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The realities of bullying

One of the biggest fallacies in our education system which is perpetuated time and again is the myth that bullying doesn’t happen or only rarely in a good or outstanding school.

School bullying crisis as ‘12,000 parents apply to move their children to a different institution because they are being picked on’

Julie Henry, Mail on Sunday (7 April 2019)

Any Head teacher who tells us as parents that bullying does not happen in their school is either removed from the context of their school or terrified of being identified as a bullying school. Either way they are misleading parents and clearly not in a good position to address the reality of their school.

In response to the Mail on Sunday article above Ofsted said: 'Our inspectors always check a school's records of bullying incidents and talk to pupils about how safe they feel.'

Whilst this is true their inspection criteria wrongly perpetuates the myth that bullying is unusual and a sign of a school’s failings.

To be judged ‘outstanding’ a school must meet the following grade descriptors for ‘Leadership and Management’; ‘Leaders promote equality of opportunity and diversity exceptionally well, for pupils and staff, so that the ethos and culture of the whole school prevents any form of direct or indirect discriminatory behaviour’.

Also to be judged ‘outstanding’ a school must meet the following grade descriptors for ‘Personal development, behaviour and welfare (PD,B & W)’; ‘Staff and pupils deal effectively with the very rare instances of bullying behaviour and/or use of derogatory or aggressive language’. The Ofsted grade descriptor for ‘good’ under (PD,B & W) states that ‘Pupils work well with the school to tackle and prevent the rare occurrences of bullying’.

These regulatory requirement for schools to ensure that bullying happens only in the rarest or very rarest of instances presupposes that we can fully control bullying as an ‘unusual or aberrant’ behaviour and drives schools who want to be ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ to pretend that bullying does not exist in their setting. This moves bullying underground and creates a barrier to dealing with it as a whole school issue.

This regulatory body view on the rarity of bullying in schools goes against all of the prevailing literature, research and empirical evidence.

The depth of literature and research on bullying indicates that;

  1. Bullying is a natural phenomenon which has been around since the first humans began cooperating in small hunting groups.
  2. Dario Maestripieri, a Behavioural Biologist of the University of Chicago, Illinois states "Human bullying is both the product of tendencies inherited from our chimp-like ancestors, and of competitive social environments like those of chimps and rhesus monkeys”.
  3. Janice Harper Ph.D. states in Psychology today that “...we lose sight of the power of group psychology to cause otherwise kind and humane people to act cruelly and inhumanely. This phenomenon of group aggression is most easily provoked, and the most powerful, when someone in leadership makes it clear that they want someone out. When that happens, subordinates rapidly respond to the call for assistance in eliminating the unwanted worker, student, or friend”
  4. This in-built compulsion to single out the weak or different can be especially prominent in adolescents when status within their peer groups becomes the primary influence on their behaviour.
Bullying and its effects

There are a number of definitions of bullying but in the end bullying should be always defined by the victim as it is their experience that matters. What may be banter to one child may be extremely traumatic to another.

Bullying forms a continuum of behaviours from excluding a pupil from the group, pupil name calling through to a repeated coordinated group attack (including physical) on a pupil. This unwanted behaviour will often continue outside the school gates and nowadays cyber bullying is pervasive as it follows the victim on often their main means of communicating - social media and it invades their home spaces giving them little to no respite.

Adolescents go through a natural process of creating a separate identity from their parents through their world of privacy and secrecy in social media. This means that they often cannot bring themselves to tell parents due to concerns about exposing their social media usage and this can greatly reduce their motivation to seek parental support.

The effects of bullying can be as much a continuum as the very definition of what bullying is. Bullying causes pupil to miss out on significant elements of their education through absence. Equally if you are being bullied and therefore naturally hyper-vigilant to slights, insults, rumours, derogatory comments, assaults or complete ostracisation then you will not be in a state for learning even when you attend school.

Bullied people have greater risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide. And very new evidence suggests that bullying, like other childhood traumas, can lead to premature aging at the level of the cell. In the same way as every one of us remember an excellent teacher, significant numbers of us also remember the feeling of being bullied.

It scars us so much that it stays with us throughout our adulthood. If our parents treated us in the way that school bullies do we would very likely have a child protection referral made under the categories of emotional and physical abuse as a minimum. Yet despite this some adults in school minimise the traumatic effect of bullying as ‘banter’ and a ‘toughening up’ process.

A positive whole school approach to bullying

There is only ever one approach to bullying and that is a whole school approach. A school where everyone is proud of being an inclusive school that clearly and openly demonstrates that everyone is welcome and diversity within the school is seen as a real strength will have already in place the most important ingredients to support and manage bullying.

  • It all starts with a policy which should be clear that bullying exists and always has and it will happen even in the very best of schools.
  • To ensure that bullying is addressed at an early stage the whole school community policy must display an open-door policy for parents and multiple ways for pupils to signal any concerns they have.
  • The policy should be written by all stakeholders which must promote a shared understanding for the whole school community on how bullying is different from other types of conflict or aggression.
  • The policy must also show the type of behaviour we expect from our pupils and the consequences if we deviate from the expectation.
  • Every policy starts with teachers modelling to pupils’ appropriate ways to talk to each other.
  • One approach that we have used to very good effect in our schools for pupils with SEND is to build up a network of Anti-Bullying Ambassadors trained through the Diane Foundation. They meet across all of our schools to draw up an Anti-Bullying Charter together. Their roles are to review Anti-Bullying strategies through feedback from other pupils re what works and what doesn’t.
  • These peer support schemes use the knowledge, skills and experience of other children and young people in a planned and structured way. They are about building confidence in pupils that bullying will not be minimised or ignored but instead challenged with bullied and bullying being offered support. Bystanders who either positively endorse the bullying or who stand by while it is happening should also be seen as part of the bullying dynamic and therefore their behaviour needs to be addressed as part of any action plan or school solution.
  • We know that peers who are popular and have status in school will also be the most effective at reducing bullying. These popular peers must be part of our mentorship programmes. However, this only applies if these pupils are not part of the problem and if they demonstrate positive values in their interactions with other pupils.
  • Peer supporters must not only be drawn solely from the Student Council but from a wide spectrum of the school community.
  • Restorative practice can be the underlying philosophy through which we collectively work with conflict that puts the focus on repairing the harm that has been done. It is an approach to conflict resolution that includes all of the parties involved.

Finally, whilst bullying is a natural phenomenon it is also one of the most harmful things that can happen to our children. Its effects are manifold and range from low self-esteem through to suicide at its most extreme. Therefore, the wider education of schools, parents and education authorities in the realities that bullying is a part of society and prevalent in every structure is a real priority.

This should be the first step to an open acknowledgement that it is the way in which schools deal with the reality of bullying that is the most important consideration. This would stop parents reacting to bullying by immediately wanting to move their children and instead put the onus on a real partnership between parents and schools to solve this unfortunate but commonplace issue.