Speaking Out articles
Bullying - what young people are telling us
In a recent survey of young people more than half said bullying was a problem at their school. In the first of a new series, BSA Education officer Cherry Hughes describes the Government's approach and some steps that parents can take.
For many years now schools have been trying to tackle this problem with support and resources from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), from voluntary organisations such as ChildLine and Kidscape and their own community links. Every school is obliged to have a policy in place on bullying and publicise to parents and children the strategies that are used if it arises.
What the research says
Despite these efforts, in March an important piece of research into bullying, commissioned by the charity, ChildLine, and funded by the DfES, concluded that many schools are failing to tackle the problem. Christine Oliver from the Institute of Education's Thomas Coram research unit surveyed 953 pupils in 12 primary and secondary schools. In the research, 'Tackling Bullying: Listening to the Views of Children and Young People', half of primary school pupils and a quarter of those at secondaries said that they had been bullied this term. More than half from both age groups said that bullying was a problem in their schools. These concerns are reflected in my recent experience of responding to enquiries from parents of children who stammer. Not only has there been a clear increase in these enquiries but also a higher proportion of parents are facing the escalation of bullying to physical intimidation and violence. In the case of six boys between 10 and 14, in the past six months their parents told me their sons had been physically threatened or actually hit, while the two older boys of 13 and 14 respectively had received medical treatment for bruising. In every case these parents were very dissatisfied with the response that they had received from the school, and also in the most serious case with the attitude of the school governors and the local education authority.
There is a serious problem here, and to be fair, the Government has acknowledged that much more needs to be done. Ivan Lewis, minister for Young People and Adult Skills, welcomed the emphasis in the new research on listening and responding to young people's views on bullying and what could be done about it. By the autumn a £470 million behaviour and attendance programme will include general guidance to all schools, funding and training for all secondary schools in anti-bullying strategies, and specialist consultants to help local education authorities tackle bullying. However, for parents who are despairing at the continuing bullying of their child, despite efforts to overcome it in school and at home, such measures may seem to be too remote to make any immediate difference. So in this series of articles I will look at what can be done to help the child or young person who is being bullied at the moment.
What do we know about bullying in schools?
Bullying includes any behaviours that are intimidatory or cause distress. These range from teasing and name-calling to the more insidious telling of tales and marginalising of the victim. In more extreme cases it may be connected with demands for money or property and/or involve attacks on property or person. Any experiences within the range count as bullying and are likely to damage self esteem, although some incidents may be perceived as less worrying than others.
In the research, no single factor appeared to have made children susceptible to being bullied, although excuses for bullying that were offered by pupils identified something that was different as the starting point. Physical appearance and distinctive behavioural characteristics that might be associated with a difficulty or disability, religion, race, language, signs of poverty, wearing the wrong gear or otherwise being out of step with the dominant culture, such as being 'swotty', when it was cool to take no interest in studying, were all identified as weak spots.
Our children and young people who stammer obviously may appear different in many of the ways mentioned. Their stammer may cause secondary behaviours as they struggle to speak, or avoidance of speaking situations may cause others to see them as outsiders, removed from the casual speaking encounters of the playgrounds and social areas. Are our children therefore more vulnerable to being bullied than others? Certainly parents worry that they may be.
There is some good news in this research for parents and children, as around 60% of pupils interviewed expressed positive views about their school's attempts to deal with bullying. It is also important to appreciate that when bullying is confronted, as has happened in the past five years (while previously it was swept under the carpet) it raises the issue that it is just the reporting of bullying that has increased. Ofsted, the school inspection service, supports this point, stressing that it is impossible to say that bullying is on the increase when greater publicity meant that more evidence was coming to light. Also, for many children who are bullied the incidents may be relatively easy to deal with, and only a minority are likely to encounter the very serious situations mentioned. So while there may be no need for parents to be too anxious, they certainly need to recognise that their child may meet with some kind of bullying in school and that they should be aware of what is most helpful, if and when it does happen.
What can parents do?
It is important for parents and teachers to be alert to the signs that a child is worried about school, and to talk regularly about school issues so that an opportunity is provided for concerns to be raised. When that happens action should be prompt and effective. However, this new research shows that children and young people had very mixed feelings about telling an adult as they felt that it could make matters worse. These issues of trust cannot be assured in just the occasional conversation, they have to be developed as part of the total relationship. This is emphasised in the research as needing to be built into the culture of the school and the home, so that a child's concerns are listened to and acted upon. The strategies recommended are those that are based on a 'what works approach' to tackle bullying based on listening to their pupils' experiences. The new initiatives that the DfES is setting up as a result of this finding will hopefully improve the situation.
In the next article I will describe strategies parents have found helpful when approaching the school with concerns about their child. Then some of the different bullying policies that are currently used in schools will be described, so that parents can see for themselves how they work in theory and practice.
From the Summer 2003 edition of Speaking Out
Our Education Officer - with information on our Schools CD-ROMs, launched in October 2003
The report 'Tackling Bullying: Listening to the Views of Children and Young People' can be downloaded from www.dfes.gov.uk/bullying/
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