Respect and retribution

27th February 2004 at 00:00
Renfrewshire has looked at best practice in its schools and across the country to formulate a policy to stop bullying. It seems to be having an impact. Douglas Blane reports

When it comes to bullying, sometimes you have to stand up and take it on the chin, admits Elaine Mackay, Renfrewshire's school support officer. She doesn't mean the children, of course, but the education authority and the schools.

"Once you have taken the decision to bring everything out in the open and tell people to report every incident, you must expect figures on bullying to rise at first, before they start falling. That could easily attract negative comment."

So the decision to produce an authority-wide policy to tackle bullying, with a monitoring system that enables developments to be tracked as time passes and all Renfrewshire's schools implement the policy, was not taken lightly.

"Bullying is a difficult issue in so many ways but we don't let that put us off. The first thing to realise is it can happen in any school, in the best," says Ms Mackay.

"It is an issue for the whole school community: pupils, parents, teachers, everyone. A community can deal with a problem far better than an individual."

In schools, the same message comes across.

"Last year there was this wee boy who always got left out and people kept hitting him," says Jack, a P6 pupil at Ferguslie Primary in Paisley. "So other people felt bad for him and they used to go over and play with him."

"There was this wee girl who was always getting called names because she was a bit different," says Samantha, a P5 pupil. "Me and Alex thought it was sad, so we became pals with her."

The impulse to go to the aid of the vulnerable arises naturally in many children, says depute headteacher Anne Kennedy. A school can do much to foster them too, through formal structures and the critically important school ethos.

"It's a lot of things: being seen to be fair, treating the kids with respect, being firm with them, getting them motivated with all sorts of different activities, like singing in the choir, and goals, like being citizen of the month."

Ferguslie Primary is a lively island of colour in a desert of derelict buildings and scrubby grass. It can be a challenge to nurture a caring ethos inside the school gates when a harsher culture prevails beyond them, Ms Kennedy says, but it is not impossible.

"In areas of multiple deprivation like this, people expect bullying in schools. We make it very clear we do not expect it.

"At the same time, we make pupils and teachers aware of how to deal with it when it happens.

"It's a combination of high expectations, raised awareness and practical steps."

The strategy seems to be working. "We have a few powerful children who could easily have gone down the road of terrorising the younger ones, but they haven't," says Ms Kennedy. "Instead they try to live up to our expectations."

To tackle bullying, Ferguslie Primary organises playground games overseen by older pupils and classroom assistants who are trained to respond to incidents or reports of bullying. It has a buddy scheme in which the P7 pupils look after much younger children, and it has visible and approachable adults around. For example, Ms Kennedy's office area is a desk in the open-plan teaching space.

Parents should be involved, says Ms Kennedy. "They have to know that if their child is doing the bullying they will be called in to school, while if they think their child is being bullied they can come and talk to us and we will take appropriate action."

It is not uncommon for parents to regard a conflict with faults on both sides as a case of bullying. To help with this, the policy document Tackling Bullying in Renfrewshire gives a clear definition.

Even when everyone agrees that bullying is taking place, parents and the school can, and do, disagree about the nature of the response. To be regarded as scrupulously fair - which for Ms Kennedy is a key part of an anti-bullying ethos - some kind of sanction must be imposed on children who bully. However, Renfrewshire's policy document contains no mention of punishment.

"We make it quite clear that bullying is not acceptable," says Ms Mackay, "but we also need to support children who are bullying to change their behaviour. If all you do is keep on punishing, the behaviour will not change.

"We are trying to be innovative, to think of new ways to deal with old problems," she explains. "This might be seen as being soft on bullies, but it is far from that. It is hard for them to face the consequences of their behaviour and challenging for them to change it."

Ms Kennedy, likewise, focuses on improving behaviour rather than meting out punishment. The softness of her voice does not conceal the steel of her words: "Our school has rules and everyone knows them. There is no fighting or even hitting back, no matter what the provocation.

"You have to create a safe and fair environment in which kids can learn and there have to be consequences for bad behaviour, but I don't think punishment exercises ever cured anybody of anything.

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