Tony Blair is at the heart of a national row over how to deal with bullying in schools. The conflict is setting supporters of a "no-blame" approach against the Government, which has turned its face against taking a "soft" line on bullying in favour of punishment.
Bristol's education authority has hardened its line on bullying as a result of the row, while Birmingham is reviewing its policy. And earlier this month two members of the government-backed Anti- Bullying Alliance, who pioneered the influential "no-blame" approach, walked out of the alliance - claiming that the Prime Minister's office had "bullied" the ABA into ending their contracts.
The trouble began in late November when Tony Blair told the House of Commons that he was "shocked" to hear of the widespread use of the "no-blame" approach to bullying by local authorities, in particular Bristol. The policy was "dangerous and reckless", he said.
His remarks followed the announcement, earlier that week, that teachers were to gain statutory powers to punish pupils - which was read as a signal that they should clamp down on classroom bullying, following the stabbing of a 15-year-old girl in the eye by classmates.
The measure apparently signalled the end of the no-blame approach.
The Government had recommended non-punitive approaches to bullying since coming to power. The Department for Education and Skills advocates no-blame style approaches in its Don't Suffer in Silence anti-bullying pack for schools. And the Government has supported the work of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, whose regional co- ordinators, George Robinson and Barbara Maines, walked out of the alliance and wrote the book Crying for Help: The No Blame Approach to Bullying.
The drive against no-blame has troubled critics, among them the government-appointed Children's Commissioner for England, Professor Al Aynsley-Green, who described the Prime Minister's line as a "knee- jerk reaction".
Both ChildLine and the NSPCC (which have recently merged) have weighed in against the Prime Minister. "An approach based solely on punishing bullies is seldom effective," says Lindsay Gilbert, head of Childline in Partnership with Schools.
The Government's main target since November has been the no- blame approach developed by Robinson and Maines. The Government insists that no-blame is substantively different from the support strategies it recommends.
"Support and mediation strategies are different from no-blame as they do not imply that bullying is blame-free," explained a DfES spokesperson. "In addition to changing behaviour, they make clear to the child who has been bullying that s/he has done something wrong and that s/he has to make amends as a consequence."
Advocates for no-blame, including Esther Rantzen, chair of ChildLine, say it does just that. "With the mediation process the bully can justify their wrongdoing," says Robinson. "In no-blame the bully is made aware of the effects of his or her behaviour and is much more likely to change."
The approach works by confronting bullies with the damage they are doing to their victims. Children being bullied tell a teacher how they are feeling, who explains how the child feels to a "support group" made up of bullies and, usually, friends of the child. The group are told that they are not being punished but given responsibility to stop the bullying and make a difference to the child's life. The group comes up with ways in which they can help the child.
"I think it's wonderful," says Christopher Evans, headmaster at Lakes Primary School in Cleveland, which has used no-blame support groups for more than a decade. "You don't punish children for getting their maths wrong, you teach them. This teaches them how to get their behaviour right."
Evans says that the approach means he does not waste time trying to work out exactly what happened, which he says can make things worse. …