This is the second of three articles covering this topic written specifically for OutBüro. Please share your comments, thoughts and ideas in the comment section.
Over the years 2018-2020, a European partnership of 16 organizations (7 NGOs and 9 schools) worked together on an antibullying project which aimed to develop a method high schools can use to review their antibullying policy and to plan improvements. The project was called the “Anti-Bullying Certification” project (ABC, https://www.gale.info/en/projects/abc-project) because the original aim was to develop a certificate for good antibullying policy.
One of the most interesting dilemmas we encountered was if we should “score” schools for the quality of the antibullying policy, and if so, how.
To score or not to score
When we started the project and presented to the idea on several international conferences, it became appeared teachers and principals in our panel sessions were not enthusiastic about external organizations coming in to score them. Schools score students all the time, but they are not eager to be scored themselves! On the other hand, some NGOs, like LGBTIQ organizations, were enthusiastic about the idea to make more transparent how schools deal with violence and discrimination. Politicians were also interested in this.
When we were in the finishing phase of the ABC-project in early 2020, we did a survey among all the participants in the nine participating schools and among other stakeholders on the nationals of 5 countries and on the international level. Contrary to our impressions from the conferences, the participating teachers and students were generally enthusiastic about scoring their schools and even were quite positive about mandatory publishing the results. Their opinions were in contrast with the external stakeholders (which were mainly NGOs focusing on school safety and on diversity) who were hesitant to score schools and who emphasized that every school is different, which would make it difficult to score with a single framework. Some were also afraid that schools in deprived areas would score low, which might increase social inequality.
That teachers and students in the project valued scoring higher may be due to the fact that the partnership discussed the possibility and different methods to score several times in international exchange meetings. In these discussions, the teachers and students also had the opportunity to give suggestions on how to do this, or what not to do. This may have increased their insight in the positive aspects of a diagnostic test of the quality of the antibullying policy, and in the advantages of being transparent as a school and willing to enter in the open discussion with stakeholders like students and parents.
Even though at the end of the project a majority of students and teachers indicated they were willing to have their test results published, during the project we decided to work with a draft scoring system in which the scores were determined in dialogue with the school and in which the school had the final say whether they want to publish them or not.
An Anti-Bullying Energy Label
Another question that came up was whether we should offer schools an assessment in the form of a A-D label (levels), or one like an ISO-certification (adequate or not).
In Europe, a lot of products are regulated by the European Union and are awarded an “energy label” levels A through D, with “D” being an insufficient level of energy-saving. Since most products are nowadays “A” level and still getting better, products can also be awarded A+ or A+++ levels. We wondered if we could develop an “antibullying energy label” for schools.
The problem is and of course how to define which level would count as “D” or “A”, or even as “A+”. In one international exchange with teachers and students, we discussed this. We explained different scientific criteria that might be used as distinguishing between levels. One spectrum could be the number of interventions, another one could be a combination of the number and the quality of the interventions. A different way could be to score the school on a sliding scale from a fully punitive approach to a fully restorative/no-blame approach, which would indicate to what extent the school has a positive and supportive school culture. A third way would be to take the perspective of organizational change and adopt a scale measuring commitment to the policy and cooperation on its implementation.
Based on the commands of teachers and students, and also on our own impressions of scientific research, we decided to use a scale of commitment. Such a scale would distinguish between a paper policy that may not have a commitment and may not be fully implemented and a policy that is a heartfelt part of the school culture. We also incorporated the notion that organizational change happens in phases. The final scale we developed has four levels: (1) only individuals are supportive of a coherent antibullying policy, (2) the management agrees on an antibullying policy, (3) the majority of the staff agrees and implements the antibullying policy, and (4) the majority of the students agree with the antibullying policy and try to implement it. It was suggested to add a phase where also the majority of the parents agree and cooperate with the antibullying policy, but at this time we did not include that. We considered that this project is about high schools; in many countries, the link between the parents and the high school of their kids is not very strong. This weak link, and the focus of many schools on academic performance rather than on life skills, non-violent communication, and democratic values, make it unlikely that the school can build a meaningful joint pedagogic community with the parents.
In the final ABC-checklist, 10 checkpoints that are related to antibullying policy and scientific effective elements of the anti-bullying policy are not scored to whether they are present in procedures, but as to how broad commitment to have in the school population.
Another method of scoring that was suggested was to offer a school of formal ISO-certification. The ISO-system (ISO=International Standards Organization) offers a framework to describe how organizations can frame their quality policy. The key aspect of an ISO-certification is that the organization has watertight procedures to secure that their processes securely lead to high quality. For an ISO-certification, the organization describes in detail how they organize their quality processes. Although there is an ISO-standard for educational organizations (21001:2018), this only describes the need for safety in the school in a very general way. It requires schools to care for the well-being of “relevant interested parties” and it notes “offensive behavior (like bullying)” can be part if this, but it does not give indications on how to do this. In the case of and additional standard for the anti-bullying policy of (high) schools, this would require schools to make a detailed description of the ways they create a safe school culture and how they deal with incidents.
Diversity may be another challenge in ISO-certification. The description of procedures is usually generic unless specific deviations from the general procedure are described for specific groups and for specific circumstances. For example, in the current ISO-standard for educational organizations, there are specific clauses for special needs education (dealing with disability) and for early childhood education. It may be difficult to include needs or standards on how to determine and take into account the needs of specific minorities in a generic antibullying standard.
