30 Turning in their graves? A tale of two coalitions
Facing the Problem of Bullying in Schools
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
The purpose of this article is to describe how the staff and pupils of Marston Middle School attempted to deal with the problem of bullying, in the hope that this may be useful to other schools and individuals.
Having said this, it is vital to bear two points in mind: first, that what we did was appropriate to our particular circumstances. Bullying in other schools and situations will vary both quantitively and qualitatively and may therefore require different approaches; and second, that the most important aspect of all our work was the involvement of all concerned - staff and pupils - at all stages.
For these two reasons, it would, in my view, be pointless for a school to feel that it could simply go through the processes which I outline here and hope to have dealt with the problem. I hope, however, that the issues discussed and the procedures described in this paper will be of help to others in combating what, for far too long, has caused misery for many of our pupils.
The school and its context
Marston Middle School (pictured) lies on the north east edge of the city of Oxford. The area is pleasant and varied, ranging from the picturesque village of Old Marston, through the 1930s semis and the developments of the 1950s to the smaller areas of newer housing. Rural Oxfordshire is minutes away to the north; Magdalen Bridge a mile or so to the south. The city centre is a ten minute bus ride away (or a twenty minute walk across the fields to the University Parks).
The population is largely white, though there are residents from the ethnic minorities (mainly Asian, Chinese and Afro-Caribbean) and this mix is enriched by the presence of a small number of people from all round the world who come to the city to work or undertake research in the University or at the John Radcliffe Hospital which stands about a mile from the school.
The school began life in the late fifties as a secondary modern school, becoming a middle school (for 9 - 13 year olds) in the 1970s. In the early eighties it was amalgamated with a nearby school, a move which caused great anxiety for the staffs of both schools and led to a level of bitterness and division which lasted for some years.
I took up the post of head teacher in January 1989 and fairly quickly decided that my top priority had to be to improve the ethos of the school by tackling the problems caused by the poor relationships which were largely a hangover from the amalgamation. In the autumn term 1989 we made a start by introducing a Personal and Social Education (PSE) programme for all pupils and by undertaking a project on Equal Opportunities. Working with the First Schools in the area, we asked the Equal Opportunities Unit at Westminster College to organise two days' INSET for us. Teachers, education support staff, governors and parents were all involved and many issues were raised during these two days. Decisions were taken to set up a Working Party and to work towards agreeing an Equal Opportunities Policy for the school.
Our work on bullying began at about the same time. There were three main reasons for this: first, there was bullying in the school - not a lot, I felt - but any bullying is undesirable and if we were really going to tackle the ethos of the school and the quality of the relationships within it, we could not ignore this aspect of the problem. Second, there had been an increasing level of media interest in the problem of bullying: a programme on BBC2 and a number of articles and letters in the local and national press had recently appeared. And third, we saw it as an equal opportunities issue: pupils whose lives are made miserable by bullying are not in a good position to take advantage of the social and educational opportunities offered by the school.
The Bullying Group
For all these reasons we set up a Staff Working Party on Bullying (known as the Bullying Group - though we tried not to bully!) in the latter half of the autumn term 1989. Seven members of staff volunteered and at their first meeting considered two issues:
The Bullying Group decided to invite the Neti-Neti Theatre Company to visit the school to perform their play Only Playing Miss. This had featured in two of the articles mentioned above, and was said to be a very powerful drama about bullying in schools. It also fitted well with our work on Equal Opportunities as it was performed in English, Bengali and Sign Language. We rang Neti-Neti and were disappointed that, because of the enormous media interest, they were booked up for months ahead. We did eventually get them to come and they were very well worth waiting for, but more of that later.
Personal and social education
The remainder of the December meeting was taken up with preparing a five-lesson programme on bullying for all pupils in their PSE lessons, with additional support in whole-school assemblies. The lessons, which took place in January 1990, began with a brainstorming session on 'What is Bullying?' and included class and group discussions on issues such as:
During the lessons, pupils were asked to suggest a definition of bullying. We eventually agreed as a whole school that bullying was 'Any form of behaviour which causes unhappiness for another member of the school'. I was personally delighted that we had arrived at such a broad definition with enormous implications for all of us - including me! It was significant that we used the term 'member of the school': it does not apply only to pupils - teachers and support staff can be both bullies and bullied, too.
We later modified our definition to include the word 'deliberately' - since intentionality is very much part of bullying. We were guided to this conclusion by an extremely useful booklet by Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert. (Details at the foot of this page).
