Pastoral Management of Cyberbullying in Schools

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 14 December 2016
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

Getting the pastoral dimension right in a school is a vital cornerstone in building a successful, high achieving educational community. In trying to describe and explain the essential features of such a community I can find no better analogy than the pond ecosystems we all studied in Biology class. Everything in the pond/school is connected to everything else. If any of the complex relationships are out of balance then it cannot function effectively. In this new austere era of budget cuts, it is harder than ever to ring fence expensive staff time for pastoral care work. As school leaders struggle to make ends meet with timetables and curriculum I worry that essential pastoral care will lose out and our educational ecosystems will begin to degrade and become infected by toxic elements which will flourish like algae bloom in an unattended pond. Perhaps the quickest growing unwelcome weed in our ponds/schools today is cyberbullying. Mona O Moore of Trinity College Dublin has published a major survey on the incidence level of cyber-bullying in Irish schools in the Journal of Pastoral Care in Education 2012. She defines cyberbullying as including text message bullying, the sending of pictures and video clips via mobile telephones, threatening calls, emails, instant messages and abuse via social networking sites and chat rooms. The research confirms that one in five students were found to be involved either as a cyber-bully or victim.

The legal position in schools in Northern Ireland is most closely defined in Article 19 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which amends Article 3 of the Education (NI) Order 1998 on school discipline policies.

The Order requires:

“That the Principal, when deciding on measures which will be used to encourage good behaviour in the school, must specifically include measures to prevent bully/victim problems among pupils and that the Principal must consult with pupils and parents (DENI, 2003).”  

Research locally confirms that the vast majority of Principals in Northern Ireland have been adopting a proactive stance in relation to the development, implementation and communication of anti - bullying policies for many years but the new cyberbullying issue now complicates the issue considerably both legally and practically. Existing advice from The Department of Education can be found on the following link.

However, it only provides links to older guidance like the Promoting Positive Behaviour book of 2001 and contacts for organisations like Kidscape, The Anti-Bullying network and Kidsmart.

Research published by the Department of Education in 2011 on The Nature and Extent of Pupil Bullying in Schools in the North of Ireland by RSM McClure Watters,  found that:

“Almost one-third of teaching and non-teaching staff in schools highlighted cyberbullying as becoming a more prevalent type of bullying and as having a widespread reach and the capability of spreading at an alarming rate. They point out that the extent to which cyber-bullying is a problem is unknown as it is very difficult for schools to monitor and identify. However, teaching staff are aware of incidents becoming more frequent as pupils are reporting them more often.”

A more recent Report on Cyberbullying for the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South in September 2013 by Dr Noel Purdy Stranmillis University College and Dr Conor Mc Guckin School of Education Trinity College, also charts the rise of the problem but additionally sets out to explore the current legislation in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with regard to cyberbullying and in particular the legal responsibilities of schools. 

In their research, post-primary teachers reported that while some younger post-primary pupils still used text/instant messages to cyberbully, there was a worrying rise in incidents among older pupils using social media sites where perpetrators were more sophisticated in their use of technology and better able to disguise their identity.

A second theme to emerge from the research was the relationship between home and school, and in particular the role of parents. Teachers report that there seems to be less interest shown by parents in attending training sessions and that some felt that parents unfairly see it as the school’s responsibility to deal with any cyberbullying incidents which might occur, no matter how complex and time-consuming. The report stresses that is a lack of clarity in relation to the boundaries between school and home in cases of cyberbullying which happen out of school, but which inevitably spill over into  school the following day, putting  school leaders in the unenviable position of trying to unravel complex bullying incidents. Schools do appear to be trying to prepare for this new threat with (93%) of those surveyed organising training on cyber safety. However, school leaders seem to rely more on their network of colleagues in other schools rather than the statutory agencies for help and advice when problems arise.

Legal-Island/ASCL ran a very well supported training event on this topic in February 2016, which clearly demonstrated the need for guidance and the anxiety among schools about this problem.

The report concluded that school leaders lacked confidence regarding the legal parameters of their responsibility in relation to cyberbullying incidents outside school hours. There also appeared to be variations between schools, with some refusing to deal with cases which began out of school, and others which felt a moral duty to respond to all reported cases.

The legal reality appears to be that there is not one single law or crime, but instead, individual cases which require individual responses which depend, for example, on the age of the child involved. Once an issue manifests itself in school regardless of where it originated then it must surely be a pastoral school concern.

This piece of work clarifies the concerns of school leaders in needing more training and support, especially on the legal position regarding the blurred lines of responsibility between home and school and in providing up-to-date training and resources to be made available to schools as they try to prepare pupils to deal safely and appropriately with the Internet. I really like this extract from the Home Office Byron Review on Child Safety and The Internet.

“Children and young people need to be empowered to keep themselves safe. Children will be children – pushing boundaries and taking risks. At a public swimming pool we have gates, put up signs, have lifeguards and shallow ends, but we also teach children how to swim.” (DCSF Home Office Department for Children, Schools and Families - Byron Review, 2008,)

I know that school leaders instinctively work to protect the quality of relationships and safety of both pupils and staff in our school ecosystems by having effective pastoral staff who really know the children and take ownership of their wellbeing. Schools and their leaders and teachers, therefore, deserve every possible support in facing this new reality and particularly legal guidance that keeps better pace with the problems of children’s daily life experience.


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This article is correct at 14/12/2016

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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