Headteachers are to be given the right to apply for new-style ‘Asbos’ – injunctions – against bullies. But it’s not a power that headteachers want at all, finds Louise Tickle
“It started in primary. It was the usual: ‘you’re fat, you’re ugly,’” says Tiegan Meadows, 13, who goes to Passmores academy in Harlow, Essex. “Every day the group got bigger, and eventually in year 5 I got punched in the face.” Fellow pupil Shannon Wood, 14, says that her experience of being bullied began in primary school as well. “Even kids younger than me were taking the mick out of my height all the time. I had to move schools.”
And Mikey Clark, 15, felt so intimidated by bullies he also switched primary schools – but still some children picked on him. “I was bullied in year 7 here, too,” he says. “It affected my confidence. After a long time of people saying things to you, you believe it.”
Bullying concerns all parents and teachers, and here at Passmores, like many schools, the staff make strenuous efforts to control it. The headteacher, Vic Goddard, says every school needs to accept that bullying is going to occur, and learn strategies to tackle it.
The charity Beat Bullying says that 44% of child suicides are related to bullying and that thousands of children suffer prolonged fear and misery due to bullying. But even the bullying charities are now campaigning against new moves by the government intended to curb bullying. If the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing bill goes through, pupils who bully could find themselves getting not simply a detention or exclusion, but having an injunction slapped on them. Once subject to a crime prevention injunction (which under this bill replaces the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, or Asbo), a child who breaches it – and seven out of 10 breach their Asbo – can receive a six-month supervision order, which can involve an electronic tag, a curfew and supervision by the local youth offending team. In serious cases, those over 14 can be given a three-month prison sentence.
And thanks to an amendment tabled last month by Tracey Crouch, the Tory MP for Chatham and Aylesford, and passed at committee stage by 10 votes to eight, headteachers are to be given the same powers to apply to court for an injunction as a chief police officer, local authority or the secretary of state.
Anti-bullying pressure groups are taking what might be seen as an unusual stand in defence of children who bully others. They say criminalising bullies is most likely to lead to a spiral of trouble, and want both injunctions against bullying and the amendment giving heads the power to apply for them, to be scrapped.
“Bullies have often been victims of bullying themselves, and you have to deal with the causes,” explains Ross Hendry, chair of the Anti-Bullying Alliance. The bill will not be effective in tackling bullying, he says, and runs the risk of criminalising young people who do not deserve it.
“We are concerned that as soon as a young person is placed on the youth justice pathway, they stand a greater chance of being sucked into a lifestyle that will lead to criminal behaviour,” says Hendry.
Having heard of two recent child suicides attributed to bullying, Crouch says that her intention was to introduce a measure that does not instantly criminalise children, but provides for positive interventions to change behaviour. She says she spoke to lots of young people, campaigners and headteachers before tabling the amendment. She was not able to put Education Guardian in touch with headteachers who supported the move, though. One head Crouch did speak to, Carol Winn, the head at Fort Pitt grammar school in Chatham, Kent, says she “would doubt” whether she would use injunctions and says that exclusion is already a tough sanction. Crouch says, however, that when she spoke to students at Fort Pitt, their comment was: “The type of people who do bullying are just going to say it’s a day off”.
Permanent exclusion “just passes the problem on to another school,” Crouch says. “The good thing about the injunction is that it comes with requirements for permanent change. It’s really an opportunity to get in and change the behaviour of the bully, and it protects the victim.”
At Passmores, however, Goddard is scathing. “It’s much easier to point big sticks than to look at the causes,” he says. “Those involved in bullying will often be from our most vulnerable families. For me, there is enough law already. If it’s used well, it’s effective.”
This amendment, he says, is dangerous. “It’s a fine line you have to walk between school and parents, and then the [bullied child's] parents might come in and say, right, injunct them!”
Tackling destructive behaviour patterns is long-term work, says Goddard. “It’s tough for heads to accept that there’s bullying in their schools,” he acknowledges. “In the year 6 open evening [for children arriving from primary], I always talk about bullying, and I tell parents: ‘If you want your pound of flesh, I won’t give it to you.’ My approach is about changing that bully’s behaviour, which is not necessarily about punishment. Criminalising that? Just no! Disadvantage is being criminalised enough at the moment.”
Goddard has only once, in his first year of headship, permanently excluded a pupil for persistent, serious bullying. The memory still makes him shudder. “It was a complete disaster. A failure. I just felt I’d sent a bully off to bully someone else, at the Children’s Support Service where other vulnerable children go. They would be her next victims. That’s the ultimate failure for a school.”
Goddard employs the approach of “unconditional positive regard“, which he believes offers a good way to challenge bullies while giving them the best possible chance to reform. “Children here understand that no matter what they’ve done in the past, they will be given a chance,” he says. “That is the core of this school. It’s about feeling valued and cared for, and that’s preventative.”
There appears to have been little consultation with headteachers or their representatives as to whether the amendment was wanted or required.
“I knew nothing about it, and that says an awful lot about the way things are happening at the moment,” says Tony Ryan, headteacher at Chiswick school.
“I was bullied as a kid, and I can still remember what it felt like. And I don’t want any kid in my school to go through that. But I’m not sure it’s a head’s job to take out injunctions. Much of our work involves getting parents onside, and serving an injunction on children as young as 10 is not the best way to do that, when more often than not they can be the hardest to engage with anyway. We want to be on the front foot, this puts us on the back foot.”
The Association of School and College Leaders says the measure is unnecessary. And Chris Keates, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says: “It’s inappropriate: it puts headteachers in the front line not just in school, but also in their community, because these powers range outside school.”
Holding a headteacher responsible for how they use these powers could become very difficult, she warns: “The head is only head in their school, they have no wider accountability in the wider community.”
“I’ll use any power I’m given if it’ll help young people,” says Goddard. “But I don’t think this will. It’s an easy way out for politicians, but it’s an incredibly difficult way out for heads.”
Law | theguardian.com