THERE are few things more distressing for a parent than the realisation or suspicion that one’s child is being bullied. Bullying of course, is nothing new. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, written in 1857, featured the vile bully, Flashman.

Somewhat more recently, MSP Willie Rennie voiced concern about extreme incidents occurring in schools across Scotland. Disturbing footage had emerged of a young girl being kicked and punched at a school in Mr Rennie’s constituency. Similar incidents in schools in the Highlands and Glasgow areas have also been filmed on mobile phones and posted online.

Those incidents have attracted attention because thankfully, they are still relatively uncommon. Drawing on my own experience, I don’t believe present-day schools are more violent than when I started out in 1970. Back then, violent incidents, pupil on pupil and, in the days of corporal punishment, teacher on pupil, were a daily occurrence.

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What has changed however, is the nature of bullying. As a headteacher, I found physical bullying relatively easy to detect and address. It was the insidious, but equally harmful varieties, that were more difficult to identify and resolve. There’s little doubt we have a problem. The Scottish Government Health and Wellbeing Census 2021–2022, suggests almost a third of P5 to S3 pupils experienced bullying in the previous year.

Bullying can take many forms. The violence highlighted by Willie Rennie is simply the most visible. Name calling, for example, usually occurs amongst younger children. It can be difficult to detect and prove. Too often, it’s trivialised as “banter”; sticks and stones and all that. Deliberate exclusion from a social group is particularly hurtful and, like name calling, can occur over a long period of time. It’s more common amongst girls and can lead to genuine mental and emotional harm. Its sly and insidious nature makes it more difficult to address and resolve.

Consequently, schools sometimes take name calling and social exclusion less seriously than they should. Additionally, too many schools are in denial that they have a bullying problem or don’t even know a problem exists.

The real game changer however, has been the mobile phone and social media. Ten years ago, a violent incident would have had a limited audience. Beyond the school gates, there would have been little awareness of what had occurred.

Nowadays, mobile phones and social media ensure events such as those in Fife and Highland are immediately in the public domain. Sometimes before staff are even aware something has happened. There’s little doubt easy and widespread distribution has contributed to copycat incidents.

At one time, bullying was usually face to face, confined to the confines of the school grounds and day. Mobile phones and social media have opened the door to cyberbullying. A surgical procedure is usually required to separate today’s youngsters from their phones. As a result, victims never get a break from relentless and hurtful online messaging and postings.

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The Scottish Government recognises the problem and the First Minister talks of “zero tolerance.” Like closing the attainment gap, it will be a challenge to turn rhetoric into reality. The review of anti-bullying guidance, taking account of pupil and teacher views, is long overdue. There is an urgent need for concerted and consistent action at local and national levels.

HM Inspectors recently visited 35 schools spread across all 32 local authorities. Inspectors found around one-third of those schools had no process for monitoring and recording suspected or confirmed bullying. To respond effectively, all schools need reliable data and accept bullying can and does take place even in the best-run establishments. To do so requires targeted support and resourcing.

Willie Rennie’s heart is in the right place when, “as a liberal,” he favours “inclusion” and “restorative approaches” in avoiding normalisation of violence in schools. Sure, those strategies can help. However, long personal experience up the sharp end suggests there must be a parallel and explicit zero tolerance response to violence. We owe it to the youngsters who want to feel supported and protected and just want to get on with their lives and learning.