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School bullying, inspectors, and the Oireachtas February 26, 2014

Posted by Tomboktu in Education, Irish Politics, Oireachtas business.
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Last week, the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection heard evidence from senior managers in the Inspectorate at the Department of Education and Skills. The hearing followed the publication last November of the Chief Inspector’s Report for 2010–2012 (119 pages, pdf here)

Among the points he made, the Chief Inspector, Dr Harold Hislop, told the Committee that the Inspectorate now uses anonymised questionnaires completed by students as part of its process of gathering data to assess a school’s performance. And one item he chose to highlight how that was the following.

One of the interesting things from the pupil questionnaires and student questionnaires is the extent to which Irish students feel safe in schools. There are very high percentages there — often over 90%. What is really interesting is when the questionnaire data comes in for an individual school, if that is significantly lower than we would expect normally, we would immediately say to the school that it might think it is dealing well with bullying but there is clear evidence that it needs to go back and go through its anti-bullying lessons and make sure that children know who to talk to and who to report bullying to. It can be quite a shock sometimes for a school because when we interview those involved they say the school has an excellent anti-bullying policy and it is doing an excellent job on that but when we get the data they throw up a completely different set of questions.

None of the TDs or Senators questioned what that rule-of-thumb means in practice (although the meeting suffered from both being rushed and clashing with a Seanad sitting):

  • None of them asked what the threshold is for the Inspectors to come to the view that enough students feel safe in their school.
  • None of the TDs or Senators asked if it is a single figure or changes in different circumstances.
  • None of them asked if this is matched with or adjusted for the presence in the school of any vulnerable groups.
  • None of the TDs or Senators asked if any further probing is done in an inspection to see why any student feels unsafe in the school.

As I understand the Chief Inspector’s comments, if the school has a small number of — say — Traveller students each of whom is bullied, or openly gay students none of whom feels safe, or students with a severe lisp all of whom have to put up with hell from one or more of their classmates, the Inspectorate does not identify their lack of feeling safe as a problem until the constitute a sizeable group.

That seems to me to be a weak model of assessing an essential aspect of school safety. And it was poor oversight by the Oireachtas Committee that this was not examined by it.

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1. ivorthorne - February 26, 2014

“That seems to me to be a weak model of assessing an essential aspect of school safety. And it was poor oversight by the Oireachtas Committee that this was not examined by it.”

It is weak, but it is also the standard approach to how identify problems within education. In the same way, if a teacher were to completely ignore the needs of a single child within a class who was not learning at all while almost all of the others were, the inspectors would say that this teacher was doing a good job.

If they wanted to use such questionnaires, they should use questionnaires that are anchored in actual behaviours and are administration should be administered regularly. They should not be compared to other schools but to each other. While a between schools comparison isn’t entirely worthless, each school has its own culture and what is regarded as bullying in one school will not be in another.

If each student was obliged to take an anonymous bullying questionnaire from home on a weekly or monthly basis, it would provide the school with a basis of identifying increases and decreases in the perception of bullying as well as the basis of the bullying (e.g. based on race, gender, sexuality, membership of a religious organisation, physical appearance etc.) This would then allow teachers to monitor more effectively for incidents of bullying and to adjust their bullying awareness programmes and procedures to reflect the nature of bullying within their context.

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2. 34theorchard1 - February 26, 2014

A friend in the inspectorate pointed out an anomaly similar to the one outlined above. It seems that during whole school evaluations groups of students filling in questionnaires nearly always report higher levels of bullying, and less satisfactory responses by the school authorities, than can be identified by any other means. In fact schools where everything possible seems to have been done to address bullying still have negative results in these questionnaires – worse than in schools that seem to be doing very little about the problem.
He has two theories on this: either increased emphasis on bullying makes the students hyper-aware of it, so that they see bullying in many more situations than they would previously have done – or an awareness that the school is prioritising the problem allows them to speak out when previously they wouldn’t have ie the more light is shone on the issue, the bigger the issue seems to be.
Many of the boys’ schools of the fifties or sixties, my friend says, would have been rife with bullying. Indeed it would have been so much a way of life that nobody would have dared complain about it in a questionnaire. Paradoxically, more complaints about bullying by our kids may be a sign that things are getting better, not worse.

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