'A bully broke my daughter's nose. The injury nearly killed her - yet the school did nothing to stop the attacks'

The teenager went to hospital twice after assaults by a classmate. In the latest of our special reports, Nicholas Pyke finds out what angry parents like Sue Groves can do when schools fail to act
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The Independent Online

It started with name-calling and ended with a vicious physical assault, two trips to hospital, a court case and a month off lessons. In between was a four-year campaign of classroom bullying against a girl whose only crime was to be well brought up.

It started with name-calling and ended with a vicious physical assault, two trips to hospital, a court case and a month off lessons. In between was a four-year campaign of classroom bullying against a girl whose only crime was to be well brought up.

Sue and Steve Groves expected secondary school to be a safe and orderly place for their daughter Sara, even if Chatham, in Kent, has more than its fair share of problems. Yet, like thousands of families around the country, they have had a very different experience of the education system. Instead of scholarship, there has been disruption, intimidation, official obfuscation and then, last year, the physical blow that shattered Sara's nose, spilling blood down her uniform.

Teachers claim they are witnessing a rising tide of indiscipline and violence. Last week The Independent on Sunday revealed that the number of serious assaults has doubled in the space of a year, with attacks on teachers now taking place at the rate of more than one a day. We reported how in one case a female RE specialist had to disarm a pupil with a loaded Colt 45.

But parents, too, are concerned and, like the Groves family, say that their complaints often get them nowhere because schools are unwilling or unable to change.

Bullying is a high-profile issue. On Friday an inquest heard that 13-year-old Laura Rhodes from Neath in South Wales took her own life after being constantly picked on at school. But it is part of a much wider problem faced by schools and families alike.

It is only a few weeks since the Groves family lost almost all their possessions in a house fire, and they are still in temporary accommodation. Sue, a civil servant, and her husband, Steve, have a lot on their plate right now. But they say the campaign of aggression directed at their daughter, now 16, has been more destructive.

It began as soon as she started at the school, a large secondary in the Medway area which we have agreed not to name. Sara was pinned up against the wall by her neck; threatened by gangs; and had her coursework thrown into a sink and ruined - in the middle of class. The school even had to help her to find a safe route between home and class. The verbal assaults were constant. Then in the autumn another girl punched her on the bridge of the nose so hard that it required two hospital trips to repair. The specialist said that, had it been just two centimetres higher, the blow could have killed her. Sue Groves decided to make a stand and, despite further intimidation, pressed charges. The perpetrator pleaded guilty to actual bodily harm and was expelled. "It's been terrifying, an emotional roller-coaster for the family," Sue said. "She comes home quite often when people have said things that make her upset. It just leaves you feeling helpless and frustrated. You can only phone the school so many times. Even when we decided to go to the police, she was victimised."

Repeated pleas to the school to protect her daughter were met either with no action or with an inadequate response. She has campaigned to be given a copy of the anti-bullying policy, which by law it must have. Yet, despite a request under the Freedom of Information Act, she has seen no sign of one. Although some teachers have been exemplary, in her eyes the scale of the problem has been ignored. "I don't think they want to open their eyes to the fact that they have a discipline problem," she said.

Sara is getting over it and preparing for her GCSEs. She plans to help other victims when she leaves school. Yet even now it goes on. She leaves school five minutes early and avoids certain streets.

The school's response to the criticisms is that it takes part in a much-praised "restorative justice programme", in which victims and perpetrators meet and talk. But the Groves say this no-blame approach has been hopeless. "The children doing the bullying say one thing in the session, then do another. It's difficult for the victim, too, and ends up making them feel worse."

Around 60 per cent of schoolchildren say they are bullied, according to Michele Elliott from the Kidscape child protection charity, and 10 per cent of the cases are so serious they lead to self-harm or even suicide. "The frustration is when parents report something, yet nothing seems to happen," she said. "Then, when they bother the school to try to get some kind of result, they're branded as difficult parents. To blame the victim is despicable."

YOUR LETTERS

The IoS has been inundated with letters and emails following last week's special report on the rise of classroom violence and indiscipline. Here is a selection.

Violent children

I am a retired headteacher. I recently did 18 months' supply at an inner-city primary school. The teachers were hit, bitten, kicked, scratched and sworn at on a daily basis by children aged five to 11 years. Lessons throughout school were disturbed as screaming perpetrators were carried out by four classroom assistants.

Margaret Edwards, Leeds

Inaction on bullying

My daughter was severely bullied. She was badly let down by her headteacher, who took no real action to protect her until we threatened legal action. Eventually, we moved her out of the state sector.

Name and address supplied

Constant disruption

I have been in teaching since 1961. The steady erosion of standards of behaviour has been disturbing to witness. Many pupils are rude, crude, vulgar and obscene. Getting children to sit quietly, listen and then work is almost impossible. I still love being in the classroom and occasionally have a very good day, but they are very rare. I wish someone could explain why so many children now take so much pleasure from insulting and abusing each other.

Mike Garbutt, Sheffield

Shocking sixth form

A fact I found most shocking during my last three or four years as a teacher was the rapid deterioration in the quality, attitude and behaviour of a significant proportion of sixth-formers. Frequent absence, failure to work and manic behaviour were commonplace. Whenever I hear about the numbers of 16+ students still "in education" I ask myself: "but are they actually doing anything there?"

Name and address supplied

Unfair to others

I am a secondary English teacher, and I experience the same kind of things on a daily basis. The saddest thing of all is the plight of the many, many decent children who are being denied a safe and secure environment in the classroom. The bullies claim their "rights"! What about the rights of everyone else? Please don't let this subject be dropped.

Name and address supplied

Learning prevented

I worked as IT support and as a sixth-form tutor in a London comprehensive school for 11 years. During the last four years I saw discipline decline drastically. A few disruptive children in the class meant that the majority of children were prevented from learning. Teachers become frustrated coping with these children. Disenchanted teaching staff leave the school at the first opportunity for a better school or a job outside education. In this environment it is a miracle that any education takes place at all.

Steven Syme, Elstree, Herts

Have you been affected by violence or indiscipline at school? Are your classes disrupted? The IoS would like to hear from parents, pupils and teachers. Inside Britain's Schools can be reached at insideschools @independent.co.uk or by post at Inside Britain's Schools, Home News Desk, The Independent on Sunday, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS.

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