Bullies often don't realise how hurtful their action is. They're thinking more about their own self-esteem, because, at bottom, you have a very miserable child."
Talking SENSS also encourages children to set up continuing small support groups. "The key is to tell your friends, because it's difficult for teachers. By its very nature, bullying happens behind their backs." Sue Young and Graham Langley emphasise the importance of follow-on work in the classroom: "It shouldn't be just a one-off. It has to be part of a whole package."
Fifth Avenue Primary School headteacher Keith Lodge agrees. His school paid Pounds 50 per class for 13 sessions, although the Pounds 10,000 project is mainly funded by Yorkshire and Humberside Arts and the Humberside Schools and Community Arts Budgets. "You don't change attitudes overnight," he says. "But look out at the playground, the children are playing nicely together. There's an atmosphere of calm throughout the school. It wasn't always like this. We do have a problem with bullying. Every school does. I don't believe teachers who say they don't."
Talking SENSS, he says, fits into the school's overall anti-bullying programme, which includes a behaviour management policy and a system of privileges. "It's about getting children to work together, to have respect for each other," he explains As a result, bullying and violence have been reduced, and the children's aptitude for study has improved. Michaela Saunders, headteacher at Shaw Park, has noticed the same effect. When she took over a year ago, the school was deemed to be failing. A major issue was children's behaviour in and out of the schoolroom. As part of their whole-school behaviour policy, Talking SENSS has "dramatically" reduced the incidence of bullying - by 85-90 per cent. It's also improved the children's listening skills and, as a result, their learning ability.
"It's been an uplifting experience," she says. "The children are so much nicer to each other. And it makes a huge difference in stress levels for teachers. It may not be the panacea for all ills, but it's certainly made a difference. "
Her pupils agree. "Everyone used to bully each other and we don't now, " says one boy; "We've not been horrible to each other," says another; "It's helped us all become closer friends," says a third. And a former bully admits, "I feel happy now I don't bully." Talking SENSS worked for Gareth. "It used to really upset me when people called me names," he says. "Now, my group keep an eye on me. I like them more. And now I'm helping others."
anti-bullying packs, Curriculum materials, page 16 * Anti-Bully Project, SENSS, Humberside Education Ctr, Coronation Rd North, Hull HU5 5RL. Details of the No Blame approach from Lame Duck Publishing, 10 South Terrace, Redland, Bristol BS6 6TG.