The Bullying Questionnaire
In February 1990 several members of staff attended a lecture by Peter Smith of the Department of Psychology, Sheffield University, on The Silent Nightmare - Bullying in Schools, given at the John Radcliffe Hospital under the auspices of the Oxford Branch of the Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry. It was a very valuable lecture which included information about a questionnaire on bullying. This had shown that, in the surveyed middle schools, 11.6% of pupils had been bullied 'sometimes' and 5.5% 'several times a week'.
The Bullying Group met again in March 1990. We reviewed the PSE lessons and decided they had been successful in raising awareness of the issues. We considered the content of Peter Smith's lecture and decided that a questionnaire was the next step for us.
Again, we were convinced that the important thing was to involve the pupils at all stages, so we prepared two further PSE lessons during which pupils were asked to devise a questionnaire. The results of this work were collated and, at the end of April, the finished questionnaire was completed by all pupils during another PSE lesson. An instructions sheet for staff asked them to stress the confidential nature of the questionnaire: 'No one will even be able to identify your writing - you don't need to put anything but ticks!'
See The Bullying Questionnaire (below) for the text of the revised version of the Questionnaire and the notes for teachers.
The results of this survey made interesting reading. For example:
The disparity between these two sets of figures is interesting: you can draw your own conclusions but the assumption we made was that the bully often does not perceive his/her actions as bullying.
The questionnaire gave us details of where and what sort of bullying was taking place and which year groups were most at risk.
The next meeting of the Bullying Group was in June 1990. This time, we invited our local police officer to join us and his contribution, together with that of a police inspector who was also a parent, were to prove invaluable.
The Bully Box
The Group agreed to set up a 'Bully Box' as an attempt to deal with the problem that many children who are bullied are too nervous to tell someone about it. The box was to be like a ballot box, with a lockable lid. It would be positioned in the school library and there would be a supply of 'Incident Forms' beside it. Any pupil who was being bullied, but was too nervous to talk about it, could write down the details on a form and put it in the box. At the end of each day, the box was to be emptied and the forms passed to an appropriate member of staff for action.
The other major decision taken at that June meeting was to propose the setting up of a School Bully Court. Our 'co-opted' police inspector was to attend a conference on bullying organised by Kidscape, who were promoting the idea of School Bully Courts. Finally, staff were asked to remind pupils that all bullying incidents must be reported and to be particularly vigilant about the times and places in which, according to the questionnaire results, most bullying was taking place.
The autumn term 1990 was one of great activity: the Bully Box was established in the library, Neti Neti Theatre Company visited the school to perform Only Playing Miss and staff agreed to the setting up of the Bully Court.
The Bully Box was installed in September. At first, many forms were filled in - some of them inevitably were hoaxes or attempts to get others into trouble. But we persevered and the number of forms submitted soon dwindled to a trickle and the hoaxes ceased.
Only Playing Miss
The Neti Neti Theatre Company's play was performed to the whole school in November and made a profound impact on staff and pupils. It is a powerful drama, acted out with minimum scenery and props. It is available on video - though I have to say that the video version inevitably has very much less impact than the live performance - together with the script and follow-up suggestions. (The address can be found at the foot of this page).
The report from the Kidscape conference was also invaluable in helping us plan for our Bully Court. Founded by Michelle Elliott, Kidscape publishes a wide range of material on bullying and other matters concerned with children's safety. (Again, the address can be found at the foot of this page).
Bully Courts had been pioneered by Kidscape in a number of schools around the country: the first had been set up in response to pressure from pupils themselves.
The Bully Court
Further meetings of the Bullying Group in October and November 1990 were held to agree how the Court would be established. It was decided that it should consist of twelve pupils - one to be elected by each class in the school. Again, PSE lessons were used as the vehicle for discussion about:
The inaugural meeting of the Court was held at the end of January and discussed the rules and procedures of the Court. My deputy and I were immensely impressed with the insights and common sense which the pupils brought to this meeting. As a result, a booklet was published, setting out the Court's rules and procedures. A copy of these rules can be found in Rules and Procedures of the Bully Court (further down this page) though readers should note that we ceased to follow them for reasons which will be explained later.
The whole school was informed of the Court's decisions at an assembly. Although we had decided right at the start not to involve parents in the early stages of this work, they had become progressively more aware of it and, by this time, we were informing them in some detail through the half-termly school newsletter. All the comments we received were favourable.
