Schools bullied for society's problems

25th November 2005 at 00:00
It was tempting fate. My last piece in The TES was about dealing with the media - only to find my own school splashed across the local (and several national) newspapers the very same day!

Finding your school berated for doing "nothing" about bullying is as painful as it is unfair. It seems any parent or pupil can go to their local paper and say what they like about a school and they will print it, often uncritically. In my experience, when the paper does ask for a comment, the school is frequently not given the chance to comment on the specifics of the case. We are unable to defend ourselves except in the most general way.

Bullying is an increasingly newsworthy story. My school isn't free of bullying - no school is. Indeed, I can't imagine any institution that is. I do know how hard we work to try to eradicate it. Bullying is complex, insidious and is often impossible to prove. Sometimes what is described as "bullying" is a breakdown in relationships between peers. Girls' broken relationships with each other are particularly difficult to un-pick and mend. A no-blame approach is helpful in trying to sort out the problems.

The children's charity Kidscape said recently that the "no-blame" approach is making the situation worse. Ruth Kelly was quick to jump on the bandwagon, telling a breakfast TV audience that she wants to see more effective sanctions against bullies. She did not say what she had in mind.

This week Al Aynsley-Green, the children's commissioner for England, said that schools are "in denial" over bullying. The Secondary Heads Association was quick to refute this claim. However, the Commissioner did point out that children "particularly girls" have become "more adept at ostracising each other and applying social pressure, by ignoring or excluding particular classmates". These situations are the hardest to crack. Things become even more difficult to resolve when parents get involved and insist in sorting things out for themselves. Bullying is endemic in our society and such behaviour is learned at home and in the streets. Schools do a huge amount to identify and tackle it but get the blame in any event. It is society's problem and is not owned by schools alone.

Ruth Kelly and Kidscape suggest tougher punishments for bullies but in many cases excluding the bully is not the right response. Once a pupil is permanently excluded, the school has no power over that young person. They are then free to harass the victim outside school hours. It is much better to try to resolve the conflict, to mediate and warn of consequences of continued bullying behaviour. However, if a child is clearly identified as being a bully then of course we must punish them - but it is not enough to leave it at that. Our school's anti-bullying policy is well- known and well-used. What is important is that the child who feels bullied is able to tell someone about it and be supported. We look at each case individually but usually try to bring people together to resolve the problems. We see this as "conflict resolution" rather than a "no-blame" approach. I agree that sensitivity is obviously important and a blanket approach is never the right one. We need to be flexible and consider the victim's feelings.

I don't know of any school that is complacent about bullying. We do our best to involve all concerned in conflict resolution and we punish repeated offenders. We don't have a magic wand to make things right. You can't make everybody happy.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's school in Tower Hamlets

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