Stand by me

Sarah Wellard reports on a school where the students themselves
are trained and supported to combat bullying.

Kingsbury High School is a large comprehensive built in the
1960s in a leafy north London suburb surrounded by playing fields.
Many of the 2,000 pupils come from middle-class families but the
school also has its share of pupils from disadvantaged homes. The
catchment area covers three council estates, including a new one
where many families have been rehoused from a notorious high-rise
Wembley estate. And, like probably any school in the UK, Kingsbury
also has its share of bullying.

Stephen, a year 13 (lower sixth) student explains that bullying
among the boys is often linked with gang membership, and the
victims are pupils seen by gang leaders as a threat to their own
position in the hierarchy. “It’s often people from
underprivileged families who are in the gangs because they need the
stability. The bullies have an insecurity. They stick together and
have similar attitudes – there’s a racial edge to it.
Everyone tries to fit in because they don’t want to be an

Abbena, also in year 13, believes bullying among girls can be
just as serious. “The girls can be really horrible when they gang
up against someone,” she says. “Everyone will keep onside and be
spiteful. It’s more vicious when the boys do it because
it’s physical, but it’s the emotional scars that you
don’t forget. It makes people feel as though they’re
not worth anything.”

Both students are peer counsellors in the school’s Connect
project, set up in response to concerns about bullying. Around 90
pupils from years 9 to 13 are now involved in the project, acting
as peer supporters and counsellors. They provide a range of
services including playground patrols to watch out for pupils
looking vulnerable, a lunchtime drop-in where people can play games
and talk to supporters, one-to-one counselling and a website
providing confidential advice by e-mail, so students can talk
anonymously to project workers. The project is regarded as a model
of good practice and in 2001 won the Phillip Lawrence Award.

The peer supporters work with strict confidentiality guidelines.
They also have guides setting out what to do if serious issues come
up – abuse, teenage pregnancy, involvement in criminal activity or
drug-taking for example – and when to talk to a teacher or the
school counsellor.

Abbena and Phillip show me round the school, indicating places
where children may be most vulnerable to being picked on. In the
playground there are the usual groups of boys playing football, and
there’s also an informal basketball match going on. Most of
the girls are just hanging around chatting. “We keep an eye on
people who are on their own and aren’t part of a group.”
There is also a courtyard where a mixed group are playing
boisterously – not a teacher in sight, and exactly the kind of
place where bullying might happen.

Abbena explains that peer supporters also keep an eye on what is
going on in the corridors before lessons. “Sometimes you can tell
from body language that something’s not right.” So if they
see something is wrong, do they intervene there and then? As an
older student, Abbena does not find lower school pupils
intimidating and has no qualms about getting involved. But in a
large school where lower school pupils are in a separate building,
she and her fellow sixth formers aren’t often around, which
is one of the reasons why a formalised rota system is helpful. Most
of the patrolling day-to-day is done by peer supporters in Years 10
and 11.

The anti-bullying strategy begins at the end of the summer term
even before pupils start at the school, with peer supporters from
year 9 making visits to talk to year 6 pupils in local primaries.
This year, students performed a play to raise awareness of issues
to do with bullying. Vishmit, in year 10, explains how
Connect’s buddy system works. “When Year 6 come for their
induction, we introduce ourselves so they can get to know us,” he
says. “One of us gets assigned to each form and we make friends
with them. We go in during form periods and play games and things
to create a link.”

Ita MacNamara, assistant head teacher, is the project
co-ordinator. She set up the project 5 years ago with the support
of the then head teacher, who was horrified to find that
three-quarters of pupils responding to a questionnaire said they
had experienced bullying. Kingsbury High was one of six London
schools to get money from the Mental Health Foundation for training
young people in listening skills. MacNamara explains: “Relate
provided training for 55 pupils and the school set up a one-to-one
listening service. Basically it was a waste of space – only six
people turned up. It was the pupils who said we needed to go out to
where they are. So we set up the playground service.”

The next step was to establish assertiveness training for both
victims and perpetrators of bullying, run by peer workers in Year
13 trained by Relate. MacNamara says: “The kids enjoyed it – they
built up a good rapport with the Year 13 peer worker. But we found
we weren’t getting value for money because the peer workers
were leaving. So now the school counsellor does the training,
starting at Year 9.”

She adds: “We’re a big project, but I feel my management
of it is almost at an end. The young people are now taking over and
moving it further forward. One idea is to develop a buddy system
for pupils experiencing problems and at risk of exclusion.”

