Tackling bullying: Knowledge is power


Information – both about national trends and about what is happening in your own school – is a powerful weapon in the fight against bullying. Dorothy Lepkowska explains.

Good standards of pupil behaviour and discipline are paramount in every school. A strong ethos of high expectations and hard work, coupled with good conduct and appropriate, consistent behaviour management policies are vital if children are to succeed, and be kept safe and secure.

But how many heads and teachers really know what pupils and their parents feel about issues such as bullying – or the extent to which the problem may exist in their school?

Teachers may be vigilant, but they cannot be around to witness every push or shove, or every incident of name-calling or teasing. At the same time, pupils and parents cannot always be relied upon to report incidents of bullying.

Children themselves can feel embarrassed that they have been picked on, or feel intimidated that the bullying may become worse if they tell someone. Moreover, bullying is not always visible and the perpetrators are often cunning in their methods.

Some schools have used tools such as NFER’s Schools Surveys and Themed Surveys, allowing them to delve into the heart of a whole range of issues, such as pupil behaviour, standards of teaching and school-home communication, by presenting pupils and parents with questions on matters that directly concern and affect them.

What the answers to the surveys reveal, through thorough and careful analysis of the results by statisticians at NFER, can help heads and governors to understand the extent and nature of any problems and, in turn, implement effective policies and guidelines to manage them.

Furthermore, the outcomes are shown compared to the rest of the schools in the sample, weighted to be nationally representative, so schools know where they sit alongside other schools.

When David Quick joined Slindon College as headteacher, both he and the governing body wanted to get a clear picture of what parents really thought about the school, and what their expectations were.

His colleague Jenny Davies, the school’s registrar, set up a survey using NFER’s General Parent Survey. Not only did the staff want to use the results to shape the school’s improvement plan, but to give them a measure against which to implement their own interventions.

Based in Arundel, West Sussex, Slindon College is an independent day and boarding school offering specialist learning support for boys aged eight to 18 years addressing a wide range of specific learning difficulties, such as ADHD, dyslexia, and including children on the autistic spectrum. In a setting where behaviour can already be challenging, it was important to have the appropriate policies in place.

The school wanted to get a clear idea of its strengths, and what parents thought should be areas for further development.

“I particularly liked the comparison with other schools. It gave us something to work with straight away,” explained Ms Davies, adding that the filter function on the survey report was particularly useful in enabling her to investigate the results more deeply using online reporting software.

The school was pleased to see that some results broadly reflected the thoughts of the senior leadership team. There was some concern from staff that behaviour and discipline may have slipped over recent years – a view shared by parents.

Mr Quick used the findings as evidence to demonstrate this, which informed various changes. Parents have already commented on an improvement in behaviour and the situation will be monitored with future parental surveys.

NFER’s School Surveys can provide a range of useful information, not least for use during an Ofsted inspection. The findings can give senior leaders an opportunity to address any matters causing concern and to put appropriate measures in place to mitigate any parental and pupil concerns.

In an attempt to create a national picture of the extent and types of bullying going on in our schools, NFER carried out an analysis of the responses to its School Surveys from secondary school parents. 

One of the questions examining the issue of whether schools’ approaches to anti-bullying were effective showed that 27 per cent strongly agreed that they were, 46 per cent agreed and five per cent disagreed (22 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed, were not aware of the school’s policy, or did not feel able to answer the question).

Overall, the findings suggest that it is important for schools to know how parents feel about this issue before an inspection.

Some types of bullying are, of course, more prevalent than others, and have a greater negative impact on children’s emotional health and wellbeing.

Pupils who have fallen prey to bullies were most likely, for example, to mention lies or rumours about them or their appearance and cited these were the main reason they believed they were being bullied.

When asked how they had been bullied by people from their own school in the previous 12 months, 28 per cent said they had been called names or had rumours spread about them, while 12 per cent had been physically attacked and 19 per cent had felt left out and excluded from friendship groups. Of those asked, 13 per cent had had property stolen or damaged.

Exclusion from a particular group could have a particularly devastating effect, and NFER analyses show that this type of bullying can be more strongly associated with poor emotional wellbeing than other types, including physical or verbal abuse. This problem was particularly prevalent among girls, who used emotional rather than physical tactics. An important part of a school’s anti-bullying policy can be knowing how to support a child when relationships between pupils break down.

For older girls, unwanted sexual contact was found to be the type of bullying most strongly associated with poor emotional wellbeing, although incidents were relatively rare. The most common type of bullying among all age groups was verbal abuse, and this was more strongly linked to poor emotional wellbeing than physical violence. Overall, however, boys were more likely to be bullied than girls.

Issues over the safety of pupils online were also addressed. When asked whether their school gave pupils enough information about using the internet safely, 71 per cent said yes, while 19 per cent said no. The remainder were not sure.

Caroline Fisher, of NFER, who works with researchers who analyse the surveys, said: “The busy day-to-day business of schools can reduce communication between staff and pupils to little more than the sending home of newsletters. But conducting surveys at intervals can help to keep that dialogue open.

“By offering participation in surveys, schools are effectively telling parents and pupils that their views are important and that the school is prepared to act on those comments and observations.

“We know, for example, that in some secondary schools, they have provided a narrative for school improvement, or acted as a gauge about what parents think about a particular policy change or implementation. To newly arrived heads still finding their feet, or trying to turn around a school in challenging circumstances, having some feedback helps to test the atmosphere in the school on a particular issue at any given time.

“Schools need to be mindful of reviewing their policies on bullying periodically. Anti-bullying week (November 17-21) is a good time to revisit the issue, and to ensure that everything that can be done to tackle this potential problem is being done.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is an education journalist.

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