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Addressing the real scale...

Weighing scales

The Government's updated guidelines on tackling bullying are welcome, says Allan Foulds. But focusing on data collection could undermine schools' ability to deal with the problems. 

Any government which promotes a young person's inalienable right to learn in a safe and supportive environment, free from the spectre of bullying and intimidation, is to be applauded.

The recently published Safe to Learn guidance from the DCSF is timely and has much useful information to steer schools in terms of their responsibilities in safeguarding young people. Particularly welcome are the associated guidance documents relating to cyberbullying and homophobia.

It is fitting to take a fresh look at new technologies and the central role they play in young people's lives. It is also appropriate to focus on an issue relevant to prejudicial behaviour, although perhaps helpful to remember that homophobia is, sadly, but one in an alarmingly long list of these.

However I have some worries when I read the department's recommendation "that schools should record all incidents of bullying, including by type, and report the statistics to their local authority". The guidance goes on to say that "the purpose of reporting incidents to the local authority is to enable the gathering of information on the number and nature of bullying incidents and to identify any developing trends".

This seems laudable enough. However, the further assertions that "the local authority can (then) analyse the information gathered from schools to identify any issues of particular concern" and "this will enable the authority to be better informed in the development of appropriate strategies to tackle bullying across their area" are, I believe, essentially flawed. They may, in fact, have the opposite effect.

The tendency of those who work outside schools to gather endless data and assume its validity can lead them to make assumptions which are incorrect. Who is to say that one school's interpretation of what constitutes a recordable bullying event compares with another school's?

One school may set a different threshold from another before interpreting an incident as worthy of recording. A school which feels under pressure to respond to demands for data may divert resources towards its capture instead of responding as effectively as it can to the needs of a young person suffering bullying.

More than numbers

I am all for monitoring. To do this purposefully across the range of a school's activities is an aspect of effective leadership. It is necessary to build up a clear and accurate picture of reality in order to take effective action and bring about further improvement.

In terms of bullying, it seems relevant to monitor the school's activities in a number of ways. The cornerstones of an effective anti-bullying stance appear to be the responsiveness of staff and the willingness of young people to be open and to disclose any difficulty they are experiencing.

I would add to this students' awareness of the school's policy, the action and beliefs they can adopt to minimise bullying and the specific avenues of disclosure they can use should they observe bullying or be bullied themselves. These areas could define the territory for rigorous, effective monitoring and for action for improvement.

The data source must be the 'consumer'. In other words, student perception is key to establishing a clear, relevant, honest and rounded view of how things are and what needs to be improved.

I am also all for accountability. We are hardly short of this in schools. I recognise and agree fully with the view that 'every child matters'. Regular and rigorous objective and external inspection validates a school's self-evaluation.

I am confident I will have a better view of the general health of my school community in relation to bullying if my school keeps a sharp eye on what really matters. I do not wish to be put under pressure to divert precious resources in a way which may cause someone to take their eye off the ball and therefore not intervene as quickly and effectively when a young person needs help.

As we all know, nothing got fatter by being constantly weighed.

Allan Foulds is the head of Droitwich Spa High School - Specialist Sports College in Worcestershire and a member of ASCL Council.

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