Bullying in schools – update

Roger Titcombe's picture


This update of my article of 25 April 2016 has been prompted by the recent case of the children of a Syrian family being bullied and the aggression recorded on a mobile phone then posted on social media generating millions of views prompting this Guardian article (30 Nov 2018), claiming that racist bullying in schools is now a serious problem generating huge numbers of exclusions.

All the popular but mistaken approaches analysed in my earlier article are being repeated with the predictable outcome of making the problems worse, but now with an added enhanced racist dimension that has been stirred up and encouraged by the national debate about Brexit that I write about here.

Two quotes from the Guardian article (in italics) are used to structure my arguments.

Last year, 4,590 cases of racial abuse among school students were deemed serious enough to warrant fixed or permanent exclusion, up from 4,085 in the previous year.

The usual response is for schools to deter bullying through punishment and/or exclusion. Both make the problem worse because they fail to address the underlying issues. Exclusion isolates the offender from the positive social pressures that should arise from peers in a healthy school culture. Facts will be disputed and punishments perceived as unjust, feeding far right xenophobia so pushing offenders, their parents and supporters towards racist political groups.

The alternative response to all forms of bullying, which works, is the much misunderstood ‘No Blame’ approach.

‘No Blame’ does not seek to deny the existence of aggressors and victims. It actually requires more thorough in depth investigations of the actions of all the parties to disputes and alleged bullying.

The important distinction is in the desired outcome, which is not to punish, but to permanently resolve relationship issues through a process in which all parties are compelled to reflect on their actions. This results in admissions and apologies along with restorative arrangements (if appropriate). There are also promises in relation to future conduct that have force not just in school, but at all times and in all places.

In the Alfred Barrow School system described in my earlier article,  this ‘settlement conference’, which took place around the oval ‘peace table’ in the head’s office, was always attended by both the alleged bully and the victim, the Deputy Head linked to the School Council, any witnesses that may have been called out lessons to confirm or contradict factual issues and often also School Council members and other teachers (eg Form Tutor, Head of Year and the Head).

Crucially, the whole process was recorded by a fixed camera set up for that purpose. The parents of the alleged bully and victim were then separately invited into school to view the recording of the process. Almost always this would prove to be the final stage, ‘quenching’ any remaining smouldering of  the dispute. Punishments were never involved.

Experts put the surge in racist incidents down to increased hate crimes and bigotry in society at large, with some also pointing to the decision made during the coalition government to remove a duty on schools to monitor the incidence of racist bullying. However, others said the spike could be due to a zero-tolerance approach to racism.

The concept of ‘hate crime’ is not necessarily helpful. Even if effective ‘thought police’ existed, there is no way of enforcing ‘correct thinking’ onto individuals. Violent crime, assaults and bullying are unacceptable regardless of any presumptions of motivation. A drunken dispute in a town centre pub on a Friday night that results in a broken beer glass being thrust into someone’s face is the same crime regardless of any presumed motivations of the perpetrator or the ethnicities of the aggressor and victim.

The surest defences against such incidents will always be cultural and good schools will always be those that encourage and facilitate the maximum possible amount of high quality, educationally enhancing, social interchange between school students. This is why proper School Councils are such a powerful force for social progress as well as cognitive development.

‘Zero tolerance’ policies of any kind are blunt, ill-targeted, lazy responses that only ever inflame issues and inhibit the acceptance of personal moral responsibility and the resulting social, moral and cognitive development. The rise in ‘zero tolerance’ cultures in Academy MATs supported by the DfE and OfSTED may well be feeding the ‘spike’ in racist incidents that the Guardian reports.

In my articles on bullying I describe the practice that was developed in my headship school, Alfred Barrow, in Barrow-in-Furness during the 1990s. We became a ‘zero exclusion’ school where excellent student attitudes and behaviour were noted in successive OfSTED reports. Those were the days when an OfSTED inspection  comprised a team of up to twelve inspectors embedded in the school for a whole week, not the current visit of one or two inspectors spending a few minutes in a handful of lessons having already made their mind up about the school grading from the exam results data provided by the DfE. The following is from the 1998 Alfred Barrow OfSTED Report.

Relations within the school are good between staff and pupils and among the pupils themselves. There is a welcome for visitors and standards of courtesy are high. Bullying is not a problem: the school has a considerable reputation as an innovative leader in the field of anti-bullying. This good work, praised in the last inspection [1995] has been continued and further developed. The school is justifiably proud of its work to discourage bullying. Parents and pupils are confident that bullying will be effectively dealt with. Pupils are willing to exercise responsibility when opportunities for this occur. Their attitude to the School Council and its influence shows this. Since the last inspection the number of permanent exclusions has fallen to nil. [In fact ALL exclusions had by then fallen to nil].

It is also relevant that in the late 1990s, following the UK military intervention in the Balkan conflict, a group of 12 Kosovar Muslim refugee families were re-housed in Barrow. Their children of all secondary ages were admitted to our school. With the support of an excellent dedicated LEA officer based in the regional office (long gone), these pupils became fully integrated and made excellent academic and social progress, moving on to good careers and some to university. Many still live in the town. However, one family moved to Manchester to join former neighbours. After two weeks they returned to Barrow and re-admitted their children to our school. They stated that their children had been bullied in their Manchester school and that they did not feel safe there.

On one occasion I travelled to Leeds to support one of our Kosovar families in an immigration hearing where they were being threatened with deportation back to Kosovo following the end of the conflict. I testified that their children (twins in Y11) were outstanding students expected to get good GCSEs, study A Levels at Barrow Sixth Form College and progress to university (which all turned out to be true), and that they and their parents were an asset to the town. The barrister for the Home Office argued that my motivation for defending the family from deportation was that the school’s exam results would be negatively affected; something that I did not deny. Their deportation threat was lifted and I believe they are all now UK citizens.

Needless to say none of our Kosavar refugee children ever suffered any bullying at the Alfred Barrow School.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/12/2018 - 12:22

Posted on behalf of John Mountford who had difficulty commenting.
There are serious issues at stake in dealing with bullying. In truth, I cannot imagine that there are schools where the issue is not regarded with the utmost seriousness. Policies will be in place, but that is only the beginning of a process that requires quality management at every stage. The approach you describe at Alfred Barrow was clearly successful, and from your description and the comments of the inspectors, the hallmark of that success was CONSISTENCY. This is what is often missing when you follow up on incidents where systems have failed individuals.
Every member of staff has not just to know what the policies and procedures are, but to be committed to applying them in every instance with fairness and consistency, otherwise the system fails and children are inadequately protected. As you rightly say, Roger, this extends to both victim and perpetrator alike.
However, in these times, when draconian behaviour approaches are favoured by so many schools, punishment is often perceived as more important than reform through positive interventions. The former is a quick fix that consistently fails. The latter is a time-consuming approach that requires the support of everyone in the community, including parents. Who, in this age of high-stakes judgement by data, commits the time it invariably takes to follow the slow, in-depth approach that can transform lives?

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.