Last summer, I was invited to observe an assembly at one of the schools I visit in my capacity as founder of the Self-Esteem Team, a group that travels the UK delivering workshops on mental health and body image.
Pupils had been working on a sketch as part of their drama lessons, which was to be presented for the first time to the rest of the school.
A pupil dressed in a poorly fitting polyester suit announced that he was the headmaster, to raucous laughter. He then proceeded to read their school’s “anti bullying policy” as it appeared on their website, while his classmates mimed a child being tormented and beaten in the background. The laughter stopped.
The performance had a profound effect on everyone who witnessed it and I was no exception. Over the next few months I made it my mission to measure the discrepancy between perceived and actual incidents of bullying in the three schools a week I visited.
My evidence is purely anecdotal – I’d ask classes or year groups to raise their hand if they had either experienced bullying themselves or knew someone who had. An average of 80 per cent answered in the affirmative. The more adamant a school was that they “have no bullying problem”, the more hands were raised.
According to exclusive statistics provided to the Telegraph by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), while incidents of “low grade” bullying have fallen under the current administration, severe bullying has remained consistent – affecting six per cent of children each year for the past decade.
However, these figures only tell part of the story in a climate where schools are reluctant to record incidents of bullying and many pupils believe it is “pointless” to report it.
We know bullying has a detrimental effect on mental health, an issue that the Government has pledged to make a priority over the next four years.
According to the charity YoungMinds, children who are bullied are twice as likely to develop depression in later life, and an American study by the Paediatric Academic Society in 2014 found that the effects of bullying on emotional wellbeing outweighed those sustained as a result of neglect or abuse.
Dr Carrie Herbert, founder of Red Balloon, a charity that helps self-excluding severely bullied children, told me that the impact of bullying was social as well as emotional.
“Students who are severely bullied… suffer long-term loss of self-esteem, depression, self-harm, panic attacks, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicidal thoughts or attempts. Without interventions they are likely, at 16, to have no qualifications, be ill educated, find it difficult to find employment and be dependent on benefits and other social and financial support.”
So why is the industry apparently ignoring an issue that proves so detrimental to the Prime Minister’s key vision of the Big Society? The answer could be Ofsted, the independent body charged with inspecting schools.
Ofsted’s senior press officer, Kim Tran, told me: “Inspectors do take [bullying] very seriously and check the school’s bullying record and policy as part of the inspection.”
The problem is, as the ABA’s national coordinator, Lauren Seager-Smith, points out, schools are not obliged to record incidents of bullying and are unlikely to do so if they believe it lessens their chances of being graded as “outstanding” by Ofsted.
Mary Meredith, inclusions officer at Lincolnshire County Council, believes Ofsted has effectively painted schools into a corner when it comes to bullying. She said: “To achieve ‘Good’ [from Ofsted] there can only be ‘rare occurrences’ [of bullying]. To be considered ‘Outstanding’, bullying must be ‘extremely rare’, according to the 2015 framework.
“This creates a perverse incentive to minimise the number of incidents recorded as ‘bullying’. Too much transparency means that all of a school’s painstaking work to create a climate in which pupils are able to seek support for their experience of bullying could backfire, catastrophically.”
Victoria Sheppard, a secondary school teacher currently working in Norfolk, agrees. “It is sadly no surprise if some schools feel pressure to play down any problems. Bullying will always happen, and surely Ofsted should be measuring how well the school deals with it.”
Here, Sheppard hits upon the nub of the issue – stigma. Paul Vodden, who has been campaigning for change since his 11-year-old son Ben took his own life as a result of bullying nine years ago, believes the most effective antidote to bullying would be a change in attitude. He cites the founder of Kidscape, Michele Elliott, who famously said “a school without bullying is a school with one student”.
Vodden goes on to say: “For years, we have tended to regard a school with bullying as a school that is failing. It would be much more useful now to be saying that bullying, heinous as it is, is what children do and as a society we should be applauding schools that are able to deal with bullying speedily and effectively, and those methods that are shown to be effective should be disseminated to other schools.”
In short, Ofsted should not be counting incidents, but measuring how each incident is responded to if we are ever to minimise the catastrophic impact severe bullying has not only on mental health, but on our society.
Signs your child may be being bullied
- Dramatic changes in character, e.g. an outgoing child becoming withdrawn or a shy child becoming aggressive.
- Claiming to have unexplained illnesses which prevent them from going to school.
- Unexplained marks or bruises which might indicate physical abuse.
- Wishing to avoid certain people or places.
- Asking for advice in the third person, e.g. “My friend is being bullied, what should I do?”
- Spending more time online (research indicates victims of cyber bullying are perversely driven to spend more, not less, time on social media).
[Source:- The Telegraph]