Bullying in schools
In my experience as a parent, teacher, headteacher and grandparent, few schools are effective at addressing bullying of their pupils. In fact it is worse than that. The response of many schools is more likely to worsen, rather than improve the plight of the victim.
A bad sign in school literature and pronouncements from the head is the bald statement, ‘Bullying will not be tolerated in our school’, or something similar. This suggests that bullying is primarily a disciplinary offence that will be dealt with extremely firmly by punishing bullies. The problems with this are as follows.
- The perceptions of ‘victims’ and ‘aggressors’ are likely to be strongly held and completely different. This often includes their accounts of what has happened.
- A complaint of bullying made by a pupil to a teacher or a parent may not be true. Even where it is mainly true, it is unlikely to include the whole truth.
This means that the most common response of schools will not work and will be more likely to make matters worse. This is why.
The usual scenario is that a complaint reaches a teacher from a victim by one pathway or another. Even this is unlikely in some schools because of the ineffective way in which schools often deal with such complaints. Hopefully, a victim does make the complaint personally to a teacher. The next most promising is that a friend of the victim makes a complaint to a teacher. More problematic is when the parent of the victim makes a complaint to the head. The reason why the last is problematic is because the victim will be likely not to have told the whole story to the parent and because the parent will often expect the school to provide a swift response by disciplining the alleged bully so severely that they are deterred from repeating the alleged bullying. Common requests from parents are for the alleged victim to be moved to another class or to another school.
The most common response from a teacher will be to ‘speak to the alleged bully‘ – BIG MISTAKE. Almost as bad is if the teacher refers the issue to a more senior colleague and that teacher, ‘speaks to the alleged bully‘. The alleged bully will be likely to either deny the offence, or else make a counter allegation of some kind.
The school then has the problem of whom to believe. There is no simple solution to this. Natural justice demands an investigation. Such an investigation would involve a great deal of time and effort on the part of the school with no guarantee of a satisfactory outcome. The problem here is not the demands on the school – all bullying incidents should be fully investigated, but the diminishing likelihood of a positive outcome after such a false start in addressing the issue. This is the point at which many schools operate a default policy, which is to gloss over the complaint and threaten both pupils with severe consequences if any of the alleged misdeeds by either the ‘victim’ or the ‘bully’ are ever repeated – SECOND BIG MISTAKE. The consequences of this will be at least one and sometimes all one of the following.
- The ‘victim’ feels that they are being blamed for the bullying.
- The ‘bully’ feels that they are being falsely accused.
- The parent of the ‘victim’ will be angry and demand a meeting with the head for, ‘blaming my child for being bullied in your school‘.
- The parent of the ‘bully’ will be angry and demand a meeting with the head for ‘falsely accusing my child of bullying‘.
- The parents of the ‘victim’ will go to the local newspaper to complain about the school.
- The head of the school will make a ‘PR-speak’ statement to the newspaper.
- The ‘victim’ may now be bullied more, either inside or outside of school.
- It will now be harder to determine the truth about what really happened as both sets of parents will be alienated.
- The parents of the ‘victim’ may seek to remove their child from the school and seek a place in another.
- The school will have suffered some deserved reputational damage, not because it actually ‘harbours and protects bullies’, but because it fails to deal effectively with bullying.
Bullying by cliques or ‘gangs’
The same principles apply, but this is more difficult to deal with. It is potentially so serious that a great deal of effort on the part of the school is justified to prevent the growth of cliques and gangs in the first place. At Alfred Barrow we sometimes had bullying cliques based on friendship groups, but we never had gangs identified by ethnicity, religion or criminal behaviour. All I can suggest is that the establishment of a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural School Council would be especially beneficial and important.
The importance of the Equal Opportunities Policy
Such an overarching ‘Bill of Rights’ is an essential precursor to an effective anti-bullying policy. This is because conflict resolution is then not just a matter of settling, ‘who did/said what’, but more importantly, whether what was done/said was, or was not, in accordance with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’. This latter is something that can readily be objectively agreed, whereas the former is more difficult to establish.
If you have not already done so you now need to read my article about ‘School Councils‘
The Alfred Barrow Anti-Bullying Policy
The foundation principles were as follows.
- All complaints and reports of bullying would always be investigated. The issuing of threats, to be enacted in or out of school, constituted bullying regardless of whether the threats had been carried out.
- The objective was primarily to produce, by agreement, an enduring solution to a social problem, not to ‘punish’ bad behaviour.
- It was a ‘no blame’ approach.
- Any agreement reached had to comply with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’.
- Admissions of wrong actions and mistakes, together with apologies, firm assurances about future conduct and appropriate ‘restitution’ measures (if appropriate) were required.
- Any such assurances applied anywhere and everywhere, in and out of school.
- Any breaches of such assurances were serious and were likely to result in a formal referral to the Governors’ Disciplinary Committee, which had the power to invoke permanent exclusion if necessary.
