Living in fear of the teacher

Bullying by a teacher can make children's lives a misery. But the subject is often taboo, says Pru Irvine
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The Independent Online
It is very likely that in every big school in Britain there is one teacher who is bullying. It is also likely that he or she has been making children's lives a misery for years. Parents, teachers and children will all know about it but they'll feel powerless because there is no system in our schools to break the fear of repercussion. Just about any school in the country will tell you it has a policy on bullying, and that bullying can no longer go unchallenged. But what policies do schools have for teachers who are doing the bullying?

Teachers who bully are considered to be very much in the minority, but those that do can seriously damage a child. Delwyn Tattum, co-director of the Countering Bullying Unit at the University of Wales Institute, says the damage is threefold: social, because the child becomes ostracised by his peers; academic, because it kills his enjoyment of a subject; and emotional, sometimes leading to suicide. The memory of being bullied is life-long.

There is no research either to support the view that teachers who bully are not a major issue, or to bring to light what some consider a cultural taboo that has long been in need of investigation. It is difficult to track because the teacher is alone with the class, and difficult to substantiate because there is often only the child's word or that of his or her parents. How much did children have to suffer before their evidence in child abuse cases was given credence in a court of law?

Angela Glasier, a counsellor at the national children's charity Kidscape, says headteachers are afraid of bad publicity: "A parent complains to a head, who says 'leave it with me'. He then talks to the teacher, who denies it. The child is suddenly invisible." If the head regards the child's evidence as unreliable, then the parent's evidence becomes hearsay. The onus is on the parent to prove it. Rachel Hodgkin, the principal policy officer at the National Children's Bureau, says that schools will all admit to a lack of resources for dealing with difficult children, and to having little time for pastoral care, but "they never say 'yes, that's a vicious teacher'.

"It's the outrageous injustice of it all. Children are invisible. They have no rights at all when it comes to a decision about their education."

Kidscape say that of their 200 calls a week, one in 20 is about a teacher who is humiliating a child in front of a class. Yet the General Secretary of the National Association for Head Teachers, David Hart, says: "No head would fail to act where a teacher is guilty of misbehaving." If you fail to act, he says, the consequences are far worse than any damaging publicity.

At the Children's Legal Centre in Colchester, cases of teacher-pupil bullying are not uncommon. "People are going in terror," says the director, Carolyn Hamilton. It is more than bullying, she says. It is inadequacy on the part of the teacher, a lack of respect for the child and a setting of impossible standards which makes failure inevitable. The centre has a great deal of experience of what can be described as the insidious, day-to-day domestic bullying that this story is concerned with. "It often takes the form of rudeness to a child, the calling of funny nicknames, exposing a child to ridicule or never choosing an individual for special jobs," she says. At secondary level, she believes teachers no longer understand teenage culture. Older generations who lived through corporal punishment accepted bullying as the norm, but today's teenagers don't.

"If heads allowed themselves to admit to teachers doing the bullying, they would be opening a can of worms," she says.

This is supported by the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE). Margaret McGowan, an ACE advice worker, says some will go so far as to admit to a "personality clash", but no further. Some will move the child, but most will do nothing. "The hierarchical system finds pupil evidence undermining," she says. "Twenty years ago it was taboo to talk about harassment in the workplace. Today it's taboo to talk about it in schools when it involves a teacher and a child." ACE would like to see schools set up informal complaints procedures.

At primary level, teacher bullying is particularly difficult to identify, as small children are less articulate and experienced. Many regard over- zealous control as the norm. Jack Rabinowicz, the London lawyer known for his handling of cases against schools, says children are often slapped by primary school teachers, but, like bullying in the workplace, it is dismissed as a light-hearted jest. To mount a case against a school depends, he says, on being able to prove that the school is doing nothing about the problem. A Scottish primary school head believes that to prove such a case the head has to distinguish bullying from control. Establishing control is a priority to establishing learning. It is when the differences between the two start to emerge that you have to take notice, he says. Children need to know why they're given commands, and teachers need reasons for doing things: "Some teachers don't explain enough, and don't listen to answers. We're all guilty of that as parents. Now multiply it by 33." Teaching styles can be a matter of habit, and some teachers don't know that what they're doing is bullying. A deputy head says: "We're asking children to have a view and to express it, and we can't take it. This can result in teachers not liking a child, not listening to him, dismissing him, making him feel bad." However, the bullied child is sometimes the symptom rather than the cause, she says. It is often the teacher who needs help. Teachers are operating in a climate of demoralisation which, she says, increases the threat of their acting out their own feelings of oppression.

