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Recording and Monitoring Bullying Incidents

What is the truth about levels of bullying in Edinburgh's schools? (See BBC News article here)

The Council is encouraged by figures that seem to point to a downward trend but education director, Roy Jobson, rightly described this as "a drop in the reported figures overall." (my emphasis) His caution is well justified. Bullying amongst children is still very much a hidden problem. It often happens in places that adults cannot see, or in subtle ways that adults do not notice.

Teachers can only record those incidents of bullying or racism which they see, or about which they are told. I have yet to meet a teacher who could see through walls, and we know from research that many children who are being bullied don't tell adults. Children have good reasons for this, ranging from the fear of retaliation to worries about an adult doing something which will make the bullying worse. There must be a real possibility therefore that bullying statistics which depend solely on adult reports of the problem may seriously underestimate real levels.

Another reason to be cautious about drawing conclusions from these figures is the fact that the Council encourages its schools to adopt a very broad definition of bullying and then leaves it up to teachers to use their professional judgement in deciding whether or not to record a particular incident. Inevitably, some teachers will be more vigilant than others but there must be a real concern about reporting practices in the twenty Edinburgh schools that recorded absolutely no incidents of bullying or racism over a two year period. This is simply not credible. Bullying happens in all schools. There should be no shame in admitting to that. What is shameful is pretending that a problem that can drive some children and their families to the edge of despair does not exist. Honesty and openness are the keys to tackling this problem.

We must therefore congratulate Edinburgh Council for leading the way in Scotland in recording bullying and racist incidents in its schools. The Authority is now in a position to identify those schools that need to improve their anti-bullying policies and to commend those which have good practice. It is useful for teachers to hear about the examples of good practice listed in the report, such as the pupil focus group at Roseburn Primary School, which was invited to comment on school discipline, or the anti-bullying posters, music and poetry produced by the pupils of Gracemount High School.

We should also congratulate those Edinburgh schools which have tried to be honest about levels of bullying - and about the difficulties that their teachers, pupils and parents face in tackling this problem. Spending time making accurate records allows patterns of behaviour, which may appear trivial incidents on their own, to be identified. We can easily underestimate the effect of constant bullying on a child if we do not understand that it may involve nothing less than the subtle and persistent wearing away of that child's confidence and self esteem. Good recording procedures also allow head teachers to demonstrate the responses that have been made to particular bullying incidents - which is useful in the event of a dispute about how bullying incidents have been handled - and can help them to respond better in the future. Ever present in the back of teachers' minds is the possibility of legal actions being launched by pupils or parents who feel they have been failed by their schools, but this should not be the main reason for making records about incidents of bullying and the way that they have been tackled. The courts are the wrong place to seek quick answers to such problems, as was shown by the action that Debby Scott took out against Lothian Regional Council. That took ten years to resolve.

Will other Councils follow Edinburgh's lead and publish figures for bullying in their own schools? At the moment it seems unlikely. Most haven't and the few that have have been very careful about the information that has been released. Seeing the way that different interpretations have been made of Edinburgh's figures justifies this caution. Some commentators have said that they show a reduction in levels of bullying, others that they show an increase. Both are wrong. As Roy Jobson implied, all that they show us is the number of cases of bullying and racism which various teachers, using their various interpretations of the Council's guidelines, chose to report.

There is no national collection of reports of violence or bullying against pupils but, for the last few years, the Scottish Executive has collected and published statistics of violence against teachers. This was an anomaly which might have been seen as sending out a message that violence against pupils was less important than violence against teachers. In fact, the real explanation as to why there are no national bullying figures probably lies in the difficulty of finding an accurate method of collecting them. The Scottish Executive recently announced that it would discontinue the current annual national collection of incidents of violence and anti-social behaviour against staff because it was "insufficiently robust." It might be possible for us to criticise Edinburgh's figures for similar reasons but this would only be justified if we were to draw unjustified conclusions from the limited, but very useful, information they provide.

The truth about levels of bullying in Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland remains elusive. It would be wrong to use these figures alone to try to prove that things are getting better - or worse. The truth about how school managers, teachers, parents and pupils are struggling to find better ways to tackle this very real problem is easier to discern. Edinburgh's innovative policies are contributing to this national and world-wide process.

Andrew Mellor
Manager
Anti-Bullying Network

Article printed in the Edinburgh Evening News, 10.2.05