Two neighbouring schools contacted us during this period: one to invite me to view a video they had made about bullying, and one to ask our Bully Court members to tell their School Council about our work. It was as a result of this that the attention of the press was drawn to what we were doing. A reporter from the weekly Oxford Times rang me one Thursday afternoon to ask if I would tell her a bit about the Bully Court. I spoke to her for ten minutes on the telephone and thought no more of it until the following morning, when we were the front page headline! From then on, the phone never stopped ringing: Central Television, two local radio stations, BBC Radio 4 and several national newspapers all wanted interviews or mock trials for their cameras or reporters. Six of the Court members and I took part in a local radio phone-in.
All the reports were remarkably fair: no one suggested that we were a school with a terrible problem. But I became increasingly concerned not to give the message that all you had to do to deal with the problem of bullying was set up a Bully Court. The Court was just one element in a long and varied programme of work, as I hope this article has already made clear.
The media is a two-edged sword: our experience has been very positive but schools would do well to bear in mind that work on bullying could be interpreted as meaning that the school has a particular problem in this area. Equally (as happened to me on Radio 4's Today programme on one occasion) one can be presented as having the ultimate answer to the problem.
Changes to the Court
The Court (pictured) did not sit for six months after it was set up. This was not because there was no bullying in the school, but because we made the decision at the start that only very serious cases would be dealt with by the Court. Herein lay a problem: someone had to decide which cases the Court should hear. In practice, when incidents were reported to me or to a member of staff, I tended to discuss the matter with that member of staff or with my Deputy and we always agreed that the matter could be resolved without the Court. I became progressively more concerned about this and so, after the first year, the rules were revised so that the decision as to whether a case should be heard was made by a group of four of the Form Representatives. This was an important change, taking power away from me and giving it to the pupils themselves - the principle which lies behind the whole concept of School Bully Courts. The result was that cases began to be heard.
The Court sat to hear several cases of bullying in the following two years. On each occasion, we were immensely impressed by the sensible and sensitive way the members conducted their business. There was no sense of wielding power; rather the members were at pains to point out to defendants that what they wanted to achieve was a more harmonious school in which all could get on with their work and with each other. Some cases were harder than others: in most, the defendant admitted guilt, in some, the defendant did not and the Court had to try to assess the level of guilt. In all cases, members showed a willingness to be understanding but a resolve not to tolerate bullying. In some cases, defendants cried; perhaps this was an indication that the Court was taken seriously, but it also gave us some cause for concern - were we really just bullying the bullies?
Some pupils were anxious about the inevitably public nature of the Court, and felt that those who had been bullied might not want the problem aired in this forum - they might actually prefer the matter to be dealt with privately by, for example, a teacher. The members of the Court discussed this and other problems at their half-termly Business Meetings and the rules and procedures were modified accordingly. For example, it was agreed that a friend could appear on behalf of a victim if the victim did not wish to appear.
The Business Meetings proved invaluable in themselves, not only because of the very sensible changes that were agreed to the procedures of the Court, but as a forum for Form Representatives to report on known cases of bullying. The meetings are also excellent educationally, allowing pupils to serve as Chair and Clerk and encouraging them to discuss and debate.
At the beginning of 1993 it was agreed that Bully Court members should be left on their own to discuss any matters they saw fit, reporting to me at the end of the meeting. This has resulted in more incidents of bullying being discussed and dealt with. The proceedings became less formal: having identified a case of bullying, the Court would send for the pupils involved and talk it through with them. If they couldn't resolve the matter themselves they would ask for the help of a member of staff, but in most cases they dealt with incidents themselves.
We conducted the questionnaire four times (annually in June/July). The main lesson this exercise taught us is just how difficult it is to get the wording right. In June 1992 (the third time) we reworded a number of the questions, being more specific about the period to which the questionnaire related. The reasoning behind this was as follows: if you ask me today whether I have been bullied I say Yes. If you ask me next year whether I have been bullied, the answer will still be Yes, even if I have not been bullied in the intervening year. I think this explains why the figures from the first two questionnaires were remarkably similar, even though the perception of pupils was that there was less bullying in the school.
Whatever else these figures meant, they certainly meant that there was no room for complacency. And to underline this, one figure stood out as important: 26% of pupils who say they'd been bullied had told no one. This is one of the biggest problems about bullying, and the figure demonstrated that there was still much work to be done.
The third questionnaire, with revised wording, was conducted in June 1992. This time, pupils were asked about bullying which had taken place within the past two weeks only. The basic findings were as follows:
Consolidating these figures into three groups, we get the following comparisons:
Clearly the new wording produced a much higher proportion of pupils who had not been bullied.
