How To Actively Create Positive School Cultures That Reduce Bullying With Alex Holmes

How To Actively Create Positive School Cultures That Reduce Bullying With Alex Holmes

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How can we empower students to understand and deal with bullying behaviour in school? When not dealt with properly, bullying has a hugely negative impact on school culture and student and staff wellbeing.

This week on School Behaviour Secrets, we speak to Deputy CEO of the Diana Award and Vice-Chair of the National Anti-Bullying Alliance, Alex Holmes. We discuss the challenges of changing whole school culture and the positive impact that anti-bullying ambassadors make on school life. Plus, Alex shares how your school can get involved with the positivity postbox campaign today, to kick-start this process for your students.

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Show notes / transcription

Alex Holmes  0:00  

Don't forget that you can empower students to deal with behaviour and bullying. And you know, that's what we're doing by helping to support schools to train young people to be anti bullying ambassadors, who then become eyes and ears, you know, at break time and who support each other in lessons but also outside of lessons. So I think it is that whole school approach. But if you can allow students to lead a lot of that work, then I think it really does make a difference because they speak the same language and you're far more likely as an adult to listen to your peers and it's the same for students.

Simon Currigan  0:30  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan. And welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets where as we approach our 100th episode, I like to think we embody the age old phrase 'persistence is futile'.

I think you might have heard that phrase wrong.

Actually, one of my friends described getting this far with the podcast as an example of grit, but in a bad way.

Like grit in your eye. That's a bit harsh, isn't it?

Anyway, that's the voice of my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Hi there, Simon. 

Emma, I'd like to kick off the show by asking you a quick question.

Emma Shackleton  1:44  

Why not? 

Simon Currigan  1:45  

When it comes to clothes, Do you prefer to stand out? Or do you prefer to blend in?

I'm a stander-outer. I love to wear clothes that make me feel good. And that's often things that are bright. My favourite item of clothing at the moment is a pair of bright pink trousers. But why are you asking?

Well, this week, we're sharing my conversation with Alex Holmes, who is an expert in anti bullying. In fact, he's got a brilliant TEDx talk on this subject, which I completely recommend that our listeners watch because it's really, really thought provoking. And one of the things he talks about is in schools, often children, especially teenagers, have a culture of victimising differences instead of celebrating them. And he has some really interesting things to say about changing that culture.

That sounds important and completely make sense, actually,

Absolutely. And he's supporting an initiative called the Positive Postbox that's just been launched. And he shares the details about how schools can get involved with that to build positive climates in school, in the interview.

But just before we jump into that interview, how do you fancy paying it forward with a small good deed? We rely on word of mouth recommendations. So if you find the school behaviour secrets podcast interesting and useful, and you know somebody else who might like it too, do them a favour by opening your podcast app and clicking the Share button. And now here's Simon's conversation with Alex Holmes.

I'm really excited to welcome Alex Holmes to the show today. Alex is the Deputy CEO of the Diana Award which he received himself in 2004. Under his leadership, that anti bullying campaign has trained more than 28,000 anti bullying ambassadors in schools across the UK and Ireland since 2011. He's also a TEDx speaker, and his talk on anti bullying has been viewed 10s of 1000s of times. Alex has over seven years experience in the education system is Vice Chair of the National anti bullying Alliance. He's on the board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a safety advisor to tick tock Twitter and Meta amongst others. Alex, welcome to the show.

Alex Holmes  3:59  

Thank you so much for having me. And the introduction...

Simon Currigan  4:01  

It's quite a list of achievements. 

Alex Holmes  4:03  

Yeah, when you hear it like that, it does sound like I wonder how I have time for everything. But yeah,

Simon Currigan  4:08  

So what I'd like to start by asking is what led you to your current mission to protect kids from bullying in school?

Alex Holmes  4:14  

Yeah, I think I was really inspired by my own sort of experience of school when I was at school growing up, I didn't always feel safe or happy particularly because of the bullying that I was experiencing. And I think that those words and sometimes that sort of physical bullying did make me feel upset, unsafe or uncomfortable, and, you know, really affected my self esteem, I think, even stopped me putting my hand up in class and concentrating and fulfilling my potential. So I think that really sort of stuck with me. And when I started to reflect on as I got older, how long you spend at school and you know, worked out it was like 11,000 hours of your life. It just felt a huge amount of time. And it kind of led me to being passionate about trying to think what the solution is, and maybe what would have made my experience better at school,

Simon Currigan  5:00  

How bad is the problem? And what sort of outcomes do people to experience bullying generally have?

