Education: When the bully making your child's life hell is his teacher

It is rare, but it can turn lives upside-down. Children who find themselves victims of adults who should be guiding them are often not believed, and parents find complaints met by closed ranks. By Caroline Willcocks
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The Independent Culture
Pat isn't normally an angry person. But what her young son Luke went through has changed all that. For a year, he was humiliated, verbally abused and at times physically hurt. But this is not an everyday story of children being bullied by other children. Luke was bullied by his teacher.

Children have probably been picked on by teachers for as long as schools have existed. A personality clash can set it off, and it is generally the child who comes off worse because he or she lacks the power that the authority of the teacher confers.

In the past children would have kept quiet, while their parents - even if they did discover what was going on - were unlikely to have done anything about it. But in today's anti-bullying climate not all children are keeping it to themselves - although it is not always doing them much good.

It is comparatively rare for teachers to bully. But when it happens the victims who speak out can find themselves treated with hostility and disbelief. In Luke's case nothing was done, despite Pat's complaints to the headteacher and the school governors.

At first Luke was too terrified to confide in Pat. "It was a girl in his class who told me. She said, `the teacher was so mean today, she was pulling Luke, and dragging him, and he fell down on the floor.' During that evening a few other people phoned me because they'd heard something had gone on."

Luke's school had already contacted Pat and her husband, Ian, several times about the child's behaviour. Teachers complained that he fiddled with his tie, or stood up when the other children were sitting down. Both parents had felt that the school was not being patient with their son.

This incident was much more serious, however. Pat went to the school to find out what had happened. "The whole school went up in arms," she says, "and his own teacher refused to teach him on the grounds that she didn't wish for any more defamatory remarks to be made about her."

At first the school denied that the incident had ever happened; it was only much later, when Pat had access to a summary of Luke's records, that she saw this incident, along with another, had been recorded as an instance of the use of "reasonable force for restraint".

In the following months the school contacted Pat constantly. Luke had hurt his head by banging it on the desk, "on purpose". And another time an accidental collision in the playground was regarded as an assault (although the other child involved confirmed that it had been an accident). Luke was sent to another teacher, who told him he was malicious. "She hates me, Mum," he later wept, "she said she hates me."

An educational psychologist who saw Luke confirmed that he was a bright and friendly child, badly traumatised by his school environment. It is common for children who are bullied by teachers to show a loss of self- esteem, aggressive behaviour and problems with sleeping and appetite. Pat decided to move Luke to another school where his behaviour and work are both excellent.

Helen Rimington, a solicitor with the Children's Legal Centre, says: "Parents do find it very frustrating that the investigative process is an internal one in these cases. It can be quite a problem because, when there are no other witnesses, or the witnesses are other children, it's just the teacher's word against the child's."

David, who has special educational needs, was subject to a more subtle form of bullying. Arrangements for his education were constantly overturned by his headteacher, without consent from his mother, or from the multi- disciplinary team of professionals who manage his case.

The headteacher, who had not wanted David to return to school after a long illness, seemed to enjoy frightening him. His mother, Christine, says: "David would come home so upset. The headteacher wanted to wind him up, so that he would do something and she would have the excuse to get him out of that school."

It worked. David became so anxious that Christine removed him from the school. She complained to the governors, but met with a hostile response. "I had a meeting with the chair of governors," she recalls. "He said, `If you ever repeat what I'm saying, I'll deny it was ever said.' He told me in no uncertain terms that unless the headteacher actually physically hit a child, or was caught stealing, then she was staying."

Margaret McGowan, of the Advisory Centre for Education, says that complaints from parents of teacher bullying should be made diplomatically. "We do unfortunately sometimes get cases where a parent has gone and complained and it backfires, and leads to some kind of victimisation of the child. Where possible, it is best to sort things out informally."

At primary level parents may think about moving their child, but, if it is secondary school, sometimes it is a matter of supporting the child and saying, "Well, this is life, and we've all experienced teachers that we've not got on with".

This is what has happened to Jack, a boy his father, Bill, admits is no angel. An overweight teenager, he has been provoked into fights by name-calling that his school does not seem willing to stop. Some teachers regularly abuse him, calling him "fat boy". Bill says: "When he was in the wrong at school, one teacher said to him, `don't think anyone in this school likes you, because personally I hate you'."

Suzanna Roffey, an educational psychologist, says that the extreme pressure teachers are under nowadays may sometimes lead them to say things they regret, but "there are approaches towards children and young people that are much more likely to escalate confrontation rather than reduce it. If a harsh, inappropriate response comes from teachers, then the child's behaviour may deteriorate even more, but if there's a more understanding response, then you can get an upward spiral."

Recently Bill met Jack's headteacher with a mediator present. It is too early to say what effect this has had but, Bill says, "At least he listened to what I had to say".

Many cases can be settled by meeting the teacher or headteacher, confirms Howard Martin, an anti-bullying adviser with Kidscape. "But if you think your child is in any physical danger or severe emotional danger, or there is a threat of it, remove them from the situation, perhaps with a doctor's certificate that he or she is suffering from anxiety, before pursuing your complaint."

If changing schools is not an option, Martin advises parents to consider education at home. And whatever parents decide, he says: "Trust your guts and your instinct, just keep believing your child, making sure that he or she is supported, because to feel isolated as a child is the very worst thing."

WHAT TO DO IF YOU SUSPECT A TEACHER OF BULLYING

If possible, approach the teacher first, and then the headteacher. Taking it further, you can complain to the school's governors. If your child is in a state school, you can ask them to order an investigation. If all else fails, contact the Secretary of State for Education.

Memories of your own school days may make you uncomfortable, but keep calm. Make an appointment - don't storm in.

Take a witness to meetings, and write down what is said. Some parents tape meetings. Be aware that child witnesses are often regarded as unreliable, and

have sometimes been intimidated.

The Children's Legal Centre (01206 873820) can advise on your rights and legal action.

Confide in Kidscape (0171-730 3300) or Childline (0800 1111). The Stephenson Foundation (0151-475 6246) offers a mediation service for parents in north-west England.

The Advisory Centre for Education publishes two booklets at pounds 1.50 each - "Tackling Bullying" and "Taking Matters Further". Contact ACE, 1B Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ (0171-354 8321).

The local education authority is obliged to offer you another school place if you withdraw your child from school.

For details on home education, send a stamped addressed envelope to Education Otherwise, PO Box 2740, London N9 9SG. (0181-556 3437).

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