So how has Connect changed the school? MacNamara says: “A lot of
the staff and pupils feel the atmosphere has got better. The number
of playground fights has gone down. I can’t remember the last
time we had one. The peer workers are the eyes and ears of the
school and they see things happening. They won’t tolerate

It’s no longer acceptable for head teachers to claim:
“Bullying doesn’t happen in this school.” Growing recognition
of the impact bullying can have on children’s achievement as
well as their emotional well-being is forcing schools to give much
greater priority to tackling the issue. New research from the
Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of
Education1 indicates that more than half of secondary
school pupils regard bullying as a problem in their school and a
quarter say they have been bullied themselves “this term.”

According to Simon Blake, assistant director at the National
Children’s Bureau and chairperson of the Peer Support
Network, there has been a big growth in peer support schemes aimed
at tackling bullying over the past four or five years, reflecting a
long overdue shift towards seeing children as partners in
education. Over a decade after the ratification of the UN
Convention on the Rights of the Child. Last year’s Education
Act enshrines in law pupils’ right to a voice in decisions
that affect them.

Helen Cowie, research professor and director of the centre for
peer, family and organisational relationships at the University of
Surrey has carried out several studies on peer support. She found
two main benefits. “One was that the school climate definitely
improved. People became more comfortable about talking things
through. The victims also reported that they were helped – some but
not all of them – but the biggest beneficiaries were the peer
supporters themselves. They became pro-active in helping people and
developed good skills in active listening and empathy.”

In a follow-up study two years later, pupils were taking more
charge of projects and developing ways of working that were more
acceptable to pupils. Cowie says: “They said that pupils
didn’t like going to a special room and so were doing things
like keeping an eye on and just chatting to people at break

She found that boys are just as good as girls at being peer
supporters, but are often less willing to come forward. She says:
“Around 80 per cent of peer supporters are girls. Boys do have the
qualities needed but they are under pressure from their peer group
to be macho. Sometimes it’s a matter of presentation. Boys
don’t want to be involved in counselling so it needs to be
presented as problem-solving and conflict resolution.”

She believes that having male teachers co-ordinating peer
support projects is also helpful: “Eighty per cent of teachers
leading are women so one suggestion is that more men should be
co-ordinators to provide a positive role model.”

So does peer support actually reduce bullying? Cowie says it is
hard to say because pupils may start reporting bullying more once a
project is set up. “But the peer supporters believe it does. They
say the bullies know that people are watching. The perception is
that relationships in the school are better.” She adds, “Bullying
takes so many forms and is quite insidious. No one has really been
able to reduce it dramatically.”

Claude Knights, training manager at the children’s safety
charity Kidscape, is convinced that peer support can be effective.
“Peer support can’t do everything on its own, but the
research shows it does make a difference. It’s about creating
a climate of trust and pupils believing that speaking about
bullying will lead to a positive response. Along with things like a
strong tutor system, having a peer counselling system means younger
members of the school are more likely to tell. They are more likely
to talk to someone closer in age.”

Peer-led anti-bullying projects need to be part of a range of
responses if they are to work. Knights says: “Sometimes we get a
call from a school wanting to set up a project in response to a bad
Ofsted report or a parent badgering them. But it isn’t going
to be effective unless it’s part of a wider anti-bullying
policy and the whole school accepting responsibility for pastoral
care. Everyone from the school secretary and lunchtime assistant to
the maths teacher needs to be on board.”

She adds: “There needs to be lots of work in PSE [personal and
social education] telling young people that the supporters are
there and what they can do to help. Otherwise you get lots of
committed supporters sitting around but you don’t tap into
the worst problems.”

But well-developed peer support projects like the one at
Kingsbury High are still few and far between. Blake says,
“It’s not necessarily financial resource issues that are
holding people back. There are lots of funds available but people
aren’t always accessing them. It’s more to do with
pressures of the curriculum and the focus on standards. People
don’t always see that [peer support] isn’t on the edge
of school life but is right at the heart of it.” Programmes like
the Healthy Schools Initiative, the Children’s Fund and the
Neighbourhood Renewal Fund can also be used to pay for training and
co-ordination costs.

And peer support schemes take several years to develop. Blake
observes, “It’s not a quick-fix solution. People have to
build confidence as supporters and people have to build confidence
in accessing the support. It doesn’t happen overnight.”

1 C Oliver and M Candappa,
Tackling Bullying: Listening to the Views of Children and Young
ople, Department for Education and Skills, 2003

2 H Cowie, & P Wallace,
Peer Support in Action, Sage, 2000

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