The announcement of a new action plan to tackle bullying in our schools seems welcome. Following years of consultation, it promises a nationally rolled out approach to protecting young people.
According to the Department of Education it is “dedicated to the prevention and addressing of bullying, cyberbullying, racism, gender identity bullying or sexual harassment, among other areas, in schools.” We certainly need a national effort if we wish to create inclusive state schools with uniformly high standards.
The action plan’s intention to push through a student and parent charter is also positive. Families need somewhere to go when a relationship with a school breaks down. The introduction of counselling in primary schools is similarly laudable as a first step towards providing better supports.
The plan will also establish the first database to record all bullying, and for the first time, it will focus on gender identity. A recently released BelongTo survey depicts a grim reality for LGBTQ+ students in Irish schools. We require nothing less than a national response to protect these vulnerable children.
It’s all good on paper. But this new anti-bullying action plan is a national response on paper only. Yes, the action plan reads well, and the focus on student voice and gender identity is commendable. But in the background, the Government has yet to pass the Objective Sex Education Act.
They have yet to amend the Education Act that permits schools to put their ethos before open discussions on sexuality and gender identity. When most primary school teachers also need fluency in Irish, a religion certificate to teach, and considerable wealth to pay for training, the mention of tackling racism also falls short.
Teachers are often white middle-class women like me. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a racism action plan rings hollow.
We cannot have a national anti-bullying action plan when the system is not inclusive – bullies have a stronger foothold when the system bullies first. To understand how bullying manifests in schools today, and how the system fails to truly address it, we need to understand what has changed since I left school back in 1999.
In certain ways bullying is the same. Bullies still prey on people who stand out, who are deemed different, who might have a chink in their armour. As ever, bullying is carried out by people with a chink in their own. I see the same kind of relational bullying now as I saw then, a type of social manipulation where young people try to hurt their peers or sabotage their social standing. It can be hard to spot in classrooms. It’s insidious. It’s also common.
But then there’s the bullying that didn’t exist in my time – the cyberbullying, the naming and shaming online, on tiktok, snapchat, on class whatsapp groups. Anyone who dares call young people snowflakes reveals a deep ignorance. Modern bullying knows no end. It is a blight that follows children into their bedrooms at night.
All schools battle with this cruel new version of bullying and they need whole community support to defeat it. They need parents to actively police technology in their home. This type of bullying is for everyone to battle; schools can only ever be one part of that national, indeed universal effort. In this respect the action plan does well to recognise the need for a whole community response.
It goes without saying that when I attended my all-girls school in the 90s, there was no mention of gender or sexuality. Friends of mine came out in their 30s. They didn’t have the language to do so any earlier.
Today young people across our schools identify as non-binary, yet one third of our secondary schools still discriminates by gender. The system itself is a bully for these students. A national response to bullying in terms of gender identity is impossible when most of our primary schools and half of our secondary schools maintain the legal right to teach Relationship and Sex education through a Catholic lens.
In my day, all students and teachers were white and Irish. Racism wasn’t mentioned. Our students nowadays are diverse.
Our teaching staff, due to the structure of our system, is not.
But the bullying I witness across schools that hurts me the deepest and makes a mockery of this action plan relates to children with special educational needs.
Norma Foley and Josepha Madigan are still out there, contributing to headlines about securing school places for everyone, as if that’s the happy end to these children’s story. It’s not.
Schools are crippled by understaffing. 83% of schools admit to having no choice but to use Special Education Needs Teachers (SETs) to cover classes. Our most vulnerable children are being let down again and again.
Every day of their school lives, they are not receiving the support they so desperately need and to which they are entitled. Forgive me if I find an anti-bullying action plan hard to stomach in this context.
When I discuss bullying with my students I start by making sure they understand what it means. I explain that bullying isn’t a once-off event. It is an ongoing, deliberate misuse of power through repeated behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm.
This new action plan is called Cineáltas. Cineáltas means kindness.
Like I say, it’s good on paper.
But until we change the structure of our system, that’s all it is.