Tackling cyber-bullying: the importance of good pastoral care in schools

Parents must worry that their children might fall prey to cyber-bullying, especially when entering a new school. How can international schools help keep students safe, especially digitally, and reassure parents?

Photo of young female student reading on mobile phone to illustrate article on \"The pastoral role of an international school in dealing\"
Life for relocating families can be filled with many concerns. Especially when entering a new school, a child will naturally feel particularly vulnerable. The risks associated with being “new”, “different” and “the outsider” are obvious. The fear that their children might fall prey to bullying or cyber-bullying must play on the minds of many parents.Karin Purcell, Development Director at Marymount International School London, examines how the pastoral care at an international school can help to eliminate cyber-bullying.Cyber-bullying is increasingly hitting the headlines. A study by Anglia Ruskin University in 2011 showed that “nearly one in five UK youngsters have been the victim of cyber-bullying.” This has prompted the UK government into swift action by taking specialist advice on all aspects of child protection issues including cyber-bullying. The Department for Education notified schools in December 2011, “In 2012 the new Ofsted framework will come into force. Schools should be able to demonstrate the impact of anti-bullying policies.”Cyber-bullying is a particularly sensitive area for schools. Much cyber-bullying happens off campus and if schools intervene they can be accused of exceeding their authority. However schools can do much to help prevent cyber-bullying in the first place. In the first instance, excellent education in online “hygiene”, best practice, cyber-ethics and general awareness of trends is essential. This needs to be underpinned by a culture of openness and willingness to discuss the topic across various subject areas, in assemblies and with all constituents of the school community. Schools can do a great deal to educate parents who are often in the dark about technological developments and how potential danger can be avoided. In turn it is important that parents study and support the “Acceptable Use Policy for Technology” (or equivalent) as well as the “Anti-Bullying Policy” which is compulsory for schools in the UK.However, the key element for guaranteeing a happy and safe school environment for children remains, as always, good pastoral care. Good pastoral care in schools needs to cover everything from friendship issues, the risk of eating disorders, concerns about learning difficulties, stress with the curriculum and exams, cultural differences, problems at home, as well as bullying of any kind.Delivering good pastoral care and setting up a comprehensive safety net for their pupils is a priority for many International Schools. The particular needs of “Third Culture Kids” who have changed countries and cultures multiple times with exposure to different languages, teaching methods and curricula, require special care. Marymount International School, for example, has developed an effective structure which is illustrated by the following model: an Executive Pastoral Committee (consisting of the Deputy Head and Head of Boarding) headed by the Pastoral Life Chair meets fortnightly to discuss feedback from the Homeroom Advisors and Heads of Year.In addition the Head, School Counsellor, Learning Resources Coordinator, School Nurse and, of course, parents, can also be called upon where and when necessary. Furthermore, Marymount organises regular Grade retreats, group outings as well as occasional bonding and team-building exercises. This has formed the basis for the school’s ability to rapidly identify problems, respond effectively and quickly, thereby offering solid support and care.Parents sending their children to independent schools in the UK can receive additional assurance from inspecting bodies such as the ISI (Independent Schools Inspectorate) who closely examine the pastoral care system schools have in place. It is always a good idea when choosing a school, for parents to read and check the latest inspection report which should be made available to all interested parties.Parenting in the age of cyber-bullying has become a lot more complicated and when families move countries this can cause additional anxiety. However, much of the anxiety and fear can be taken out of choosing a school by being well informed and checking all the points mentioned above. After all, academic development and emotional growth are impossible if pupils are not happy, confident, settled and above all safe.For any concerned parents or students wishing to seek support or find out more about cyber-bullying, the following organizations and websites offer advice and, in some cases, help-lines:This article was refreshed on 11 January 2018.
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