Can we stop bullying becoming “The Welsh Disease”?

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If you believe what most headteachers and school governors tell parents and the media, Welsh schools don’t have a bullying problem.

We can perhaps accept that teachers and school staff are stuck between a rock and a hard place on the issue. There may be little to no hard evidence because it happens away from their gaze and is often low-level, manipulative (you wouldn’t believe the number of bullies who are convincing as victims) and persistent over several months or years rather than acted out in one big 1970s Grange Hill-style scrap.

School bullying deserves to be thrown into sharper focus in light of the apparent suicide of a pupil at St John Lloyd School in Llanelli – a school held in high regard academically and locally. Fingers are being pointed at the school authorities for their inadequate response to reports the pupil in question was being bullied.

There are various clauses in Education Acts that state pupil welfare should be a priority, that schools should have an anti-bullying policy and/or have measures to encourage good behaviour. Most of this is open to interpretation and left to individual schools to draft, meaning each school is going to deal with it differently.

Both the Children’s Commissioner and Estyn have raised concerns about poor school responses to bullying in the past and have called for action that, to date, is yet to be forthcoming.

We shouldn’t have to see a father going in front of the cameras in tears because their child died in a public institution that every single parent trusts won’t only do the basic things, but the absolute maximum to ensure their children are safe.

I’m not a fan of the “WE NEED A NEW LAW!!” approach to solving complicated social issues. However, it might be time to put anti-bullying measures on a stronger footing.

A clear message has to be sent to headteachers, school governors and alike that if they don’t deal with bullying and poor pupil behaviour appropriately, they’re breaking the law and will be sanctioned for it.

Firstly, complaints handling and anti-bullying rules should be applied the same way in every school and independently monitored. That means proper record keeping, an escalation system depending on an objective seriousness of the abuse, a strict timescale for complaints to be dealt with and a way for pupils and parents to report bullying and appeal decisions independently.

Secondly, Wales could introduce a standardised demerit system for student behaviour that follows them through school and into further education, university or working life, effectively acting as a character reference. If schools need to be sent a message, so to should students: “Your cards will be marked if you persistently misbehave or bully others”.

Thirdly, punishments should fit the crime. There are already guidelines on when pupils should be expelled, suspended or temporarily removed from classes but perhaps they’re not being correctly applied in cases of pupil-on-pupil bullying. The victims should be paramount and should be protected – particularly if bullying crosses the line from “banter” to the kind of psychological abuse and physical assault that would see adults, at the very least, investigated by the police if not put before a judge.

Finally, schools should be punished for non-compliance. Fines would be inappropriate, so alternative sanctions might be more suitable such as being banned from taking part in extra-curricular activities for pupil welfare reasons (i.e. competitive school sports, foreign trips), removal of school governors, forcing staff to undertake additional child protection training, being moved towards or placed into special measures, or being blocked from attaining yellow or green status in the Welsh Government’s school assessment rankings regardless of their academic performance.

Schools should no longer be allowed to protect their reputations and shield themselves from criticism by denying they have a problem. It’ll be difficult, if not impossible, to end school bullying, but if we want to create a better learning environment for vulnerable children – often whose only offence is doing or being something that marks them out as different – it’ll have to start there.

Maybe bullying isn’t even the core problem; it’s the arse-covering by schools.

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