Deborah Orr: How can so-called experts still be so clueless about bullying in schools?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Unearthed a couple of years ago by the charity Kidscape, it describes a frightening new phenomenon involving Middle-Class Children from Nice Families sometimes being nasty to others. Michelle Elliot, director of Kidscape, was the innovative soul who proudly brought this development to the attention of admiring MPs.

From interactions of various kinds, mainly encounters during anti-bullying courses and helpline calls, Elliot explained earnestly, a pattern emerged. This pattern confirmed that "the tormentor was not always the little thug who comes from a family of bullies and has to bully too just to survive, but was intrinsically a nice person from a nice home". Even worse, it transpires, these 21st-century bullies do not usually resort to physical violence, and are actually more likely to be girls than boys.

I have only two questions about this. Why on earth was a person running an anti-bullying charity when she was so totally ignorant as to believe this stuff to be "new"? And why on earth is a select committee so woefully lacking in wisdom that they appear to consider such statements of the obvious to be enlightening?

Have none of these people been to school? Have they never been bullied, or ever even been aware of victimisation in any sphere of their lives? Have they never had children, and seen them come home from school withdrawn or upset, and endeavoured to get to the bottom of the difficulty? Have they never even noticed that people from all walks of life regularly speak about being bullied at school, most bitterly of all if they happen to be girls sent off to board, or boys who found themselves on the receiving end of the ritualised semi-official bullying that was prized as part of the "character and ethos" of the institution?

Have they never even read a book set in a school? Children's literature since Tom Brown's Schooldays documents bullying regimes among the "top drawer" that nowadays would result in a summary transfer to a secure unit. No work of children's fiction to this day is complete without a well-to-do bullying villain. Draco Malfoy anyone? Alicia from Mallory Towers? Violet Elizabeth Bott? Little Lord Fauntleroy? Estella from Great Expectations?

Have they never even been to the cinema themselves, or - God forbid - hired a DVD to watch with their children of an evening? Eighteen years ago - when these wise heads were young, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder starred in Heathers, a dark and brilliant dissection of school bullying that managed to come spookily close to predicting Columbine. Much more recently, in the generation of their children and grandchildren, vivid films such as Mean Girls with Lindsay Lohan, pictured, and Clueless with Alicia Silverstone have mined similar territory. These mainstream hit films place on cinema screens everyday dilemmas that are perfectly familiar to all those who decide on how such matters should be tackled.

Not that one has to resort to film or literature to meet a bully. My own entire childhood was littered with incidents of bullying, never from the poor sods that Elliot describes as stereotypical bullies, but always from the girls who felt confident enough to pass judgement on others and find them wanting. One girl who literally snapped my finger with her bare hands is now a prominent lawyer. Once, when I told an adult neighbour about the bullying I'd received while on a camping trip, she looked at me in disbelief and distaste and said: "But Susan's a doctor's daughter."

I'm amazed to see that so many decades later these same idiotic assumptions still pervade, and among the people who style themselves as "experts". I can't wait to see what wise decisions they come up with about how this fascinating new scourge can be combated. But in the meantime, I'll be keeping a close eye on my own children for signs that they're giving it out or taking it, and handling the situation in exactly the ways that parents have been doing so since the dawn of civilisation.

Another England lamb sent to the slaughter

Sven Goran Eriksson may have felt it was worth the "gamble", putting the inexperienced talent Theo Walcott in the England squad. But what sort of gamble is it, really, for a man who is off to pastures new in a couple of months anyway? Any price to be paid for this gamble will be paid by Theo and not by his new boss.

Eriksson complains that what he hates about Britain is its intrusive media, with its prurient interest in the private lives of public figures. I don't much like that either. So I think that if I had it in my power to decide whether a 17-year-old and his nearest and dearest should enjoy anonymity for a little while longer, or be propelled in the most spectacular manner possible into the public domain, I'd decide that the "gamble" was rather too great.

Eriksson, as we all know, decided that the gamble was worth taking. Already, it is reported, the lad has turned down crazy offers, as has his teenage girlfriend, Melanie Slade. Already his schoolgirl girlfriend has been presented in the press as a sex object, with her butterfly tattoo highlight as a focus of attention for lecherous readers. The girlfriend of a team-mate has advised her during a charity photocall that's she's been dragged into: "Keep your mouth shut until you get paid a lot of money."

It may well be that these young people, unlike so many others, have the family support and strength of character to stay sane and healthy under the intense pressure and dizzying wealth. But I don't suppose such considerations played much of a part in Eriksson's gamble. What he wanted, of course, was a bit of novelty to throw to the media and introduce an element of glamorous surprise.

But when even the rest of the voracious footballing establishment is treading carefully around its new star-to-be, surely it's utterly irresponsible to subject this young couple to all the nonsense that even he, as an experienced adult, found difficult to bear.

* The Human Rights Act is proving unpopular. The legislation is now cited in every situation involving a shameless criminal or unrepentant ne'er do well in exactly the way that its critics predicted it would. How sad.

The problem appears to be that while most of us agree that "to err is human", there are people among us who believe that "to err is a human right". One would like to imagine that this work of idealism would be put to use in the spirit in which it was created. Instead, though, when the ruthless users call their lawyers, cleverness rather than wisdom is employed in interpreting the act.

The lawyers who argued for Anthony Rice to be released appear to feel no need to defend their role in the murder of Naomi Bryant. Likewise the person insisting that human rights have been breached because they were not allowed to take smack in jail may not be aware that they're simply feeding junkie denial. Lawyers are obliged to represent those who have committed a crime. But they are not obliged to represent people who believe their human right is to be a criminal.