Pupils decided at a school assembly that they wanted to re-elect the whole membership of the Bully Court each autumn (despite the fact that I tried to persuade them that it might be a good idea to keep some of the expertise of the previous year's representatives). Accordingly, elections have been held in October each year.
In the fourth questionnaire (July 1993), the figures were as follows:
These figures showed a small increase in bullying over the previous year. The first point worth making is that the figures could be compared with the previous year's more logically, since they both related to particular two-week periods. Secondly, the small increase in the numbers of pupils reporting bullying could be because there was actually more bullying during the two-week period in 1993 or because pupils' understanding of what we meant by bullying was now much broader and so many incidents were regarded as bullying which might previously have been ignored. But however the results were interpreted one thing was certain: the level of bullying was still unacceptably high.
The 'No Blame' Approach
In 1993 the BBC's That's Life programme featured the work of a secondary school which was using the 'No Blame' approach in dealing with bullying. The idea was to get bully and victim together with a member of staff to talk through what had been happening, to get the bully to understand and, if possible, to empathise with, how the victim was feeling. The essence was not to blame anyone but to try to resolve problems.
Our Bully Court decided to try this approach so, instead of hearing cases in the formal court-like situation we had previously used, small groups of Bully Court members would talk through cases of bullying with bully and victim. The approach seemed to work.
Later in 1993 another BBC programme showed the work of a London comprehensive school which was training students as Peer Counsellors. This seemed to us to be a logical extension of the No Blame approach and we decided to try it ourselves. I showed the programme to the members of our Court and they agreed that this was the way ahead.
The members of the Court showed great sensitivity in dealing with cases but we quickly become aware of a problem: the Peer Counsellor approach requires a considerable amount of training and the fact that the school elects a new Bully Court each autumn means that this training has to happen every year. For the following two years we were fortunate to have the services of a local trained counsellor who came in on a weekly basis and given the members of the Court - now known as 'The Bully Busters' (their choice!) - some basic training in listening and conflict resolution skills. It is worth making the point here that there was no suggestion that these children were actually being trained as counsellors in the normal sense of the word. Counselling requires a range of skills and a maturity of outlook which it would be unfair to expect from 9-13 year olds.
I retired as head teacher of the school at Easter 1997. The task which I should have liked to have seen through in the coming year was to provide some training in dealing with bullying for learning support assistants and lunchtime supervisors. Both these groups of people encounter cases of bullying in their work and it is vital that they understand the school's policy and procedures. Their support would prove invaluable to the school and helpful to them in their work.
By 1997 the vast majority of members of the school - staff and pupils - felt that there was much less bullying than there had been, and that the quality of relationships in the school was now much better. I am sure this is right. But the questionnaire figures also suggest that bullying is an insidious problem which is extremely difficult to eradicate. My own view is that as long as bullying is a feature of our society, it will be part of school life.
During my eight years at Marston Middle School we devised and implemented various ways of tackling the problem of bullying. We never found all the answers - I doubt whether anyone ever will. The important thing is that we acknowledged that the problem exists and tried to do something about it.
Rules and Procedures of the School Bully Court
These rules and procedures were agreed at the initial meeting of the Court in January 1991 and were revised in January 1992 and October 1993. They are included here for information and interest: the Bully Court was disbanded when a new Head Teacher was appointed in 1997.
The Court consists of
2 How cases are brought
Pupils who feel they have been bullied may bring their cases to the attention of the Court
3 Pre-hearing procedures
The person accused of bullying (the Defendant) is informed of the accusation and the date on which the case will be heard. At least two days' notice is given.
The Head Teacher writes to the parents/guardians of the Complainant and Defendant informing them of the date of the hearing.
4 The hearing
The Chair, Clerk, and other Members of the Court are present while the Court is sitting. The Head Teacher or Deputy Head may be invited to attend as observer and, where requested, as advisor.
The person who brought the case (the Complainant) is first asked to describe the incident(s) of bullying and can be questioned by Members of the Court. A Complainant may have his/her case presented by a friend if s/he wishes. (There may, of course, be more than one Complainant and more than one Defendant).
The Defendant is then asked to give his/her account of the alleged incident(s) and can be questioned by Members of the Court. The Defendant may have his/her case presented by a friend if s/he wishes.
The witnesses are not present at this stage.
A maximum of two witnesses named by the Complainant, followed by a maximum of two witnesses named by the Defendant, may then be questioned by the Court and remain in the Court Room once they have given their evidence.