Delwyn Tattum says: "Teachers are fully aware that some of their colleagues have a very bruising approach to the way they deal with the children." In the unit's analysis of the behaviour of disruptive children, the child often complains about a teacher who demeans them, or makes them feel embarrassed and humiliated. Rachel Hodgkin at the NCB believes that exclusion, as the ultimate sanction, is usually traceable back to one teacher. "It's a wind-up which should never have been allowed to get that far."

But what happens to other teachers when they become aware of a colleague who is bullying? One deputy head says they feel both dismayed and powerless: "I think it's inevitable that teachers won't report their colleagues, because they don't see it as their job. The education authorities would have the child moved around the school. If you do take it on, you open a can of worms. So instead you chip away at it, bit by bit, over a long period of time, and you hope to make a change. You ask me if this is sanctioning a mild form of child abuse, and in my darker moments I have to say yes."

The NAHT advises all its members to have a policy on bullying, because without one they're vulnerable. But bullying policies tend to deal specifically with pupil-to-pupil bullying. Kidscape say that of the 34,000 schools in this country, only a third implement their anti-bullying polices. The rest hide behind them.

What does this say to those who claim that the numbers of teachers who bully are so insignificant as to be not worth the researchers' time? Or, indeed, to those who decline to commit themselves because there is no research? The NCB is calling for a teacher-training curriculum that teaches conflict resolution and surmounting personal likes and dislikes. The new education Bill needs an explicit prohibition on teachers humiliating children. Their view is shared by the NAHT and the Countering Bullying Unit. But Kidscape doubts whether legislation can affect the quality of personal relationships.

Although Rachel Hodgkin at the NCB believes teacher bullying is "a very serious issue that needs tackling now", the fact is that all we have is powerful anecdotal evidence. In the absence of government-funded research it is likely that this issue will remain a taboo. But every instance of a child who is bullied by a teacher brings us closer to the need to assess and tackle the issue. Whatever the size of the problem, it is clearly devastating to the child in question. That, surely, is enough to make a compelling case for the child's voice to be heard

Jennifer's story

At the end of last term Jennifer left her school, because her mother feared she was in danger of being crushed by her teacher. It was a personality clash, said the school.

Jennifer is nine years old, clever and challenging and articulate. At school she was considered over-demanding and academically ambitious.

She was constantly told to hurry up and finish her work, or the headteacher would be informed. But on parents' night her teacher complained that she did her work too fast. Sometimes it was ripped up. She was also told how unpopular she was becoming.

In the playground, parents and grandparents, who'd been taught by the same teacher, laughed nervously. "Wasn't it shocking," they said. "He was exactly the same in our day. We complained, but nothing was done."

Jennifer's mother advised her to keep her head down, follow the rules and get on with it. But later, after several illnesses and many missed days at school, there was a diagnosis of stress.

Jennifer's mother explained to her that sometimes people get ill when something is bothering them and they can't find a way to express it. Jennifer then told her story. So did lots of other parents, but their children had forbidden them to say anything because they were afraid of repercussions, and they didn't have concrete proof. All they knew for sure was that their children were not quite as smiley or as enthusiastic as they had been. And, anyway, the children would have a different teacher next year.

Jennifer's mother complained formally, and several meetings followed. She was advised not to call into question the professionalism of the school staff. There was a difference, said the school, between Jennifer's perception of what was happening and the reality. The school, Jennifer's mother says, paid lip service to the issue, but nothing was done about it