3 Nov 2003

Western Education and Library Board – Launch of Anti-Bullying Poster Campaign and Policy, Omagh Library

Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People

“Prevention is better than cure” is an old saying that could very appropriately be applied to the issue of bullying. That is why I am so pleased to be present today at this launch of both an awareness campaign about bullying and also the Board’s new policy on combating bullying. Both measures are designed with one aim in mind – to reduce the amount of bullying that happens both within and outside schools in this area.

The policy being launched today shows how Board staff, right from the Chairman and Chief Executive right through to all the support teams, should play their part in combating bullying, and to deal effectively with bullying where it does occur.

As the first Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland, having been in post for only a month, it is already clear to me that confronting and dealing with bullying is a key issue which all of us – pupils, parents, teachers, advisors, Board staff – need to deal with. I believe it goes to the heart of my own mission, as set out in the legislation that established my office – that is to “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children”.

The fundamental right of all children is to be accepted and loved for who they are, whatever their background may be. It doesn’t matter who a child’s parents are (after all none of us chose our parents); what ethnic, religious, or cultural grouping we were born into; whether a child is rich or poor, fat or thin, apparently intelligent or a bit slow; whether a child is athletic or has a disability. No matter what each child’s background may be, he or she has a right to grow up being accepted for who they are, a right to an education in a safe, tolerant environment.

It is when those fundamental rights are not valued that problems begin. At a global scale such ignoring of rights is what leads to many conflicts and wars. At a local scale in schools dotted throughout this area, putting aside these fundamental rights leads to bullying, and torment for many children.

I see that the policy has an excellent description of what bullying is – describing it as “a use of power to intentionally harm others”. I would like to offer my own definition “Bullying is what happens when people won’t accept others for who they are”.

At worst bullying can make individual children’s lives a misery. It can include name calling, being ostracised, having tricks constantly played on you, and of course physical violence. A good friend of mine in Canada, Bill Belsey tells the story of how a school near where he lived suffered one of the spate of school shootings that happened in North America a few years ago. A 14 year old boy died in the shooting trying to protect his class mates.

It turned out that the pupil who had pulled the trigger that day had been a victim of serious bullying. Sadly the pressure so built up from relentless taunts that he resorted to violence himself to get even. Bill Belsey was so troubled by these events that he set up a web site www.bullying.org to provide a place for young people who were being bullied to tell their story, through words, art or music.

Thankfully, very few cases of bullying end up with loss of life. But as the posters we are launching today make clear, “everyone hurts sometimes”, and mild forms of bullying are much more common than we think. And all of us need to be alert because bullying will adapt to the circumstances in which individual children find themselves. Let me give a few examples:

  • Mobile phones have become a feature in bullying. For example, text bullying is very common, and is often a way that those who are less physically strong but are clever with words can psychologically taunt others. Mobiles are also now the most prized possession of most young people – the thing they would least like to do without out. Not surprisingly bullies will try and pinch victims mobile phones – hide them, or press them to do something to get their phone back.
  • Journeys to School - can often be a peak time for bullying. I was at a rural school in another part of Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, and some of the year 8 pupils told me how they dreaded the journey home because that was when older pupils threatened and pushed them around. That is an important issue in this Board area, where so many pupils have a bus journey to school
  • Changing fashions – pupils are often made fun of because they don’t have the trendiest gear, the latest trainers, or because their taste in music is just out of sync with their peers. School uniform can help prevent such issues, but frankly, young people are just too skilled in embellishing the standard uniform with more fashionable ways of wearing it… it is still possible to be bullied for what you wear, even when everyone is supposed to be wearing the same.

I think the Board is right to underpin its efforts in responding to bullying by preparing a detailed policy that all its staff will need to follow. The key area in which I am especially interested is how schools can respond in making their environments more inclusive, so that everyone feels more valued and bullying is less likely to happen.

I was talking to one of my daughters at the week-end, who is now at art college, but had a very tough time shortly after transferring from primary school She told me that she felt much more had to be done to get pupils themselves to combat bullying. Pupils need to feel that they have a role in looking out for each other and in participating in decisions that affect them.
I recently had an opportunity to visit a school in Sweden – an unusual school in our terms, because it was for 6-16 year olds. I met with a group of the pupils who described to me both how they were involved in the life of the school, and how they approached the issue of “harassment” as they called it. Each year – right from the six year olds upwards – had their own form council which took real decisions affecting the school, and had the opportunity to manage a small budget. Two pupils also sat on the governing body of the school with responsibility for whole school decisions.

So this was a school where the pupils had a very real stake in how things were done. They also had a system where each form had its own anti bullying group. For the younger forms, older pupils sat in on these groups. Once a fortnight reps from all the groups got together with teachers to discuss any issues that were arising. The school found that this peer to peer system of pupils helping each other deal with incidents in a responsible way, looking out for any pupils that seemed left out or picked upon, was a very effective way of reducing and dealing with bullying.

Well Omagh is not Stockholm, and our systems are different. But I do think that there are lessons we can learn from this and other approaches around the world. As the Western Board staff advise and help schools to implement the anti bullying policy I would like to suggest a few initiatives they might consider:

  • Focus on the atmosphere in schools – it is important to encourage a caring environment where everyone is valued for who they are. This may mean looking carefully at providing avenues for everyone to shine at something, so that we give opportunities for everyone to be popular – undermining a key reason for bullying.
  • Promote a listening culture – we can only combat bullying if children feel able to say what is wrong. We need to provide lots of avenues within schools for pupils to share how things are going. This is about extensive and effective pastoral care. It is about trying new initiatives like some schools have with external counsellors spending two to three days a week in the school. It is about helping pupils listen to and support each other.
  • Encourage Pupil Involvement – I am convinced that a key strategy against bullying and for improving an appreciation of individual children’s rights within schools is to promote participation by the pupils in real decision making. As Commissioner I hope I can encourage the growth in number and effectiveness of school councils in Northern Ireland. We may not have children on school governing bodies for some time to come – although I personally would support such a move – but we can get pupils much more involved in decisions about how their school is organised on a day to day basis.

I would once again like to congratulate the Western Education and Library Board for the initiatives they have launched today. I know the Board members and staff here know that this is just the beginning of the road, which will carry on through much work in individual schools and in other contexts. I will watch progress with interest, and I hope in particular that the Western Board will be open to encouraging even more initiatives in schools that give pupils a say in running their own affairs.