Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 8 October 2019
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

In this month’s Cassidy’s Comments, Frank discusses the impact that the ‘Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016’ would have for schools, not least the administrative burden required by the (now paused) Act.  He states that this Act and the accompanying comprehensive guidance are clear responses to the lack of consensus between wider society and schools on how pupil interaction and inevitable problems should be described and resolved and it is perhaps therefore wise that further dialogue is undertaken to address Trade Union concerns. 

On August 29th, 2019 the Department of Education wrote to all school principals to inform them that in the light of Trade Union concerns, the planned implementation of the ‘Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016’ would be paused to allow dialogue on the matter. They pointed out that;

“Given the overwhelming consensus identified during public consultation on the Act, that bullying remains a significant problem within our schools and that legislation is needed, the Department remains committed to bringing the Act into operation as soon as possible”.

The rollout of the 2016 Act is underpinned by published guidance and training provided by the Education Authority. Their headline messages clearly set out the proposed legal imperatives to governors and school managers in relation to bullying. They direct that schools must comply with the legislative definition and have an anti-bullying policy fit for purpose regularly updated with preventative measures.  Additionally, governors must also ensure the Anti-Bullying Policy is properly implemented and that preventative measures are kept under review so that it is fit for purpose and reflects engagement with the whole school community.  Most interestingly EA highlight that schools must record incidents of bullying and alleged bullying behaviours including the motivation, method and how each incident was addressed together with the outcomes on the schools’ computer database, SIMS.

The meticulous codifying and collection of information requirements in particular have sparked alarm in the teaching unions as it undoubtedly will mean a great deal of additional time for teachers addressing bullying incidents.  Given the current budget cuts, teacher time is a very scarce commodity and I have already written in this column about the pressure on pastoral care time in the school day in the context of “austerity timetabling”.

A number of new pressures are impacting on the ability of schools to deal effectively with this scourge.  The dominance of social media and online activity in young people’s lives make this often the most prevalent bullying context. Again, previously in this column I have looked at the new approaches’ schools are developing to safeguard their pupils from cyber bullying.  Changes to previously shared norms and values in wider society and a new confidence in challenging status quo arrangements have meant that schools are having to be more flexible and accommodating. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, former contract-based agreements between parents and schools on discipline, uniform codes hair styles, mobile phone use etc. are now much more difficult to put in place. As a former school principal, I continue to believe that securing consensus and total alignment between teachers and parents on how pupils behave and are treated is an essential pre-requisite for successful classroom management, a safe school environment and pupil academic and personal success.

Listening this week to a debate on Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show on pupil hair styles I was struck by the fixation of some parents on a pupil’s right for total freedom of self-expression and how schools were wrong to believe that insisting on rules around dyed hair for example was in anyway related to their potential academic success.

Certainly, giving opportunities for pupil input through school councils and consultation on policy drafting, as The Anti Bullying Act suggests is essential.  If we are to continue to educate children together in classroom settings and encourage them to prepare for a future role in adult and working life, we must agree that as schools are microcosms of society, then the norms on agreed standards of behaviour and workplace appearance should apply.  Our young people are depending on us to set clear moral frameworks within which they can feel secure.  We are doing them no kindness to surrender to their passing whims and responses to perceived peer group pressures.  That said, we must respect their individuality and treat everyone with kindness and compassion.  I got some great advice from an older teacher once regarding managing sixth form pupils - he said; “they don’t need you to be their friend – they have enough friends of their own. They need you to be their teacher”. Setting boundaries, inspiring greater achievement and constantly reminding them of the fact that anything of value can only be achieved through self-discipline and effort should be our focus as parents and teachers.

On the same Nolan Show there was much discussion about whether older pupils in school should be treated as adults or children? My experience is that they can be either or both at different moments during school life.  Even sixth formers can abdicate their adultness at times and behave childishly, but the problem comes when they then reassert their adult persona when called to account.  The skill of the teacher in such circumstances is in moving seamlessly from” in loco parentis” to work colleague status and back again.

This Act and the accompanying comprehensive guidance are clear responses to the lack of consensus between wider society and schools on how pupil interaction and inevitable problems should be described and resolved, hence the exhaustive, politically correct, codifying of motivation and the legal accountability driven collation of evidence and actions taken.

The Department of Education has been working alongside the N Ireland Anti Bullying Forum, which is funded by the Department and is under the leadership of The National Children’s Bureau. The Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) which brings together over 25 regional statutory and voluntary sector organisations, is committed to stopping the bullying of children and young people in our schools and in our communities. It supports schools to develop effective anti-bullying policy and practice and provides resources to help them communicate strong anti-bullying messages to their pupils. Their current initiative is the planned Anti Bullying week beginning on November 11th 2019.

I know from personal experience how delicate and difficult the resolution of bullying problems can be.  I also know that good pastoral care in schools with well trained staff with dedicated time is the best way of preventing problems before they develop.  If this issue is as big a priority as The Department of Education say, then it must be given adequate funding and status in schools.  I agree with the union concerns that if schools are to follow this excellent, comprehensive guidance and be accountable for its full implementation, then the time and money must be given to do it properly.

Useful sources of advice on dealing with bullying

DE website toolkit advice Northern Ireland Anti Bullying Forum

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This article is correct at 08/10/2019
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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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