Next week, an anti-bullying strategy is due to come into force in Scotland's schools. From 27 September, teachers will be responsible for recording and investigating complaints of bullying from pupils. But how will they approach this onerous new responsibility with any degree of confidence when the official guidance from the Scottish Government is so woeful?
A great deal seems to have changed, and not for the better, since the autumn of 2016 when the equalities and human rights committee of the Scottish Parliament launched its inquiry into 'Bullying and harassment of children and young people in schools.' The committee assembled an impressive portfolio of evidence testifying to 'the growing normalisation of sexualised bullying of girls and young women in education.'
Before arriving at this conclusion, the committee considered the submissions of a variety of organisations.
Girlguiding Scotland produced the results of its own research, which found that 59% of schoolgirls from the age of 11 had reported experiencing sexual harassment at school, including sexual taunts and unwanted touching. Rape Crisis Scotland backed up these findings, going as far as to claim that the police and social workers had failed to deal with several allegations of rape and that the boys responsible remained in the school.
Rape Crisis Scotland further reported a growing pressure to take part in sexting: 'In most scenarios, boys ask girls for images, and boys share these images without consent.' Boys sometimes used threats to coerce girls into complying. Girls suspected of having sexual partnerships were routinely called 'slag', 'slut' and 'whore', whereas sexually active boys were generally spared similar insults. And while some teachers were keen to tackle sexual harassment, others felt it was not their place to intervene.
The limited data on sexual bullying makes it difficult to assess its extent. Schools are already obliged to collect information on complaints of racist behaviour – only now is that duty being extended to sexual incidents. But the anecdotal evidence (along with such surveys as Girlguiding Scotland's) is powerful: it suggests that such incidents are commonplace and that girls are disproportionately affected.
One personal testimony, from a member of Girlguiding Scotland, Susie (18), graphically illustrates the reality of school for many girls:
Sexual harassment was rife and became an everyday part of school life, where girls were just expected to avoid certain parts of the building that were notorious for getting grabbed or cat-called. I was groped in corridors more times than I can remember. One corridor in particular was horrendous and everyone hated it – I had so many awful experiences there.
As she went through school, Susie felt better able to stand up for herself, but this risked further humiliation:
I remember walking down a corridor and a guy shouting 'Cute arse, want
a shag?' I turned round and gave him the finger, so he replied, 'Who said I was talking about you?' It was always lose-lose. But teachers never said anything. I think a lot didn't know how, it was too awkward for them, and I think a lot of the female teachers worried it would happen to them too. School really was a frightening place to be.
Although the equalities and human rights committee did a good job of pulling together the evidence and highlighting the need for action, as soon as its work hit the desk of the cabinet secretary for education, John Swinney, there was a meaningful change in the semantics. In correspondence with the committee, Mr Swinney introduced the term 'prejudice-based bullying' and the word 'harassment' was quietly dropped – even although it remained in the title of the committee's report.
In November 2017, the Scottish Government published revised anti-bullying guidance, 'Respect for All,' which again dodged the issue of sexual harassment but had a great deal to say about 'prejudiced-based bullying' (which is defined as 'bullying behaviour motivated by prejudice based on an individual's actual or perceived identity'). The quoted examples included being hit, having belongings taken, and name calling.
Remarkably, however, there was no explicit reference to sexual harassment; and the word 'girl' appeared only once. ('Bullying in the form of derogatory language and the spreading of malicious rumours can be used to regulate both girls' and boys' behaviour – suggesting that they are not being a real man or a real woman.')
In May this year came 'Supplementary Guidance on Recording and Monitoring of Bullying Incidents in Schools' – in effect, the bible of the strategy which is about to be introduced in schools all over Scotland. We scanned this document and found that the word 'harassment' had been all but expunged. It crops up just once: 'The existence of bullying and harassment in schools impacts upon a wide range of children's and young people's human rights.' Seven definitions of bullying are given, yet not a single definition of harassment – and there is no acknowledgement in the document that the human rights of girls are being disproportionately infringed.
On its news website, BBC Scotland chose to illustrate the story with an image of a teenage boy aggressively confronting another boy in a school corridor. There is not a girl in sight. But, given the thrust of successive Scottish Government publications, can journalists be blamed for assuming that bullying in school is essentially a male phenomenon?
We are left to wonder what happened to the finding of the parliament's equalities and human rights committee, after its exhaustive investigation, that the sexualised bullying of girls and young woman in education is being 'normalised'. Read the 'Supplementary Guidance' and you will find no reflection of that important conclusion; and no suggestion that the experiences of young people like Girlguider Susie are worthy of serious attention.
It seems that, in the school of the cabinet secretary's imagination,
'prejudice-based bullying' is something that can be logged and dealt with. But the sexual harassment of girls may be too ugly a phenomenon to be officially confronted. How are teachers expected to implement a policy so sanitised, so selective and so flawed?
SR is grateful to the Scottish Women blog for its help with this piece