Prompted by last week’s FE Week front-page report of bullying at the National Farrier Training Agency, Suze Clarke tells how students led the development of Middlesbrough College’s zero tolerance policy

It’s a sad reality that bullying can permeate just about any human scenario — and FE is no exception.

As the largest provider of post-16 education and training in the Tees Valley, with 12,000 students and almost 900 staff, Middlesbrough College has a responsibility to both its students and the community it serves to provide a safe and supportive learning environment.

We are proud to uphold a zero tolerance policy on all forms of bullying and harassment, and to have become the first FE college nationally to achieve the Bullying Intervention Group (BIG) award in 2012.

But how easy is it to maintain effective anti-bullying practice in a constantly evolving, diversifying and inclusive environment?

FE, by its very nature, is a melting pot of diversity, with different ages, cultures, needs, abilities, beliefs and attitudes converging in one learning environment. Our anti-bullying policy and practice must therefore reflect and be sensitive to this. The volume and diversity of our student body means that safeguarding measures must protect them in other settings or workplaces too.

When it comes to something as inherent to human nature as bullying, a focus on prevention rather than cure is often the most effective approach”

The challenges of tackling bullying in FE come from not only the physical and logistical differences, but also the complexities that stem from managing it in an adult environment, where bullying  can often stretch beyond the college campus.

Middlesbrough College achieved the BIG award on the basis of our whole organisation approach to tackling bullying — clear communication between students and staff, policy and procedures that realistically reflect an FE setting, and an emphasis on embedding a culture of mutual respect and tolerance.

The student voice has been key. The students’ union (led by an elected, paid sabbatical officer) and student-led initiatives such as the bullying prevention group, awareness campaigns, and a peer mentor scheme, mean that students take ownership of targeting bullying and have a say in how we should deal with it.

Our decision to apply for the award was not motivated by a particular problem with bullying, but by our pride in stating that we take a proactive, institutional and fair approach to dealing with it. This positive message resonates with students, parents, staff and visitors.

Less reliance on public funding has resulted in the evolution of FE into an educational ‘marketplace’ in which students have become the consumers.

While we are forced to acknowledge this shifting climate, corporate necessity perhaps at times distracts from our raison d’être; students and lifelong learning are and should remain at the heart of FE.

Mike Hopkins, Middlesbrough’s principal, mirrors Ofsted when he says that a safe and supportive learning environment is fundamental to achievement. “It’s so important to us that our students know that they are in a ‘safe’ environment,” he says. “Too many have experienced difficult lives with poverty being the defining feature. If students feel secure, including from bullying, they have every chance of achieving way beyond even what they expect of themselves. ‘Work hard, be nice’ summarises very well what Middlesbrough College works hard to achieve.”

Further education is about equipping students with the core life skills to improve employability and prospects. But it’s also about instilling social values. Middlesbrough’s Skills 21 programme has given our anti-bullying practice the platform to really embed this culture of respect throughout the college.

When it comes to something as inherent to human nature as bullying, a focus on prevention rather than cure is often the most effective approach.

Suze Clarke, student liaison coordinator, Middlesbrough College