More teacher training and coaching, an overhaul of the complaints process, and clearer and more open communication with families are part of government plans to deal with bullying and violence in the ACT’s public schools.
But it will not be banning or restricting mobile phones in schools as has occurred in other jurisdictions.
The ACT Government tabled the Schools Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) report on school violence yesterday in the Legislative Assembly, along with its responses to it and the separate Assembly standing committee inquiry.
The expert Advisory Committee backs the Education Directorate’s overarching policy approach on the issue, calling for it to stay the course with the Positive Behaviours for Learning (PBL) framework and that it be implemented across all public schools.
Education Minister Yvette Berry established the SEAC and Assembly inquiries after bullying and violence came to light in a Tuggeranong primary school and disturbing videos on social media emerged of Canberra schoolchildren involved in fights and bashings.
The issue was the subject of a petition and taken up by the Canberra Liberals education spokesperson Elizabeth Lee.
The SEAC committee was asked to advise on ways to strengthen practices in schools and the Directorate, with a focus on PBL and targeted interventions, while the Assembly committee looked at the ‘management and minimisation’ of bullying and violence in government and non-government schools.
The Assembly committee report released on 19 September made 23 recommendations, of which the government has agreed to 12; agreed in principle to nine, and noted two. Most of the actions it agreed to are also listed in its response to the SEAC inquiry.
The SEAC report says that the positive culture of a school – along with engagement with and support from parents and the broader community – is fundamental to reducing bullying and violence in schools.
It says an ongoing commitment to and investment in PBL, including continued implementation, training, in-class mentoring and support, will ensure its success but it will require at least another three to five years to fully bear fruit.
PBL is running in 51 out of 88 schools and will be rolled out to the remainder of schools. The timetable to be released before 28 November.
A key issue from parents at the school in question was that the Directorate and the Minister were slow to act and the report says schools should consider how students and parents and carers can report bullying and violence without fear of retribution.
The government says the Directorate is overhauling the way it handles complaints so there are clear pathways for the community to provide feedback to schools and the Directorate, as well as ensuring all complaints can be escalated if needed.
It is also looking at an online complaints process that will keep families up to date on any actions being taken.
The committee and the government have resisted calls for the banning of mobile phones, which can be used for bullying and to record and share violence on social media, arguing that students need to learn how to use technology appropriately in the digital age.
But the committee did say that schools could provide more opportunities for students to have time away from devices, to make time for play and social interaction.
The government will further support cyber safety programs and make them more widely available for students, teachers and the community.
The Directorate will continue to work with the eSafety Commissioner on the digital technology curriculum, and the government says it will work more closely with students and families on eSafety issues and responding to bullying and violence.
The government says the Directorate will review its communication resources relating to PBL and the Safe and Supportive Schools policy after the committee found the language unclear, there were too many documents and that they were complex and difficult to access.
The Directorate will also ensure that there are a variety of communication channels being used to reach parents and carers, students, teachers and the community.
The government says it will invest in more coaching and training for teachers and principals.
“The Minister is currently considering a range of areas where more focused initial teacher education and professional learning is required, including in managing and supporting students with complex needs and challenging behaviours,” the response says.
The government will also work with the University of Canberra to ensure pre-service teachers are across the principles of PBL as part of initial teacher education.
The advisory committee goes further, saying PBL resourcing is not just about ‘training modules’.
“The most effective way of embedding a PBL approach is to provide in-classroom support for teachers including mentoring and feedback. Mentors need to be freed up from their own classrooms, so resourcing must include the provision of relief from face to face teaching.”
The report also says schools need to partner with other community services and organisations, such as ACT Policing and P&Cs.
In its response to the Assembly committee report, the government says the Schools for All program has strengthened the capacity of schools to support students with complex needs and challenging behaviours.
It says targeted support is available for students including sensory spaces, access to school psychologists, social workers and allied health professionals, and referrals to Network Student Engagement Teams.
The government is also specifically targeting occupational violence through the establishment of an occupational violence and complex case management team.
But it won’t be giving all teachers and teaching support staff training in personal protection strategies if requested, relying on current de-escalation strategies and work health and safety obligations.
Ms Berry said that both the Advisory Committee and Assembly committee reports found that bullying and violence in ACT schools echoed wider societal challenges, was not frequent or systemic, and that the government had established a sound basis for maintaining safe, supportive ACT schools.
“Any instance of bullying or violence in a school is unwelcome. It is vital bullying and violence in schools is minimised to the extent possible and that these issues are properly dealt with when they arise,” she said.
“The ACT Government is committed to providing positive and engaging learning environments where young people feel connected, respected, and are fully engaged in education, regardless of the complexities in their life.”