For example, a typical antibullying procedure would not describe the registration of students in the school, because it is not part of the antibullying procedure. But when a trans student changes gender during the year and wants to change their gender in the school administration, and this is not possible because the registration procedure limits the choice to male and female, this may lead to discriminatory treatment. A solution may be to adapt the registration option (male, female, other) and procedure (being able to change the register during the year instead of only when entering). But the question remains whether the antibullying procedures allow for such changes in the structural makeup of the school.
Certification typically leads to a certificate which states that the organization is organized conforming to the standard. This requires, of course, an international consensus on the standard. In the case of a good antibullying policy, the school would get a certificate that the antibullying policy is conforming to the standard, or it would not get a certificate. Experiments in the Netherlands with certification of LGBTIQ quality of elderly care homes and LGBTIQ quality of schools have shown that this leads to some controversy about whether the said organizations are really offering the quality they promise, or which is stated in the certificate. They may get a certificate by an ISO-organization, but the certificate could be mainly based on the policy framework or procedures rather than on their working practice or organizational culture. In a Dutch experiment with certification of LGBTIQ quality of a high school, the intentions and procedures of the management were considered adequate, but the certification survey among teachers and students showed only a very average level of tolerance, leaving much to be improved. To the frustration of the local LGBTIQ organization, the school still got a certificate and decided further improvement was not necessary since they were now “certified”.
In the case of the ABC-project, our partner EAN (the European Antibullying Network) has decided to follow up on the project with the development of a formal ISO-certification standard of anti-bullying policy in high schools. It remains to be seen whether this will adequately monitor the quality of antibullying policy, and whether it includes diversity in an adequate way.
One of the most important aspects of the ABC-project was the organization of international exchanges between the partners, teachers, and students of five countries (Greece, Italy, Spain, UK, and the Netherlands)n and to discuss how to develop the self-evaluation procedure and how to improve policy. The self-evaluation procedure itself also included participation in a structural way. The procedure started with a review of current documentation of anti-bullying policy, with surveys among students and teachers and then there were interactive review workshops for students and teachers. This structure allowed students and teachers in their own workshops to review the existing policy and the experiences and opinions of the entire school population and to formulate their own recommendations.
The survey results and the reviews showed that students, teachers, and school management often have very different views of their anti-bullying policy. In the first place, students usually experience the school culture as less safe than teachers and school managers, with the school managers commonly having a very positive view of the school, the teachers a somewhat less positive view, and students sometimes much less positive view. Students are not always happy with the school to cater to their needs and they regularly criticize the way teachers and other staff treat students. In many schools it is quite common that teachers perform a kind of “discipline” and “motivation techniques” which include making jokes at the expense of students and “putting them in their place” by making more or less derogatory comments. Such treatment is hated by students. Teachers often don’t see this in the same way and consider their behavior as a professional way of getting the class attention and disciplining unruly students. When students formulate this type of criticism and review, it may be difficult for teachers to deal with it; they are not used to criticism.
For students, diversity is one of the topics that they feel is natural to have attention. For teachers and for managers this is not so obvious. The school is organized in a way that forces teachers and managers to focus on class (group) units, which leaves little space to tailor lessons or strategies to individuals or to diversity. If teachers want to give attention to diversity they are immediately confronted with a “competition” of diversities for the limited lesson time and attention in groups of 30 students. Schools are simply not prepared and teachers, not enough trained to combine a generic wide perspective of openness and tolerance with more specific attention for certain minorities. While specific attention for disabled students, cultural groups of students, and sexually diverse students is already a challenge, sensitivity for students with an intersectional background becomes nearly impossible within traditional school systems.
The same goes for the school managers, who – at the end of the self-evaluation procedure – get all the results and recommendations, and then have to decide about how to improve the policy. Since most school managers have the impression that their school performance is already almost excellent, and because they are not used to democratically manage the school, comments, and recommendations of students and teachers that are different from their own expectations may also be difficult for them.
The antibullying certification project developed a checklist to score the level of anti-bullying policy in a school. It was decided to make a kind of “energy” label with levels rather than just offering a certificate because the partnership thought antibullying policy will always be in development and the success of the policy is probably mainly dependent on the commitment of all stakeholders to it – which changes over the years.
However, the partnership realizes that the checklist that we developed can be improved.
Although the partnership could have developed a completely external system of assessment, we have opted to offer a participatory procedure of self-assessment. This is in line with the idea that the success of antibullying policy is dependent on the commitment of all stakeholders, and which requires to build in democracy and participation in the development of school policy. To make diversity an integral aspect of this participation, it is necessary to involve and support minority students to raise their voice during the self-evaluation, and to take the recommendations seriously.
In a discussion with the students, we discussed how diversity could be integrated in a structural way. We did a statement game where they had to position themselves on a continuum from “it needs to be a specific item in the checklist” to “it needs to be part of all the checkpoints”. After a thorough discussion, the students preferred the second option but with the caption that specific forms of diversities should be made explicit. In the final checklist, we decided to make the 10th checkpoint on diversity and to ask the management to revise all the previous checkpoints to assess to what extent sex/gender, disability, race, culture, religion, immigration, poverty, Roma, and LGBTIQ were adequately covered. In this way, it seems to cover both position discussed with the students. However, the willingness of students, staff and management to sincerely engage in this exercise remains a key requirement to make the diversity part of the assessment successful.