Peter Hughes ' Opinion

Secretary for Education

Peter Hughes: We must all play our part to wipe out bullying

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I saw some pretty terrible things done to other children, and I know for a fact those things had a lasting impact on those lives. Photo / Thinkstock
I saw some pretty terrible things done to other children, and I know for a fact those things had a lasting impact on those lives. Photo / Thinkstock

When I was growing up, bullying at school was a fact of life, almost a rite of passage. If you complained about it, you were told to toughen up.

I saw some pretty terrible things done to other children, and I know for a fact those things had a lasting impact on those lives.

It's good that today we don't accept that anymore, and that parents listen when their children complain of bullying.

But we still have a long way to go before we eliminate bullying - from our schools, and from our culture.

The problem of bullying in schools is one I've become increasingly concerned about which is why, last year, I brought together a range of education and social sector leaders to set up the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group. Children who are scared or hurt can't learn well.

The group has written a how-to guide on preventing bullying and dealing with bullying complaints. The guide was launched last week and has recently gone out to schools.

It's a mark of how seriously bullying is now viewed that Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, Chief Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford and senior representatives of principals, teachers, school trustees, police and NetSafe joined our advisory group.

The guide advises that all incidents should be treated as serious. Schools are also encouraged to promote a "safe telling" culture in which students can report all bullying through confidential reporting. Parents, teachers and students should be involved in developing bullying prevention policies.

All bullying needs to be dealt with - whether it occurs inside or outside the classroom. One suggestion in the guide is that schools survey their students on how safe they feel, and use the responses to work on improvements. The guide also advises schools to teach staff to recognise and to respond to bullying, and shows them how to go about that.

Schools also need to know when to escalate their response by seeking advice from outside the school, from the Police, Child, Youth and Family or from NetSafe on cyber-bullying.

The internet is a new frontier where children and young people can be subjected to aggression. One approach is for classes to develop "class contracts" with students that include agreements on appropriate behaviour online and on cellphones, including outside school time. I have asked Patrick Walsh, representing secondary principals, to chair a cyber-bullying group drawing up a plan for schools on handling this issue.

A key part of the bullying picture is the school culture, and that's where another programme is playing a positive role in more than 500 schools. The Positive Behaviour For Learning programme focuses on treating difficult and aggressive behaviour in constructive ways. That includes providing opportunities for kids to be caring and helpful towards each other.

At Naenae Primary School in Hutt City, which uses the positive behaviour programme, principal Murray Booten has spoken of the change in atmosphere at his school.

"We've gone from a situation where children were looking over their shoulder to see who was going to get them next, to now, where we have very few incidences of bad behaviour," he has said.

By 2017 more than 800 schools are expected to be using the positive behaviour programme.

However, these initiatives are just first steps. There are no quick fixes. Bullying is not something the ministry and schools can change by themselves. It's also about parents and communities noticing when something is wrong, and taking responsibility for doing what they can do.

If we all play our part, we have a good chance of fixing it and of preventing the lifelong damage that bullying inflicts.

Peter Hughes is the Secretary for Education.

- NZ Herald

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