Alex Holmes  5:06  

Well, I mean, some of the research that we've actually done in conjunction with Nationwide Building Society is found that sort of, I think 8 in 10, that's 83% of children have experienced bullying. And the vast majority of that actually takes place within the school grounds. I think there's these days of perception that the internet is sort of this really dark force and perhaps outweighs the experiences of bullying in school. But actually, what we know is time and time again, is the research is that it's a rare for a child to be bullied online in isolation. Usually, it is an extension or continuation of what's happening at school in the school day, and then continues online, it's incredibly rare for a child just to perhaps experience purely online bullying. And it's usually familiar relationship appear someone they spend a lot of time with, from perhaps their school community. So I think it's a big issue, we found that huge amount of young people were affected by it. And I think it is a big contributor to poor mental health, and you really cannot concentrate, you maybe find it hard to sleep at night. And it affects not only your relationships within school, but your relationships outside of school with your parents and other loved ones. I think it's tragic, really just how much of a problem it still is and how it exists and how much work I think we've still got to do.

Simon Currigan  6:18  

We've been talking about this problem for decades, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Why do you think that is? 

Alex Holmes  6:24  

You know, it's a really good question. I think when you think of progress, perhaps that we made around mental health, even the word mental health, I think, has a lot more sort of weight behind it. It's take a lot more seriously, we understand a lot more about mental health, particularly in children and young adolescents but things over bullying, it's perhaps that sort of age old thoughts and attitudes, that perhaps it's character building. You know, perhaps that it's a normal part of growing up. And that's not true. No, it happens. But it shouldn't, I think we just haven't quite made the adjustment in thinking that actually, this is someone going out of their way to make a often your child feel unsafe, or uncomfortable or upset. And that's not acceptable, you know, we need to continue to drive home that message, I don't think is taken seriously enough by the government, by school and by teachers. And we need to be doing a lot more to sort of send that very clear message, that it's not acceptable, and that all of us have a part to play.

Simon Currigan  7:17  

So how do we as teachers and school leaders know if this is an issue in our schools? What sort of things should we be doing? What kind of assessments should we be doing? How should we be engaging with the kids to find out what's really going on? Because if we haven't got that information, then we can't tackle it and put systems and processes in place and make things better for the kids.

Alex Holmes  7:35  

But yeah, I think it's a really difficult job being in school. And also, some of this stuff often goes on sort of during lesson times, or, you know, back of the classroom and so on, it's not always clear. I think schools can really think about the data that they have access to. So things like behaviour, incidents, monitoring reports of bullying behaviour, whether that's members of staff that have looked that or whether it's students that have spoken out, I think also things like a anti bullying policy, which every school has, often it's just a piece of paper that maybe gets reviewed by the governors and SLT, maybe every three years. But we would really encourage students to have input in that. So view the policy, maybe rewrite it so that it's a little bit more child friendly, and even produce a sort of child friendly version of it. Like the best schools I think we work with and Nationwide Building Society have helped us to train are the ones that perhaps have produced a video version of the school's anti bullying policy, and then played it in assemblies or in classes. I think when students see themselves talking about something like this topic, then it you know, really can be absorbed a little bit better, I think, you know, we're very much of the opinion that peer to peer is really effective. And I think that linked to that, think about what role your students can play. So a lot of schools are really good at having sort of student voice, Student Council, you know, even eco warriors, all those sort of things. And I think don't forget that, actually, you can empower students to deal with behaviour and bullying. And, you know, that's what we're doing by helping to support schools to train young people to be anti bullying ambassadors, who then become the sort of eyes and ears you know, break time who support each other in lessons, but also outside of lessons. So I think it is a whole school approach. But if you can allow students to lead a lot of that work, then I think it really does make a difference because they speak the same language. And you know, you're far more likely as an adult to listen to your peers. And it's the same for students.