When Members have asked all the questions they want to ask, all leave the room while the Members of the Court discuss the case and decide, first, whether bullying has taken place and, second, whether the Defendant is guilty of that bullying. At least ten of the twelve Members must agree for a verdict to be agreed.
If the Members decide that the Defendant is guilty, they then discuss what the Defendant should do to make amends, or what the appropriate punishment should be. They recommend this to the Head Teacher or Deputy Head.
The Complainant, Defendant and witnesses are informed of the decision of the Court. The Head/Deputy informs the parents/guardians of the Defendant of the outcome.
5 Other points
Text of the Bullying Questionnaire
This questionnaire is designed to help us find out how much bullying is going on in the school and when and where it is happening.
Accurate information will help us to know how best to stop bullying happening.
Be as honest as you can as you answer the questions: the questionnaire is absolutely confidential - you do not need to write your name on this paper, so no one will know how you've answered the questions.
No one will even be able to identify your writing - you don't need to put anything but ticks!
Thank you for your answers: they should help us to make our school a better place for all of us.
1 My year group is
2 I am
3 During the past two weeks I have been bullied
If you answered never to question 3 the next question to answer is number 9.
4 During the past two weeks I have been
5 The places and times where I have been bullied in the past two weeks are
6 The people who bullied me in the past two weeks were
7 I have told
8 In the past two weeks I have caused people to bully me by
9 In the past two weeks I have bullied others
Thank you for your help
Bullying Questionnaire: Notes for Teachers
The questionnaire must be administered on a Friday (because of the 'two weeks' aspect of the questions - see below).
Before administering the questionnaire, please spend some time (in a PSHE lesson) reminding pupils of the issues involved in bullying: what it is (our school definition is 'any behaviour which deliberately causes unhappiness for others'); why people bully; what sort of people bully; what sort of people are the victims; why bullying is hard to deal with (pupils afraid to tell etc) and so on.
It is very important to administer this questionnaire carefully so that pupils feel secure in completing it. Make sure that pupils are comfortable - not crowded so that they can't fill in the form without others seeing it.
Insist on quiet while the questionnaire is completed: no one should be allowed to talk about their answers - this may intimidate nervous pupils, destroying their feeling of security.
Read through the entire paper with the class before they start work.
Please talk about how many of the questions refer to 'the past two weeks'. Indicate that this means this week and last week - they must not include incidents which took place before this. Younger pupils may need extra help in being clear about this time period.
Show them - on the board - how to put a tick between the square brackets. Some questions require only one tick; others can have a number of ticks - explain this to pupils as they work through the questionnaire.
With younger classes, it may be a good idea to ask them to wait when they've finished each question so that you can read the next question through again before they answer it.
Don't stop pupils before they have finished - and try not to rush them. When everyone has finished, ask pupils to close the booklets and leave them with the front page upwards on their desks so that none of their confidential answers can be seen: collect the papers in yourself - don't allow a pupil to do this.
If you have any comments or suggestions about the questionnaire, please let a member of the Bullying Working Party know.
Thanks for your help. The Bullying Working Party
Addresses, links and further reading
Addresses and links
Childline free helpline for children and young people. Also on 0800 1111 night or day.
Neti Neti Theatre Company according to the Charity Comission website (June 2011) the contact for Neti Neti is now: Ms Rita Mishra, Whitefield School, Claremont Road, Cricklewood, London NW2 1TR; phone 020 8458 3251. (No website or email details are given).
Kidscape 2 Grosvenor Gardens, London, SW1W 0DH; phone 020 7730 3300; fax 020 7730 7081; Helpline 08451 205 204 (from their website, June 2011).
Marston Middle School closed in July 2003 as part of the reorganisation of Oxford city's schools from three-tier to two-tier.
Hill A (2005) 'New children's czar vows: "I'll stamp out the school bullies"' The Observer 13 November
Hill A and Hinsliff G (2005) 'Children's czar warns of huge leap in bullying' The Observer 13 November
Sally Perkins (2017) 'The Appalling Mental, Physical Impact of Bullying'
(Prices may be out of date!)
A Community Approach to Bullying Peter Randall
Bullying: A Positive Response Delwyn Tattum and Graham Herbert
Bullying: a practical guide to coping for schools Michele Elliott
Bullying in Schools And what to do about it Ken Rigby
Don't Pick on Me: how to handle bullying Rosemary Stones
Don't Suffer in Silence
Peer Counselling in Schools edited by Helen Cowie and Sonia Sharp
School Bullying - Insights and Perspectives Peter K Smith and Sonia Sharp
Tackling Bullying in Your School edited by Sonia Sharp and Peter K Smith