Features: August 4th, 2008

By Alison Ballantyne

Bullying in school has been around for a long time, but the Government, councils, school management and teachers are working together to tackle the problem with a zero tolerance approach. The strategy being pursued by the London borough of Bexley was to create an anti-bullying team to give support and advice to victims and to provide an online database to present a real time picture of what is happening. The author describes how the two elements of the strategy were brought together.

Tackling the problem of bullying is fast becoming an issue for many schools and local councils across the country. The concern has always been there but for many bullying has been a taboo subject, something not to be admitted for fear of being branded as having a ‘bullying problem’.

However with the Government’s newly introduced Safe to Learn policy and the Department of Children, Schools and Families making it clear that, “no form of bullying should be tolerated” (1), bullying is something the Government is also putting high on its agenda.

The London Borough of Bexley has always endeavoured to create a safe learning environment for its schools’ pupils and has kept anti-bullying measures in place to try and combat the problem. A recent report from the Education and Skills Select Committee recommended that, “all local authorities, in partnership with schools (should) develop a robust system for the collation, evaluation and reporting of bullying for the purpose of effectively improving the tackling and management of (the) issue across all schools in their area.” (2)

In response the Bexley Local Authority decided to seek an alternative method to tackling bullying and racism in schools – one that would meet the recommendations and messages from the Government as well as the requirements of our partner agencies and schools.

Changing tactics for a coordinated approach

The approach Bexley chose was Vantage Technologies’ Sentinel Anti-Bullying software. This solution allows staff to report bullying incidents securely over the Internet into a central database, which is managed and monitored by Bexley. This web-based approach allows our schools to monitor bullying and racism incidents in real-time, providing effective support for all pupils.

The launch of this new initiative was announced at Bexley’s Southern Anti-Bullying Conference earlier this year. Two Bexley services were the driving force behind the proposal.

The first – the Bexley Anti-Bullying Project, a team which plays an important role within the Council in offering support and advice to victims of bullying, their parents and schools, required a user-friendly and efficient system which reduced the amount of paper work involved with traditional reporting. The Project also looked for a system, which would aid head teachers in completing their self-evaluation forms, and one which would identify by-standers, as they were often key players in anti-bullying activities.

The second – Knowledge Management, previously carried out the reporting and recording of instances of bullying within schools across Bexley. We were proud of the system but there were a couple of flaws. The system was paper-based, therefore more labour-intensive, and it relied on someone at the school remembering to collect the forms and send them to the Council.

We wanted an electronic system that was accessible to anyone with computer access to the school’s central system, automatically collated the information, and most crucially was web-based and able to be tailored to our forms and interrogated to get the strategic information we need. Our overall aim was to create less bureaucracy for schools with a ready-to-use solution that would give us a more coordinated and proactive approach.

Reaping the benefits

As well as allowing Bexley to fulfil mandatory recording of racial incidents Sentinel enables us to monitor and target other forms of harassment within schools. It gives teaching staff and council officials a greater understanding of issues related to racism and bullying, and helps us effectively track and identify bullying hotspots and repeat offenders. The program also flags up patterns in behaviour, enabling us to proactively address instances of bullying and racism and draw up effective policies to tackle the cause.

Giving staff across the council and schools access to the same central database facilitates an improved exchange of information, and with Sentinel’s pre-defined formats, a more standardised and consistent method of reporting. This helps the council identify the more successful anti-bullying initiatives in place; we can then liaise with and offer advice to other schools within the Borough.

In addition to recording details of the perpetrator, Sentinel allows details of the by-standers and their involvement in bullying incidents to be recorded, enabling members of staff to identify all parties directly and indirectly involved in the bullying. Sentinel’s flexibility also enables Bexley to incorporate aspects of the former reporting system into the new tool, allowing us to continue to offer a checklist to staff on how to deal with harassment incidents, whilst offering a system, which automatically collates data and is able to be easily interrogated by staff.

Importantly this solution allows councils to get feedback from the pupils themselves. The Office of Children’s Commissioner has stated: “schools should conduct an annual survey of children and young people’s experiences of bullying…a range of reporting options for children experiencing bullying needs to be made available.” The web-based nature of Sentinel means additional tools can easily be added on such as an on-line survey module that allows the council to measure the attitude and feelings of young people who have experienced or witnessed bullying in school. This gives pupils themselves a chance to comment on the effectiveness of the anti-bullying policies in place, their opinions can then be viewed and acted upon by school management and the council.

Changing mindsets for a better future

I believe it’s time to wipe away the stigma attached to admitting to a problem of bullying in schools. Rather than seeing the reporting of bullying as a negative thing schools need to understand that reporting and recording these incidents demonstrates their clear commitment to stamping out bullying, and in-fact is a vital step towards creating a safe environment for pupils to learn in – and for teachers to teach in. A lot of bullying also goes on outside of the school gates, and as such Bexley plan to roll out Sentinel to early learning and pre-school organisations and youth centres in the area so that children of all ages can benefit from it.

All youngsters and staff in schools have a right and expectation to be free of harassment and bullying wherever they may be. Bexley Council recognises this right and we believe that embracing new ways of monitoring and tackling the issues will help us further achieve that objective and beat the bullies.

Alison Ballantyne supports professionals who work with children and young people with behaviour issues.

(1) http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/wholeschool/behaviour/tacklingbullying/
(2) House of Commons, Education and Skills Committee, Third Report of Session 2006-2007, March 2007