Simon Currigan  9:20  

There's a Peter Drucker quote that says, Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast, and you talk about bullying being the victimisation of difference, and that being kind of accepted in the culture and changing culture is hard. So how do we change the culture in school to where they become places where differences are celebrated rather than persecuted?

Alex Holmes  9:40  

Yeah, I think you're right, changing attitudes and behaviours and culture is hard. I think you're talking years not months really to you know, really affect change and for year groups to take that up for school. And, you know, I think to get to that point, you have to also maybe acknowledge that when you start on this journey in this work, you might see a spike in reports or incidents of bullying because As you're doing the right thing and raising awareness of the topic and helping people understand what it looks like, and encourage them to feel safe, and trust the systems that are in place to report and speak out. So I think you need to maybe see a little bit of a spike before perhaps things settle down a little bit. I think don't be one of those schools that worries if you talk about an issue, you then suddenly see lots of it, you know, because the fact is probably going on, when it's better like for you and your school and your students, and even things that OFSTED visits, if you're actually doing something proactive about it, I would say, but I think it is a really sort of tough challenge. And you want to as educators send that really sort of clear message, and maybe share a little bit about why you're passionate about this, if you've got members of staff who have experienced bullying themselves when they were at school, sharing their story might encourage others to do that. We find that creating a team of anti bullying ambassadors, it's really important that you don't just choose students that maybe have been bullied, you need people that perhaps have been bystanders to bullying, or maybe even have been engaging in bullying in the past, but  have some of those really good skills and confidence to be part of the solution. And I think those sorts of things like when you empower students to you know, have that responsibility and they feel a sense of being trusted, then that makes a real difference. And students sort of take notice of that. And think about spreading those leadership opportunities throughout the school.

Simon Currigan  11:18  

What kind of skills do you think makes for a good anti bullying ambassador? Or what kind of skills do we need to help those kids develop? Because often they're going to be lacking those kind of social confidence skills or their self esteem? What kind of skills do you think we should be purposefully setting out to help those children develop? 

Alex Holmes  11:33  

Yeah and I think any sort of leadership opportunity allows students to think about sort of independent problem solving skills, you know, project management, public speaking, you might even be able to think about other curriculum areas, like art or ICT being really useful in an anti bullying campaign. And I think, you know, for a team of students, it's very important that you brace lots of those skill sets that might exist. And I would say, you know, you have a real opportunity with these group of young people that you choose to give them a real, maybe intervention that actually might really help them their own concentration or their self esteem, their confidence. But yeah, I think the main thing is that we often find things like increasing collaboration, or increasing listening skills, speaking skills, you know, all those sort of skills, that being part of a team gives you that opportunity, particularly for some of the anti bullying ambassadors that will get up in assembly, talk in front of their peers is really valuable stuff that maybe will help them create really positive relationships with both the adults that are running this and their fellow students. So yeah, I think it does provide a lot of opportunities for really good skills to be built, but also for other curriculum areas, like the computing curriculum, or phsc, you know, to be those sort of messages to be reinforced by students through the anti bullying ambassadors team.

Simon Currigan  12:47  

These are just generally really important life skills, aside from helping kids with the emotional damage and the wasted potential of bullying that just sound like their skills that are worthwhile to develop for their own sake. You know, on top of the benefit of the culture in school. You're involved in the positive postbox campaign where we're talking about culture in school, which is a partnership between the Nationwide Building Society and the Diana Award, which is all about creating a positive climate in school. Can you tell us about how this works and how schools can get involved with it? 

