Bullying? It's got to be punished...

Tony Blair's attack on the 'no-blame' approach to bullying - once supported by Whitehall - has angered its advocates
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is at the heart of a national row over how to deal with bullying in schools. The conflict is setting supporters of a "no-blame" approach against the Government, which has turned its face against taking a "soft" line on bullying in favour of punishment.

Bristol's education authority has hardened its line on bullying as a result of the row, while Birmingham is reviewing its policy. And earlier this month two members of the government-backed Anti-Bullying Alliance, who pioneered the influential "no-blame" approach, walked out of the alliance - claiming that the Prime Minister's office had "bullied" the ABA into ending their contracts.

The trouble began in late November when Tony Blair told the House of Commons that he was "shocked" to hear of the widespread use of the "no-blame" approach to bullying by local authorities, in particular Bristol. The policy was "dangerous and reckless", he said.

His remarks followed the announcement, earlier that week, that teachers were to gain statutory powers to punish pupils - which was read as a signal that they should clamp down on classroom bullying, following the stabbing of a 15-year-old girl in the eye by classmates.

The measure apparently signalled the end of the no-blame approach.

The Government had recommended non-punitive approaches to bullying since coming to power. The Department for Education and Skills advocates no-blame style approaches in its Don't Suffer in Silence anti-bullying pack for schools. And the Government has supported the work of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, whose regional co-ordinators, George Robinson and Barbara Maines, walked out of the alliance and wrote the book Crying for Help: The No Blame Approach to Bullying.

The drive against no-blame has troubled critics, among them the government-appointed Children's Commissioner for England, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, who described the Prime Minister's line as a "knee-jerk reaction".

Both ChildLine and the NSPCC (which have recently merged) have weighed in against the Prime Minister. "An approach based solely on punishing bullies is seldom effective," says Lindsay Gilbert, head of Childline in Partnership with Schools.

The Government's main target since November has been the no-blame approach developed by Robinson and Maines. The Government insists that no-blame is substantively different from the support strategies it recommends.

"Support and mediation strategies are different from no-blame as they do not imply that bullying is blame-free," explained a DfES spokesperson. "In addition to changing behaviour, they make clear to the child who has been bullying that s/he has done something wrong and that s/he has to make amends as a consequence."

Advocates for no-blame, including Esther Rantzen, chair of ChildLine, say it does just that. "With the mediation process the bully can justify their wrongdoing," says Robinson. "In no-blame the bully is made aware of the effects of his or her behaviour and is much more likely to change."

The approach works by confronting bullies with the damage they are doing to their victims. Children being bullied tell a teacher how they are feeling, who explains how the child feels to a "support group" made up of bullies and, usually, friends of the child. The group are told that they are not being punished but given responsibility to stop the bullying and make a difference to the child's life. The group comes up with ways in which they can help the child.

"I think it's wonderful," says Christopher Evans, headmaster at Lakes Primary School in Cleveland, which has used no-blame support groups for more than a decade. "You don't punish children for getting their maths wrong, you teach them. This teaches them how to get their behaviour right."

Evans says that the approach means he does not waste time trying to work out exactly what happened, which he says can make things worse. "This breaks that vicious circle of retaliation," he says. "And you never get to the bottom of it with two kids; it becomes about who's lying."

Evans is no liberal opposed to punishment on moral grounds; he uses sanctions and discipline to control behaviour in class. He says he uses no-blame because it works.

There is evidence that non-punitive support groups do work. In 1998 Hull City Council looked at an approach similar to and developed from the no-blame approach. In 80 per cent of cases it found the groups stopped the bullying.

Paul Ennals, chief executive of the National Children's Bureau (NCB), says that the Government has taken against no-blame not because it does not work, but because of its name. "DfES policy has been hardening against it not in itself so much as because it is known as the no-blame approach," he says. "The Government has to be seen and heard to be explicitly challenging bad behaviour."

The NCB heads the Anti-Bullying Alliance and it was Ennals's decision not to renew Robinson and Maines's contracts. He says he had to ditch them because it did not look good for the Government to be supporting it. "There's as much evidence for this [no-blame] scheme as any other," he says. "It's mainly been a misunderstanding in the media."

Despite broad support from teachers, charities, and LEAs, almost every article written in the past two years has condemned no-blame and other support-group approaches. Supporters say there is confusion over what the strategy is about.

"The support-group approach is very effective," says Chris Cloke, NSPCC head of child protection awareness. "The NSPCC believes it is unfortunate that this so-called "no-blame approach" to tackling bullying has become confused with the heavily criticised indifference of today's "no-blame culture"."

But critics say there are genuine concerns about the approach. Children's charity Kidscape is the no-blame approach's most vociferous critic. It claims that the extent of the problems with no-blame is not always obvious to schools because children see that nothing is being done and so keep quiet about bullying.

"It's a very insidious way of dealing with things," says Linda Frost of Kidscape. "It doesn't give anyone responsibility for their actions." What is empowering to Christopher Evans is laziness to Frost: "It's passing on responsibility from teachers to children."

Frost says that no-blame has its place, but that it is being misused. The charity bases its criticism on complaints it has received about the no-blame approach from parents of children who have been bullied.

The difficulty for policy makers is that these claims have not been properly assessed. There is simply not enough research available to judge particular approaches. "There's an urgent need for more research," says Professor Peter Smith of Goldsmiths College, University of London, the author of an independent evaluation of the DfES's Don't Suffer in Silence anti-bullying pack. "The Government needs more evidence about no-blame to make confident statements about it."

Until that research is done the Government is, in effect, making policy by prejudice. "My impression is that it's partly a philosophical stance," says Professor Smith.

"No-blame goes against the philosophical approaches of the Government's Respect agenda. The negative evidence is then taken as a justification of that. But that evidence hasn't been investigated properly."

Rather than proscribing approaches, says Professor Smith, we should offer the broadest range of options. "The more you do the better," he says.

Until more research is done, the Government is flying blind. Bullying must be stopped, but whether more punishment will achieve that is unclear. If Tony Blair is wrong, what price will bullied children have had to pay to make him look hard?