School climate key to tackling bullying in schools

School climate key to tackling bullying in schools

School climate key to tackling bullying in schools

ISPCC Shield

Today marks The National Day of Action, part of the ISPCC’s Shield Campaign to stand up against bullying. The Shield Campaign, now in its third year, aims to offer a positive and proactive response to bullying in schools through the provision of a self-evaluative toolkit. Brian O’Driscoll is this year’s Shield ambassador adding to the already healthy celebrity weigh-in supporting this worthy appeal over its short history.

Recent reports indicate that there has been a significant increase in the incidence of cyber-bullying. Just last week, The Irish Times published research by the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, (NAPD) which found that 16 per cent of students have experienced bullying online – a 33 per cent increase on last year or a 4 percentage point rise in reported incidence.

Data like this is worrying for parents and educators alike, and leads us to probe the reasons behind this continuing anti-social behaviour – and more – an impulse to want to ‘fix’ the problem.

It’s important to consider the context in which this reported increase has occurred. Undoubtedly, there is an upward trend in smart phone ownership which cannot be overlooked. The eircom Household Sentiment Survey (eHSS) conducted in the second quarter of 2013 found a dramatic 11 % increase in device ownership since the publication of the previous eHSS report in 2012.

Although there are consumer factors which may account for the rise in incidences, these do not take away from the core issue: bullying and increasingly, cyber-bullying are real issues facing young people in Ireland today.

Young people know it. Schools know it and the government knows it. Research conducted by the Department of Education and Skills found that 79% of teachers in Ireland were aware of homophobic bullying in their schools. The Minister of Education, was on hand this week to launch the fifth annual ‘Stand up! Awareness Week’ – a government funded campaign aimed at tackling homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools. Stand Up! is organised by the national organisation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender young people – ‘BeLonG To’ – and will run from 7th – 10th March. Educational packs have already been sent out to schools.

So with all parties on the same page, the movement has significant momentum – surely all this education won’t fall on deaf ears and do what it’s intended to do – reduce the incidences of bullying on a nationwide scale.

But are we missing a piece of the puzzle? Perhaps so. Meaningful, lasting behavioural change requires more than the provision of educational toolkits or awareness campaigns. Such campaigns are undoubtedly necessary, extremely valuable and appropriately targeted. But, we’re talking more than education here; we talking about a cultural shift and that cannot happen in isolation.

Schools are not islands. They are embedded in our society and reflect much of the mores of our Irish society at large. Children take their leads from us the adults, the teachers, the parents, the politicians, the sportspeople and the celebrities.

Bullying and cyber-bullying in schools is magnified and intensified by the very nature of the environment of school and is felt acutely by young people in the most formative years of their lives. It can have devastating effects on the self-esteem and social development of our richest resource – the next generation.

That is why it is imperative that we find a real solution. And the only way in which we can truly and consistently reduce the incidence of cyber-bullying or other anti- social behaviour is in creating school climates which will not tolerate such behaviours. It is a cultural necessity and can only be achieved by dedicating our energies to ensuring that everything we do and say and every action we perform on a daily basis models the behaviours which we want to foster in our young people.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, the climate of the school is the single most important factor determining the successful adoption of tolerance and respect amongst young people in schools. Without a whole-school culture of acceptance embedded into the fabric of schools, schools will struggle to implement stand-alone programmes promoting tolerance such as Stand Up! – or the ISPCC’s Shield Campaign or any other embracive initiative. They may have a short-term impact but that, of course, is not the desired outcome.

Consider a school that places student self-expression and independent thought at the centre of its curriculum. Consider a school that is built to support student diversity and not uniformity; a space where all abilities – academic, sporting, social, organisational and artistic are placed on an even playing ground and given equal weight. And where designing a curriculum which focuses on the strengths of each student forms the basis for enhanced learning and personal development.

Then and only then will we truly get to grips with developing an educational environment which supports a truly compassionate learning space for our young people.