Alex Holmes  13:16  

Yeah, we're really proud to be working with Nationwide Building Society, they are helping us train 10,000 Young people in primary schools across the country to be anti bullying ambassadors, and it's completely free to schools, thanks to their support. But we're also working on this campaign, because we really sort of believe in the power of positivity. And, you know, we think the the skill of writing a letter, and also the feeling and the buzz of receiving one is really valuable to children, young people, and we want to remind young people that actually, they've got the potential to make someone's day through kindness, you know, for a simple sort of act like letter writing, It's rfeally interesting with the research, I see that, you know, we found that at least 35% of children never received a letter and I think similar 32% have never written a handwritten letter. And when you think back, I think, you know, to mine or your time at school, like that was a big part of that. And I think if you had relatives, grandparents like me, you had to write a letter to say, thank you, when you received any sort of birthday, money and present. And if you didn't, you'd probably not be thought of highly or at all next time for your birthday. I think you know, more importantly, this research sort of found that a lot of children would be really happy to receive and take part in something like this. So what we're doing is kind of trying to reignite the excitement for is I think a bit of a dying art. And in October, we've got this positive postbox campaign, which will enable schools to sign up and participate. The first 50 schools to sign up to this, there might be schools that are listening to this podcast, I would love that, will they receive their own sort of life sized postbox and then we've got a fair bit, 250 You know, schools that will be eligible to receive like a smaller sort of desktop postbox. And the idea is that will help facilitate schools to have a pen pal in the school and for some schools that opt in, we'll help link them up with other schools so that, you know, that idea of being able to speak to people that may be a different from you, or live different area from you. But yeah, I think we're really excited because we think it's a positive thing. And we want to remind, particularly young people that they have the power to make someone feel great about themselves or through some words. So you know, it's easier to be positive than it is to be negative.

Simon Currigan  15:16  

And I think there's some interesting research from positive psychology as well as never about just writing a nice letter to someone, regardless of the benefit for the receiver, the benefit for yourself in terms of your own mental health, just having written that letter is quite impactful. How do schools get involved?

Alex Holmes  15:30  

Yeah, so it's really easy to get involved, you can go to our website,, register, sign up it's completely free, and get involved. It's a really exciting campaign.

Simon Currigan  15:40  

And let's see if we can get some of our listeners to be one of the first 50 people to register. I will also drop a direct link in the show notes. If you're listening to this. And lastly, Alex, who is the key figure that's influenced you, or what's the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with school kids?

Alex Holmes  15:57  

Well, maybe sort of the key figure is my head teacher, because actually, when I was going through some of the bullying, he empowered and trusted me to lead some of the work and I think I'm really grateful to him, because you need adults in your life to go when you're young, who allow you to test out your ideas in the world. So he gave me a lot of confidence. And there may be, you know, another sort of real moment is for me is somebody I think I'm gonna get the name right could Marie Stubbs. And she was an inspirational head teacher who took over the school where sadly, the head teacher was stabbed at the school gates, and she really sort of transformed it. And I read her book when I was very young, called, I think it's called Ahead of the Class. And then her story was made into sort of an ITV drama, Julie Walters and people like that. But it was inspiring I think about how you can change the culture of the school. And that school I think, had some real challenges around behaviour and consequences and you know, rewards and all that sort of stuff. But it was an inspiring read. So I think it's Marie Stubbs, Ahead of the Class, a really interesting book, and you might be able to also find the ITV drama somewhere online.

Simon Currigan  17:03  

I think that's a really positive empowering note on which to finish the conversation. Thank you for being on the show. Alex.

Alex Holmes  17:08  

Thank you so much for having me.

Simon Currigan  17:11  

So an important initiative, helping increase positivity in schools with the aim of reducing bullying

100% Just a reminder of the link, by the way, it's positive And you'll also find that link in the episode description.

And if you're working with pupils who need help understanding and developing their emotions, we've got a really useful free download that can help it's called How to help children manage anger and other strong emotions

It's because we've got a really simple approach to naming, we put on the front what it is.

Does what it says on the tin.

Absolutely. So the guide walks you through a step by step process for helping pupils understand and recognise emotions like anger and anxiety, and then start using positive strategies rather than destructive ones. To manage those feelings.

This is a completely free download, you can get yours from Click the Free Resources tab at the top, and you'll see Managing Strong Emotions. We'll also put a link in the episode description.

And if you found today's show useful or valuable, make sure you're subscribed so you never miss another episode. All you have to do is open up your podcast app and hit the subscribe button or follow us it's now calling Apple podcasts and your app will automatically download each episode as it's released. Subscribing will make you feel as excited as a seagull who's just spotted a bag of unattended chips on a bench at a seaside pier. Swoop down beautiful bird and claim that fried carbohydrates as your own.

Oh, that's made me really fancy a bag of chips now. Anyway, we hope that you have a brilliant week and we look forward to seeing you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now. 


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)