Goodbye and thanks for all the fish…

It is with mixed emotions that I sit down to write this. After ten years as Director of respectme, Scotland’s Anti-Bullying Service, I am moving onto a new challenge. I am returning to the Looked After Sector for an exciting new opportunity with Care Visions.

Ten years is a reasonable amount of time to reflect on, in any role. When I started at respectme (or Better Futures to give it its working title) it was a tender document and an ambitious idea formulated by Fergus McMillan at LGBT Youth Scotland – and Charlie McMillan, formerly of SAMH. 

Ten years ago the policy landscape across schools and Local Authorities was, frankly, very poor. It was as patchy with no coherent approach in place. People used bits of models form Scandinavia and Canada, so it was a real challenge to try to get all of Scotland’s 32 Local Authorities pulling in the same direction. This required a considered approach; a way of thinking about things rather than a fixed model for intervention and policy.

People like having a model to work to, although, ‘just tell me what to do/what to say’ is an understandable and common request. I have always preferred to be encouraged and supported to think about situations in terms of what was happening, and what I could do about it. This helped to focus on developing pragmatic materials and resources that were designed to help someone, whatever their situation – on a Tuesday morning in school or on a Friday back shift in a residential unit.

Our approach to anti-bullying in Scotland is different.  We define bullying differently and we want to build the capacity and confidence of all adults to recognise and respond to bullying effectively.

I am proud of this approach, which addresses what someone did and the impact it had. We have not focused on labeling or stereotyping those involved or making assumptions about why. We ask adults to consider the following; What was the behaviour? What impact did it have? What  do I need to do about it? While also considering,  what does the child or young person want to happen?’.  This is designed to let people respond to each individual incident and the people involved, to focus on a response that’s appropriate for them.

I am very proud to have helped change the conversation about labelling children, that we can achieve more by talking about what they did not how that then labels them for life.

My research showed that children and young people who are being bullied want options.  They want to consider things that help them feel better as well as things that make bullying stop. Adults need to help them explore these options. They know that what worked for them won’t necessarily work for someone else.  They are not convinced by assemblies or lessons on bullying or detailed recording systems or playground monitors – they genuinely prefer the ‘whole school’ things we do.

Our combination of policy, training and resources and campaigns, has been designed to help colleagues change the culture and ethos in their organisation.   This approach has been well evaluated, with respectme being cited as a ’catalyst for change ‘and a ‘credible and robust’ service. Crucially all 32 Local Authorities in Scotland now have an anti-bullying policy, and I’m proud that respectmehas worked with, and directly influenced, 31 of these. We have trained around 7,000 adults who play a role in children and young people’s lives and our materials and campaigns have reached millions.

What has been even more pleasing though, is seeing schools where their attitude to bullying has changed; where they are inclusive and ask children and parents what they want to happen, and what they think relationships should be like in their school. This happens every day – it doesn’t make the news but it does happen. Children, for the most part, enjoy very positive and supportive relationships in school.

Yes, there are areas where schools still feel they’ know best’. But in my view policy and practice is far more consistent than it has ever been.  Schools have a national policy framework to work within – they have a local authority policy that reflects this, and access to free tools and training that reflects the values of respectme’s approach to develop local policy and practice. In places where they acknowledge and utilise this, you will find better practice.

I have seen first-hand the confidence and commitment from teachers who have attended our training, or worked with us on policy, champion change locally. I have also seen teachers and senior teachers who still refuse to accept bullying is an issue. While some still feel that if it happens out of school it is not something they can deal with. Bullying happens ‘to’ someone – where it happens is not really the issue. It impacts on them – on their agency. Our role is to respond to that, to focus on ‘what’ happened, less on ‘where’ it happened.

We have focused on getting it right with Local Authorities so that they can cascade their expectations to individual schools; an approach that works more effectively. To help address the gap between authorities and schools, respectme has developed new materials to take individual schools through a process of self-evaluation and local policy development.

We do need to improve on other things that will have a greater impact on anti-bullying work, but which anti-bullying itself cannot and should not be expected to achieve. We do need more inclusive education, one that reflects the lives and experiences of our LGBTI pupils and families.  We need better mainstreaming for children with a disability, if indeed that is the right step for them, more inventive and realistic resources on inclusion, racism and diversity. We need to address gender-based issues more openly; the pressure on girls to behave a certain way, and for boys too, is as strong as ever. The impact of these gender norms and expectations reaches way beyond bullying. Addressing these issues will help create environments that are more inclusive and respectful; things which also make dealing with bullying easier.

I am proud of the fact that, since day one, respectmehas ensured that the Protected Characteristics and prejudice -based bullying is included in every policy it works on and in every single training session it has delivered – as well as being included in the National Approach. This explicit commitment to equalities has been one that has helped define us as a service and will remain a key focus moving forward.  I am proud that every single resource we have developed has been influenced by the views and experiences of children and young people. They are the ones who helped us stick by our messages when others were going in a different direction. I am thinking mainly about cyberbullying. ‘Cyber’ is not is not really a word young people like or use, they  see bullying online as, well bullying, it is just were it happens that is different. It is the same behaviour – mainly name calling and rumours – and it is still less prevalent than face to face bullying but is more visible.

I am proud of the research and the published work undertaken over the last ten years.  We have trained colleagues across Europe and in the USA, and our materials are used and accessed across the globe. Our Scottish Approach is influencing and is contributing to how bullying is viewed and discussed far beyond our own shores.

I want to thank all of the people I have worked with in the last ten years; and I want to thank the TESS for stating back when we started, that we had ‘an impressive boldness’ about us. I never ever wanted to lose that. I will miss this.

Brian Donnelly

3 thoughts on “Goodbye and thanks for all the fish…

  1. Good luck in your new venture! Great post!


  2. Hi Brian,

    My name is Anuj Agarwal. I'm Founder of Feedspot.

    I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog Brian Donnelly has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 20 Bullying Blogs on the web.

    I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 20 Bullying Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

    Also, you have the honor of displaying the badge on your blog.



  3. that is wonderful news – thank you so much


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