School is supposed to be a haven, a place of protection away from a fraught outside world where the Brexit debate and the #MeToo movement throw up countless examples of human beings behaving appallingly to one another.
But what if school corridors and classrooms were as rife with danger as anywhere else, and pupils could never feel at ease because of the constant threat of racism and harassment? And what if many teachers felt powerless to intervene – and might occasionally even be perpetrators themselves?
This is exactly what has been happening, MSPs exploring bullying in schools have been told. The politicians heard, for example, that the risk of sexist abuse had led girls to see some school corridors as no-go areas. Girlguiding Scotland, which has campaigned against and extensively researched harassment of girls, said sexual assaults were going unreported because teachers did not know how to respond to such incidents.
Carolyn Fox McKay, the organisation’s communications manager, told the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee: “Sexism is an endemic problem we have in Scotland, and until we tackle it at more of a societal level, we won’t see that fully filtering down into schools.”
MSPs at last week’s meeting also heard reports that Brexit had made the racist bullying of Eastern European pupils more common. Dr Daniela Sime, a social policy lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, said that “particularly vulnerable groups”, such as Roma children, had been targeted more frequently since the vote to leave the European Union.
“They would not use their home language in schools or on public transport for fear of attack,” she said. “They try and blend in as much as possible. They don’t want to stand out and that has a direct impact on their attainment, as well as their mental health and wellbeing.”
Ongoing research by the universities of Strathclyde, Plymouth and Durham – first highlighted by Tes Scotland last year (“Eastern European pupils ‘more likely to experience racism’ after Brexit vote’, 14 November) – has examined the experiences of 1,000 Eastern European pupils across the UK. More than 500 have reported experiencing racism, from physical attacks to xenophobic jokes.
Children said they had been called “terrorists”, “illegals” and “prostitutes”, and been mocked about their appearance or accents. But Sime added that they often did not tell adults because racism was “normalised” in schools and had become more prevalent since Brexit, with teachers sometimes the “perpetrators”. She added that a large number of pupils claimed such incidents were not taken as seriously by teachers because the victims were white.
Dr Sime called for better training of teachers in handling such incidents and improved anti-bullying polices in schools.
School Leaders Scotland general secretary Jim Thewliss tells Tes Scotland that his organisation “has been aware of the issues picked up by the research” around Brexit. He warns that schools should be wary of assuming that such bullying is not a major issue in Scotland, and says that his organisation views the Girlguiding research “with concern”.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, says: “Teachers care about the health and wellbeing of pupils, and know that experiences of discrimination can contribute to underachievement and lesser attainment, reduced attendance and poorer outcomes for pupils than they’re capable of.”
He adds: “We have grave concerns about prejudicial attitudes and behaviours, and that’s why we’ve recently issued new advice to members on challenging anti-Muslim prejudice and on bolstering anti-racist education, to sit alongside our guidance on challenging misogyny [Get it Right for Girls].”
Flanagan says that “while educational establishments cannot eradicate the racism and misogyny which exists in our society, they have an important part to play in changing attitudes”.
The Scottish government recently published guidance designed to standardise the recording of bullying incidents in schools from 2018-19. Some critics have said that every incident of bullying in a school should be recorded, which the new guidance falls short of recommending (see bit.ly/NewBully).
In last week’s parliamentary session, Katie Ferguson, service director of national anti-bullying organisation RespectMe, said that fewer than half of Scotland’s 32 councils had updated policies on bullying.