Lip service will not beat school bullies
I hope that Education Secretary Michael Russell will take a personal interest in the Government's anti-bullying consultation exercise, which runs until February 26. He has a lot of other pressing questions on his mind just now: how to persuade local authorities to maintain teacher numbers; how to provide permanent jobs for entrants to the profession; and where on earth (in the depths of a depression) the money is going to come from.
But a question I would urge him to find time to address goes to the heart of the quality of educational provision in Scotland: what are we going to do about those children who, despite all the work that has been done over the past 20 years, dread the thought of going to school because of bullying?
If all that is in a child's mind as he or she sits in a classroom is the threat of what is going to happen when the bell goes, it really doesn't matter what the pupil-teacher ratio is, or how modern the ICT provision is, or even how many colourful posters are displayed on the walls claiming that this is a "bully-free zone". A frightened or anxious child will never achieve his or her full potential in school and possibly, as a result, in adult life.
It's true that we have come a long way. No longer do headteachers tell me (as many did when I first started to investigate the problem in the 1980s) that bullying doesn't happen in their schools, so they don't need a policy to deal with it. And increased levels of awareness of the harmful effects of bullying and knowledge about more effective responses mean that the more overt forms, such as physical attacks, are less common.
However, I fear we have a lot still to do. My best estimate - based on more than 20 years of research, thousands of conversations with victims and their families and visits to many hundreds of schools - is that, in this new decade, one in 20 of the pupils in Scottish schools experience a significant degree of bullying in any one week. That means 35,000 children live in fear of what is going to happen when they go through the school gates.
These children attend all kinds of schools: primary and secondary, rural and urban, large and small, state and private. They feel isolated and powerless. They see no end to their problem. They look to friends, parents, teachers and those in powerful places to help them.
If they are lucky, they will attend a school with a positive ethos where there is a well-developed policy implemented by a caring, committed school community. In such a school, adults will not shrug off their worries or make them unrealistic promises; rather, they will be supported and the behaviour of the bullying children will be addressed. But if they are unlucky, their worries will not be treated seriously or they will be given trite advice such as "don't let them see that you are upset."
Whatever response the Scottish Government makes to its consultation exercise, let it be one which acknowledges the significant progress made by individuals, schools and other organisations in tackling the issue - but also acknowledges that progress is patchy and some schools, albeit a minority, have only paid lip service to the development of effective policies.
Let it be one which is realistic about the difficulties teachers and other adults can have in responding to incidents and which encourages them to continue to develop and refine strategies. Mr Russell should look carefully at the role the inspectorate could play. In the 1980s and 1990s, before its remit changed, HMIE took a keen interest in the development of approaches to bullying by sponsoring research and encouraging the development of resources. It would be helpful if inspectors could now play a bigger part in identifying and disseminating information about schools where approaches to bullying are effective, sustainable and embedded within the ethos and policies of the institution.
Let the Government's response also be one that goes beyond merely raising awareness about various forms of abuse and discrimination to encouraging schools and communities to think about and address the causes of bullying behaviour. Some of these causes stem from problems in families and in society in general, but it would be a mistake to shift the emphasis too far away from schools. Children are bound to bring their personal issues to school with them, and other children will suffer as a result.
Finally, I hope (and expect) that Mr Russell won't let his response be one which simply aims to allow him or other ministers to point to a superficially impressive programme the next time a bullying tragedy hits the headlines. He doesn't need to spend a lot of money to show that he cares about this problem. But he does need to seek out the views of those children and families who feel let down by the system, and of those teachers who would genuinely like to do more but feel that unrealistic expectations are placed upon them.
The Government's consultation paper solicits only the views of "agencies and professionals". A successful approach to bullying, whether at school or national level, should involve all members of the community, whatever their age or status, in an effort to establish a set of common values which guide and govern behaviour and relationships.
Andrew Mellor founded the Scottish Anti-Bullying Network.