The ‘No Blame’ approach did not imply that blame was assumed to be equally shared between the parties. However complicated, it was usually the case that an ‘aggressor’ and a ‘victim’ could be identified in relation to what had taken place. The ‘No Blame’ approach simply meant that the primary purpose was to achieve a lasting settlement in accordance with the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’, rather than to seek ‘punishments’ or ‘justice’ that went beyond that. We found that whenever victims were asked about the outcome that they most wanted, the response of, ‘an end to the bullying’, was always far more important than punishment of the aggressor.
Over the entire period of my headship we never subsequently had to permanently exclude any pupil in relation to bullying after a settlement agreement had been reached through the ‘Anti-Bullying Policy’. In the final years of my headship, no pupil was excluded at all, fixed term or permanently.
All pupils were expected and encouraged to report instances of any behaviour contrary to the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy, whether they were personally involved or not.
All School Council students were trained in relation to the ‘Equal Opportunities’ and ‘Anti-Bullying Policies’. School Council students were expected to give advice to other pupils if asked. They were NOT prefects arbitrating over disputes. There was a general culture in the school of peer-peer discussion. All pupils including School Council members were expected to report incidents and problems to teachers.
If a pupil made a bullying disclosure to a teacher then it would always generate a response. Initially the Head of Upper or Lower School would interview the complainant, followed by a joint meeting with the alleged ‘aggressor’, with a view to coming to a prompt solution by agreement. School Council students could help with this process.
If it became apparent that the problem was more serious, the Deputy Head would then carry out further interviews with the alleged victim noting their account of what had happened/was taking place and the names of any witnesses. The Deputy Head would then interview the witnesses. There would then be an initial conflict resolution meeting involving the Deputy Headteacher, Head of Year, the ‘victim’, the ‘aggressor’ and witnesses. The victim would be required in the meeting to make the complaint against the alleged aggressor. If there was no agreement about what had been alleged then the witnesses would be asked to state what they had seen. If the conflict could then be resolved on the basis of the further evidence and disclosures no further action was necessary.
If the conflict was not resolved and/or a parental approach was made to the school on behalf of either party, then a formal Anti-Bullying Resolution Conference would be held. This would be held around a large antique oval conference table in my office. Those present would include The Deputy Headteacher, the Head of Year, the ‘victim’, the ‘aggressor’, witnesses and one or more members of School Council, and often me. The meeting would be recorded to video-tape by means of a camera mounted on the wall of my office. All present were informed that the meeting would be so recorded.
It was always explained to all present that the purpose of the meeting was not to punish or to seek to attribute blame, but to come to a solution of the problem. Both the ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ were encouraged, with the help of the witnesses, to come to an agreed account of what had happened together with personal accounts as to the degree to which their conduct had been reasonable/acceptable, or not. A further discussion then took place in relation to whether any restitution was required (eg repair or return of property).
It was explained that there was no requirement for the ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ to ‘make friends’. Everyone has the right to make their own decisions about who they like and who they don’t. However firm commitments in relation to the ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ would need to be made. These were purely about behaviour and the requirement to be civil at all times, to co-operate with each other in lessons if required by the teacher and to refrain from any future aggressive or hostile behaviour or actions, specified and/or general.
Appropriate promises were then made, on camera, witnessed by all present. The consequences of breaking the agreement were explained.
The ‘victim’ and the ‘aggressor’ were then told that their parents would be invited into school to see me and the Deputy Head to be shown the video of the Resolution Meeting, to discuss what had take place and the school’s proposals for resolving the issues.
These meetings then duly took place and in the vast majority of cases all concerned were happy with the outcome.
Why video the ‘Resolution Conference’?
This was necessary to deal with the possible scenario in which the ‘aggressor’ went home and gave their parents a different account of the Resolution Conference to that which had actually taken place. It was not unusual for the aggressor to comply fully around the oval table, admit various misdemeanours and make the necessary promises, only to go home and tell the parents that, “Mr Titcombe made me admit loads of stuff I hadn’t done“. Wherever possible we tried to arrange for an Education Welfare Officer (EWO) to be present for the meeting with the parents.
I have been disparaging about the common responses of schools to bullying. A few years ago our granddaughter in Y4 was being bullied by a small group of boys. There was a racist element to the bullying. I was very impressed by the way the head dealt with the problem. All the basic principles of our policy had been followed. The school has its own version of our ‘Equal Opportunities Policy’ expressed in more specific terms appropriate to a primary school.
Instead of videoing pupil agreements, the head’s approach was to require the bullies to write their own account/admission of what had taken place. The head then wrote to the parents inviting them into school for a meeting enclosing their children’s signed accounts/admissions.
The Alfred Barrow policy and approach met with OfSTED approval and contributed to our good reputation in the town for good discipline and behaviour.
The way in which the school approached bullying issues soon became common knowledge within the school community including pupils and parents. It was explained and reinforced in assemblies and tutor group time. This was informed by accounts from pupils that ‘leaked’ out from the processes. ‘What happens in Titcombe’s office’, became well known.
The result was a declining incidence of bullying and continuing improvement in the quality of relationships at all levels in the school.