Bullying in York

The title is somewhat  unfair. We are actually reporting on a day workshop run by the York Group at St Peter’s School in York, which considered the issue of bullying and in particular focused on the School’s impressive anti-bullying pilot system.

The York Group was originally set up by Professor Ewan Anderson in 1989 as the Holbrook Group, and its members come from a very wide range of backgrounds, representing almost every type of residential childcare provision. It holds annual seminars, at which it focuses on subjects such as research, the significance of the size of establishments, and the length of stay of children in residential care.

St Peter’s School is an ancient foundation, set up by Paulinus in the late the seventh century. Alcuin was Master of the School before moving to work for Charlemagne, and its most famous pupil was Guy Fawkes. The School therefore has proud traditions, but it is still prepared to learn and develop.

Schools do not like to admit to the existence of bullying, but any school that says that there is no bullying is probably in a state of denial. Bullying is a widespread feature of human behaviour, displayed by both adults and children. Instances are therefore likely to occur in a wide variety of social situations, though whether bullying becomes widespread depends on the way the school (or other organisation) handles the situation.



In St Peter’s, an approach to bullying has been trialled by Paddy Stephen, Senior Housemaster, and his colleagues, with Professor Ewan Anderson acting as consultant and trainer. The house used for the trial is a boarding house, and following a successful pilot scheme, the programme is now to be rolled out to the School’s eight other houses.

Indeed, the pilot itself was founded on success. Paddy Stephen realised that although he was running his house efficiently, his own approach was part of the problem. It was fine for students who fitted in with it, but ineffective for those who did not. There is a temptation for a keen Housemaster who receives a report of bullying to rush in, sort the matter out and deal with the bully. It is all very commendable, but does it work? Or is this approach a sort of bullying, in fact re-inforcing the message that the way to get what the more powerful person wants is to apply power to the weaker?

Why, Paddy asked himself, were the same children needing to be punished time and again, if punishing them was an effective way of dealing with their behaviour? As his punishment strategies were not working, he concluded that he needed to involve the young people more.

The system devised for dealing with bullying was introduced as a scheme which was of importance to everyone in the house, and not simply as a measure of protection for the weak. It was pupil-centred and non-hierarchical. Basic principles of this type must have given powerful messages to the students that each person mattered, whatever their age, and that status did not grant a licence to misuse power.

The system was introduced formally and everyone associated with the house was trained, to ensure that the system applied universally. This meant, for example, that grounds staff and catering staff were involved. It has often been the case that children being bullied have felt able to confide in non-teaching staff, and their role in picking up how children are feeling can be crucial. Such staff play important, but often unacknowledged, roles.

A three-stage system was devised, to enable allegations of bullying to be dealt with at different levels of seriousness. Whatever the level, the policy is that bullying is unacceptable, on the basis that everyone should have the right to attend school or work without fear of being bullied. There is zero tolerance of bullying, therefore, and bullying is defined by the victim. If someone feels bullied, then they have been, even if the perpetrator thinks the victim does not mind and had intended his/her behaviour as a joke.


At the first level (green), incidents tend to be minor, such as the use of an inappropriate name or teasing. At this level it is for the victim – if s/he feels able to take action – to tell the bully that s/he does not like what the perpetrator is saying or doing, to ask him/her not to do it, and to say that s/he is recording the incident in his/her green book. If this results in a change of behaviour on the part of the perpetrator, the matter goes no further.

An important underlying principle is that wherever possible incidents should not be escalated so that staff are involved unnecessarily, but that all students should feel empowered to take action on their own behalf to be respected and treated with dignity.



The second level (amber) entails the involvement of another student designated for the role of intermediary. The system involves the appointment of mentors from among the students. They tend to be drawn from the older members of the house, but the role of mentor is not intended to be one of power (in the way that prefects have traditionally maintained control in some schools, for example) but as a way of managing allegations of bullying.

The mentors have special training to help them to understand the sorts of problems which may be reported to them, their own position in the system, and what action they can take to resolve difficulties without involving staff.

The victim reports the incident to the mentor, who takes the matter up with the perpetrator and tells him/her that the matter is being recorded in the mentor’s book. Again, if there is no repetition of the event, the matter ends there.


However, if the bullying is serious or repeated, the matter is reported to the relevant member of the house staff, and it becomes a third level (red) incident. The staff then have their usual discretion for dealing with behaviour problems.

The system makes it explicit that, as there is zero tolerance of bullying, it is unacceptable not to tell about what is going on. The house ethos is that all bullying is addressed and may need to be made public. This contrasts sharply with the traditional ethos in some schools that students who tell are snitches who should put up with being bullied – or seeing their friends bullied – and keep it secret.


The workshop focused on five different roles in bullying. First, there are obviously the bullies and their victims. Then there are those who collaborate with the bullies, identifying with them and becoming bullies themselves. Opposed to them are the defenders of victims of bullying. Finally, there are the watchers, who observe the bullying but do not involve themselves.

Each of these groups contains a wide variety of people with different personalities and aims in adopting their roles. Analysis of individual incidents may include factors such as race, culture, age, physical disability, social class, personality, self-image, family experiences, opportunity, group dynamics, and so on.

Bullying can be by adults of children, and vice versa. Children may respond inappropriately to teachers, as well as the other way round. It may be by individuals or groups. It may be of individuals or minorities. An important point from the angle of the house or school is that the largest group – the watchers – should become defenders of the victim, so that the dominant culture reflects the  non-acceptability of bullying.

A number of St Peter’s students undertook role plays of bullying – name-calling, unacceptable joking, teasing and harassment at various levels, to indicate what bullying is like and how their system deals with it. What is more, the system works. One student, for example, disliked the way a teacher referred to him jokingly and took the matter up with his Housemaster, who in turn raised the issue with the perpetrator, who was appalled to learn that his joking was unwelcome and has changed his behaviour.


There were a number of papers describing approaches to bullying in other settings, and Richard Rollinson concluded the day by pointing out that good practice needed not only to stop bullying, but also to create opportunities for children and young people. They need to learn how to live in communities, in groups and with themselves. They needed to be able to belong, to communicate and to be able to tolerate.

The three stage system at St Peter’s School not only deals with bullying but also carries powerful messages about the value of each individual person – whether student, teacher or ancillary worker, about the right of each person to be unharassed and unbullied, about the right for each person to speak up, and about the duty of every member of the community to help to protect those rights.

St Peter’s School

If you want to know more about St Peter’s School, look at www.st-peters.york.sch.uk , contact the School on (0)1904-623213, or email [email protected] .

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