There was a time when schools were reluctant to admit that bullying went on inside their gates. Now, our understanding of the extent of the problem has swung round so far that few schools would claim to be bully-free. Claiming to be so suggests either naivety or a self-confidence just waiting to come a cropper.
All schools are required by law to have an anti-bullying policy. As well as preventive approaches, such as playground buddies (see panels), many also run mediation or counselling to tackle bullying when it arises. But what if none of these work? What if the bullying carries on regardless of the standard interventions? Is exclusion the only answer?
That was the dilemma facing Ben Lawrance, headteacher of Frederick Gough School, an 11-16 specialist language college in Scunthorpe. A group of Year 10 girls had fallen out. Rumours and accusations buzzed around like mosquitoes. The culprits stirred up trouble by reporting on what other members of the group had said - reports that were themselves made up.
The problem reached such proportions that it was taking up vast amounts of staff time and landing on Ben's desk on a weekly basis. "It was preventing them from learning," he says. "We tried the usual methods: resolution-focus counselling, face-to-face mediation. Normally that's quite successful, but on this occasion it was not."
His solution was radical. He booked a function room in a hotel and told the 15 girls involved that they were having a peer-group conference. He obtained parental agreement and took them out of school for the day.
Ben asked Chris Stansfield, anti-bullying co-ordinator for North Lincolnshire Council, to come up with some resources. They agreed some ground rules: no shouting, no interrupting and no picking on one another. Then they went into the first of the day's exercises.
Each was given a card describing a character's details and told they had to decide which of the six of them should be given a place on a life raft. Once they had reached agreement, wildcards with revelations about some of the characters forced them to rethink their choices.
"It was getting them to work together and it broke the ice," says Chris. "There was a change in the atmosphere and by lunchtime we had already seen some tears."
The girls also played a maze game, where picking one of three options on a card leads to another card with three options, demonstrating how the wrong choice early on can spiral towards exclusion. Afternoon sessions included examining the role of a Queen Bee, a pivotal figure who manipulates the group, and an empathy exercise where one of the girls took the part of a "victim" while the others shouted abuse. At the end of the day, the girls created sorry cards to apologise for what they had done.
"We were trying to get them to think for themselves, instead of always following the Queen Bee," says Ruth Comerford, the school's inclusion manager. The girls also took turns to say what they felt about other members of the group. "It was this that finally taught them what they thought of each other, putting an end to the misunderstandings caused by the rumours," says Chris Coult, isolation supervisor.
But the day's success or otherwise would rest on the pupils' reactions. Stephanie, now 16, had been at the sharp end of some of the bullying. She had been verbally abused in corridors, threatened with after-school retribution and ostracised. Cyber bullying has added a new weapon: Stephanie was the subject of an offensive blog, and abused on MSN and by text.
She says that one of the most crucial parts was exposing many of the rumours, including things she was meant to have said, as untrue. Chloe, 16, was surprised to find many of her peers saw her as controlling. "I didn't realise how I made people feel," she says.
Although the sessions didn't result in everyone becoming friends again, Chloe says it has cleared the air. "Instead of all the rumours and bitchiness, spreading it around and making it bigger, we just go straight to the problem now."
The girls who took part are now in Year 11, and in the 10 months since the away day there has only been one recorded incident involving the group, and that a minor disagreement.
In a sign of the event's success, and perhaps also of the recurring cycle of human behaviour, Ben arranged a repeat session last term for a group of current Year 10s. Katie, 14, had become anxious about going to school after being the subject of rumours. Now she knows what the others think of her, she can let it go over her head.
"We got everything off our chest and it's made me realise how stupid it was to believe what one person said," she says. Sophie, 15, says it opened some girls' eyes to the identities of the main rumour-mongers.
"It was making school an uncomfortable place to be but now we can walk past each other," she says. "It makes you realise how childish it all was."
Ben thinks taking the girls out of school was a key factor in ensuring his gamble paid off. The lost lessons were a small price to pay compared with the ongoing disruption. Hiring a function room sent a much clearer signal than any amount of stern words of how seriously the school viewed the bullying.
"The school environment was clouding their judgement. They weren't in school uniform because that would set expectations. Instead, we would treat them as adults and get them to see what they were doing to each other," he says.
Bullying is too entrenched for it ever to be eradicated; next year's Year 10s may well have an away day of their own, but for the girls who have taken part so far, the results have been dramatic. From being an ongoing weekly, if not daily, problem, it stopped altogether. The girls may not be best of friends, but they have learnt the art of peaceful co-existence, a lesson that will stay with them long after leaving school
A new approach
When Manhood Community College was placed in special measures, bullying was one of the key weaknesses identified by inspectors. According to their report: "Considerable verbal bullying persists, and the strategies applied have failed to curb it."
So it's no wonder that tackling bullying was a priority for Mark Vickers when he took over as headteacher at the school in Selsey, West Sussex, shortly afterwards. At the heart of his approach is a pocket-sized card listing the school's strategies.
"We needed to improve the quality of relationships in school and help pupils feel safe, secure and supported," he says. "It's important that when young people come to our school they feel they will be listened to."
The five strategies are:
- Dedicated non-teaching pastoral managers.
- A confidential email where pupils can raise concerns, knowing they will be picked up by staff.
- A mobile phone held by pastoral staff for pupils to ring or text.
- Trained pupil mediators to help resolve conflict.
- A box where pupils can post confidential messages.
The mediation scheme, in particular, has been a success. Manhood now has 20 pupils with accreditation in mediating from the National Open College Network. "It helps young people get involved in trying to help each other," says Mark.
Alongside a clear and consistent behaviour and rewards policy, these steps meant that when the school left special measures, inspectors noted its "innovative approaches to dealing with bullying".
Mark says: "It's about making sure young people have confidence in the school and that they're aware of what our expectations are."
Buddies against bullying
Becoming a buddy is no walk in the park, which is why youngsters at St Hild's College Church of England Aided Primary School in Durham wear their red caps and badges with pride.
Children have to enlist a fellow pupil as sponsor for their application and demonstrate at interview that they meet the job requirements: to be "honest, caring and reliable". Not all of them get through. "At times I've had to say I don't think they're ready for the responsibility yet," says Jane Katsambis, the headteacher.
The buds, and mini-buds for the infants, are key to St Hild's attempts to tackle bullying, an approach that gives much of the responsibility to pupils.
"If you've always got an adult intervening, then they will always go to the adult, but sometimes the children should work out their own solutions," Jane says.
Buds provide reassurance for vulnerable children at break times, befriending and encouraging them to join in. But children also have to be children, and the buds are not on duty every day.
As well as the preventative route, the 200-pupil school also has pupils trained in mediation, to try and resolve any problems between individual children.
It is normally only when this method fails that teachers start to get involved.
Reinforcing this are regular training and refresher sessions for mediators and buds, and whole-school presentations on bullying.
"If you set it up and leave it to run on its own it will collapse," says Jane.
"But you can't look at bullying in isolation; it is the whole ethos of the school that is important."