Bullied boys: Why bright lads are being picked on

More than half of young people in Britain are affected by bullying – and studious pupils, especially boys, are the most vulnerable. Hilary Wilce looks at what can be done

Tommy Stenton was a bright boy who lived through hell in his last year of primary school and his first year at secondary school. The reason was that he was quiet and studious, so the other children picked on him for showing them up.

"What happened was that we moved and I had to change schools and I had no friends, so I was just keeping my head down and getting on with my books when it started. It was name-calling and people pushing and shoving me around. Also, the teacher didn't help. She used to say to the other kids that they weren't doing as much work as me and they'd have to stay in at break, and they didn't like that so they used to call me all sorts of things, like boffin and geek."

Tommy quickly started to hide his interest in his schoolwork. "I decided if I didn't do as well they wouldn't pick on me as much, so I used to try harder to get stuff wrong and act more stupid. I wasn't at the top of the class, and I wasn't at the bottom. Then, when I went up to secondary school, no one noticed because by then it was who I was."

It was Tommy's elder sister who found out how badly he was doing, recognised that it was out of character and told his teachers. "And after that it just got sorted." His teachers encouraged him, he grew in confidence and found friends of an equal intelligence. Now, at 15, he is happy at Danum School Technology College, an 11-18 comprehensive near Doncaster. He is predicted to get 11 GCSEs and hopes to do physics, chemistry and maths at A-level and become a teacher.

Natalie, 16, who lives in the South-east (and doesn't want to give her surname), is hoping that things will turn out as well for her younger brother Will, 11, who, like her, has been bullied for being clever. "He'd come home from primary school and run straight up to his room because he didn't want us to see he was upset. And it's a lot worse for guys, they often don't have the same social skills as girls."

Will is now in secondary school and has his girl twin and two older sisters looking out for him. "If we see anything happening, we go over and say 'You alright, Will?' and that usually sorts it."

But Natalie knows how important it is to get things sorted. From about nine she was bullied for being smart and speaking up in class. She was called names and had "lesbian" pictures planted in her bag. "So you start not answering questions, not writing things down, and not doing as well as you should do. There's always pressure not to perform well, and everyone wants to be popular and go along with the majority."

Despite this she managed to do well in her GCSEs, and is aiming for a career in psychology or criminology. "You come to realise that the bullies are going to be the ones that fail. My dad knows this. He was the only person in his road to go to grammar school and he got rinsed for it, but he saw that everyone else was still going to be there in 30 years' time, and they are. He's the only one who got out."

A recent study of gifted children in nine state secondary schools, by researchers at Roehampton University, has confirmed that clever pupils, especially boys, can be bullied and will "dumb down" to fit in. Being funny, good at sports and having a more disruptive pupil as a friend also helps. "Some pupils are able to maintain popularity with peers in spite of their high academic achievement," says Becky Francis, professor of education. "What appears to be a fundamental facilitator of this is their physical appearance, and for boys, their physical ability at sport."

Bullying the class "swot" has always been popular, but today's pupils say that the popularity of American high-school films, which often feature stereotypical boy geeks, has made it worse. They say that in "ordinary" state schools it often feels as if there aren't other intelligent pupils around, and they believe that teachers make it worse by not realising that bullying is going on.

"We discovered that the main thing that made our pupils uncomfortable was to be seen winning things," says Fran Baker, assistant head at Edenham High School, an 11-16 comprehensive in Croydon that is successfully tackling bullying. "Often the teasing and bullying comes from children who know they aren't going to be the ones winning things. Disaffected pupils have low self-esteem and try to bring down the other children to their level."

As a result of talking to students, the school now has an honours system that rewards pupils for things besides academic achievement and has used a programme run by the charity Beatbullying to help change the culture, "which has been amazing. Obviously, we've known for quite some time that children get bullied for being geeky and nerdy," says Sarah Dyer, new media director and spokesperson for Beatbullying, "but all the research shows that over 50 per cent of young people in the UK are affected by bullying which means an absolutely huge impact of achievement if millions of children are dumbing down and not meeting their target attainments."

Beatbullying believes effective bullying prevention programmes can be set up in schools for £4 for each pupil. "Plenty of schools have poor programmes, but a good one is properly embedded and sustained. Once we implement a programme we return to it every three to six months and we are always looking ahead to things like training the next generation of peer mentors. This money is a drop in the ocean, but the Government still doesn't get it, even though it's prepared to spend £23m to combat knife and gun crime."

Beatbullying has just launched a national "cyber mentor" scheme, which allows pupils to access help online. The scheme has 850 mentors aged 11 to 25 and 25,000 pupils accessed it in its first month of operation. "We have absolutely smashed our targets already," says Sarah Dyer. "Young people love that they don't have to see anyone face-to-face. And boys especially have said that it wouldn't make any difference to them if their cyber mentor was a girl because there's no physical meeting."

For Natalie, who is a young cyber mentor, one key to change would be "for teachers to pick up on bullying more, but often they just want to get the lesson done and don't want to be bothered that only one person's answering all the questions. And maybe teachers could be more strict, or could stream children from a younger age."

Tommy Stenton thinks parents also need to change. "You need to know how your child is, and if you see a change then ask about it."

The bullying of "geeks", he says, goes on everywhere. "It's exactly the same in every school. It's so stupid. It gets people down. There's always a group ready to take the mess [sic] out of anything you do."

www.beatbullying.org, for help and advice on bullying; www.cybermentors.org.uk, for young people to get help from their peers and trained cyber councillors

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