Stormont opts out of collating schools’ records of bullying
No central record is kept about the amount of bullying in Northern Ireland’s schools.
This includes the number or severity of incidents, or of ongoing experiences of bullying. Neither the Department of Education (DE) or the Education Authority (EA) collects this information from schools.
An absence of comprehensive data on how bullying is changing over time will make it harder to measure the effectiveness of existing policies and, therefore, more difficult to refine or redesign NI’s approach to bullying.
The decision to not collect this information was a conscious policy choice, based on fears that schools would end up subject to what are effectively league tables of bullying.
The requirements for individual schools to monitor bullying were strengthened in September when the Address Bullying in Schools Act came into effect.
However, the act does not include provision for collecting centralised data that could be used to guide policy. Scope asked the Department of Education whether they or the Education Authority had any plans to keep records about the scale of bullying in schools, and if not, why not.
A Departmental spokesperson said: “The Addressing Bullying in Schools (NI) Act 2016 (“the Act”) requires schools to record incidents of bullying, their motivation and their outcome. The legislation provides an inclusive list of the types of motivations a school would be required to record…
“Concerns were expressed during public consultation on the Act that the data recorded could be used to create league tables of bullying. Hence, there are no plans to collect or publish any information in relation to records of bullying incidents held by schools.
“The Department will be monitoring implementation of the Act including through inspection reviewing schools’ Anti-Bullying Policies. The Department is also considering a broader evaluation of how schools are implementing the requirements of the Act and underpinning guidance.”
The Addressing Bullying in Schools Act makes huge changes to how bullying is dealt with in the education system.
It means all schools must keep a record of all reported incidents of bullying from the moment an allegation is brought to their attention by a pupil, parent or staff member. All recorded incidents must then be reported to the Board of Governors.
Before this academic year, schools each followed their own process of bullying reporting and were under no obligation to keep records.
This may have led to cases of bullying going unnoticed or unresolved. Without being compelled to record every incident brought to their attention, schools were in a position to dismiss anything that they felt were unimportant.
Some bullying may have been written off as a clash of personalities, the victim being oversensitive, or as a one off that could be forgotten about. It also provided leeway for matters to be overlooked based on the personalities or opinions of staff, or of the children and young people involved, rather than on the facts of what happened.
The new Act, if implemented correctly, should leave schools with a far more comprehensive record of any incidents that come to their attention. It will also allow them to identify any internal trends over time.
Given that the nature of any incidents will also be recorded, this should allow schools to keep track of specific issues such as homophobic bullying, racist bullying, and more.
Campaigners such as the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) believe this will leave schools in far stronger shape to address and resolve bullying.
A spokesperson told Scope: “NIABF welcome the new legislation, and although we are aware that there may be some teething issues for schools in the beginning we feel that it will contribute greatly to embedding anti-bullying policy and practice in the core of curriculum delivery.
“NIABF, along with our members, particularly the Education Authority, developed a resource that we believe will support schools through this process. The Effective Response to Bullying Behaviour provides practical advice and guidance including reporting templates.
“In terms of data and research, the most recent piece of research on the nature and extent of pupil bullying in schools in Northern Ireland was conducted ten years ago, in 2011 by the Department of Education. This is now outdated and does not reflect the experiences of our young children and young people in Northern Ireland today.”
The usefulness of data over time is obvious. It is a key part of the new Act, with regards to individual schools, and underpins why the new Act could make huge improvements.
The path chosen by policymakers is one which leaves they themselves short on data in the future. Evolutions or revolutions in anti-bullying initiatives, directives or legislation will be done with less information than might otherwise be the case.
But maybe this is the best choice? Their argument – that collation of data which would ultimately be available to the public, on request, might cause more headaches than it cures – is plausible.
In May this year, ahead of the implementation of the new Act, officials from both DE and the EA appeared before the Education Committee at Stormont.
In response to a question about the extent of bullying that takes place in schools each year, Ricky Irwin, from DE, told the committee: “[W]e do not gather stats on that. It is an issue that was raised when the legislation was going through the Assembly in 2015-16. Concerns were raised by Members and schools that, if the Department were to gather and publish statistics, it would result in league tables of bullying in schools.
“Once the legislation commences in September, it will be important that the Department have processes in place to look at the effectiveness of the legislation. We will therefore have to commission processes of evaluation and try to look at thematic research. Our work will not stop come September, when the legislation commences. We will have to look at how we are proactive in the area of bullying. For example, what works? What does not work? What can we strengthen? How can we best support schools?”
Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan followed up by saying that not publishing league tables of bullying makes sense, but that not holding any information that can be used to help measure and understand the scale of bullying makes it difficult to know if the issue is improving or getting worse.
Gillian Cuthbert, from the EA, said: “When we look at bullying behaviour and at what we can do to support schools, it is necessary that we have a firm understanding of its prevalence, nature and extent… The data is important. In the Education Authority, we track the data of calls that come to us from parents and schools.”
Data is undoubtedly useful, but there are fears that information held by a given school could be used unfairly against that school.
For instance, if a school is both particularly watchful for bullying (and therefore a high rate of incidents come to its attention) and particularly thorough about keeping records, its data might give the impression it is a bad place for bullying when the truth is the opposite.
This could even reward schools that either miss incidents or which make some effort to sweep bullying under the carpet.
The role of data in both developing policy and measuring its effectiveness continues to grow. Indeed, Stormont’s outcomes-based approach, in place since 2016, weaves the tracking of data into its central business.
It is fascinating, therefore, to see how government might choose to effectively opt out of holding useful information – and to do so for understandable reasons.
Whether, on balance, this is the best approach is very difficult to know. For politicians and officials, this is a case of picking your poison. Let’s hope they’ve chosen well.
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