Tackling cyber-bullying: an international school’s approach

Life for relocating families is a complex one and parents are naturally concerned about how their children will adapt and fit in to their new environment. Karin Purcell, development director at Marymount International School London, explains how good pastoral care can help to ensure that children integrate happily and protect them from cyber-bullying.

Marymount school girls on mobile phones

Marymount International School, London

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A survey in 2017 by Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying movement, showed that 54 per cent of young people have been bullied at some point, with almost one in five stating that they had experienced cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is a phenomenon that many parents find difficult to discuss with their children, as it didn’t exist when they were young.

Preventing and tackling bullying

But the UK government has recognised the growing problem and recently revised their advice on ‘Preventing and Tackling Bullying’. The Advice underlines the law that ‘Every school must have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying’. The difficulty for schools in preventing cyberbullying is that much of it happens off campus and if schools intervene they can be accused of exceeding their authority.However, the guidance notes that a school’s disciplinary powers can be used to address pupils’ conduct when they are not on school premises. International schools based in the UK must – and do follow government guidelines by actively preventing cyberbullying.All schools can do much to help prevent cyber-bullying. In the first instance, education around online “hygiene”, best practice, cyber-ethics, cyber-safety 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.Furthermore, schools can do a great deal to support and educate parents (who can feel increasingly in the dark about technological developments) to ensure that they recognise how potential danger can be avoided.At Marymount, annual parent workshops led by professionals in Cyber Safety are invited to lead discussions with parents on how to support their daughters’ online activities and the Weekly Newsletters frequently provide support and guidance on this area. 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. 

The importance of a strong pastoral care system

Good pastoral care in schools needs to cover everything from dealing with friendship issues, building student resilience, 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 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.It is always helpful if schools have an effective structure such as an Executive Pastoral Committee (typically including the deputy head, head of boarding and the pastoral life chair) that meets regularly to discuss feedback from heads of year and the school nurse. In addition, the head, school counsellor, learning resources coordinator, faculty and, of course, parents, can also be called whenever necessary.Regular Grade retreats, group academic outings as well as occasional bonding and team-building exercises are also vital in helping students to forge relationships with one another, providing them with the skills to navigate life socially, both on and off-line.These initiatives assist with rapid identification of problems, effective and quick responses, thereby offering meaningful support and care.This pastoral structure is further supported by the UK’s Personal Social and Health Education (PSHE) programme, which develops the knowledge, skills and attributes students need to manage their lives, now and in the future. Given the diversity of any international student body, any PSHE programme needs to be tailored to meet both their needs as young adults whilst understanding their own cultural sensitives. The programme should examine a wide range of issues; from learning about relationships, to students’ rights and responsibilities online and offline, building mental health and wellbeing to exploring the role of the media and social media.

Other sources of help

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. Latest inspection reports are available on all school websites.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 avoided by being well informed. For any concerned parents or students wishing to seek support or find out more about cyber-bullying, the following organisations and websites will be helpful:
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