Parents dread the idea that their children may become the victims of school bullies. And no wonder. Few people have travelled through life without experiencing the tiniest whiff of victimisation, and it is unbearable to think of the full force of that misery being visited on our little ones.
Yet despite all this empathy, bullying appears to be becoming a bigger problem all the time. It now transpires that rising numbers of children are being educated at home, with one estimate citing a figure of 140,000, or 1.5 per cent of the school-age population. Bullying (alongside the testing that some see as institutionalised bullying) is being cited as one of the main reasons why so many families are rejecting the classroom.
Even within the formal system, many decisions about private school or state school, and much of the aggressive jostling to get children into particular state schools, are as much to do with social worries as they are to do with educational standards. The horror of bullying is driving many of parents' most basic decisions about the schooling of their children.
The Government's recent actions concede that such a position may have good cause. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Estelle Morris, was shocked by the number of letters from parents about bullying when she took up her post.
In response she has more-or-less reversed the policy of the previous incumbent, David Blunkett. He had been big on reducing exclusions, bringing numbers down from 12,700 in 1997 to 8,400 last year. As of September, schools will be able to exclude children after one incident of bullying, with no right of appeal.
Such draconian measures – which surely amount to educational internment without trial – only point up the atmosphere of desperation which is felt about bullying. Yet, some experts insist that bullying has not increased, only our awareness of how damaging it is. There may be something in that.
Once a bit of bullying was considered to be part of the rough and tumble of childhood, of sorting out pecking orders, of building "character". The English public school system even formalised the ritual with such traditions as fagging. (Although Lord Flashman served to remind all concerned that this could go Much Too Far.)
But the consequences of bullying now seem so grave that it's hard to grasp the possibility that a society believing in such values could ever have functioned at all. We are now familiar with the harsh fact that some children kill themselves because of bullying, and many more try to. Even as adults, victims of bullying are still as much as seven times more likely than the general population to commit suicide.
For those who opt for revenge rather than self-annihilation, the consequences can be just as nightmarish. One bullied girl is on trial at the moment, charged with two counts of attempted murder, and one of burglary. She is alleged to have got into an ex-friend's house in the middle of the night, and stabbed her in the head with a kitchen knife. It is claimed that when the girl's mother tried to intercede, she too was attacked.
Shafiq Rasul, 24, and Asif Iqbal, 20, two of the British Muslims detained by the United States on suspicion of fighting for al-Qa'ida, are said by their relatives to have joined a gang in response to racist bullying at school. The group called themselves the Tipton Asian Terror Squad and ruled the roost by the time they left the classroom behind. "They just like being part of a gang," said one family member, "and this is what has got them mixed up in this."
The fate of these two young men from the Midlands may seem to have little to do with the everyday problems of bullying and how to deal with them. But what this story does illustrate, most horribly, is the most frightening thing about bullying of all. It is utterly unpredictable.
A small amount of bullying may have terrible consequences, while a sustained campaign really might make a child simply toughen up in a positive way. Likewise, a known trouble-maker at a school might be seen by teachers as a likely bully, while a top-of-the-class Miss Popular may have the accusation thrown at her to a chorus of incredulous denials from teachers and parents.
Which brings us to one of the great mysteries of life. Why is it that parents so often fear that their children may be the targets of bullies, but hardly ever worry that their children might themselves be the bullies? Can it be entirely healthy that we see victimhood as the worst thing that could possibly happen to us, when in fact it must be just as bad to learn that our children are the perpetrators of bullying? It's patently obvious that worrying about what others might do to our children is merely passive, while worrying about the behaviour of our own children must surely lead to action. Is it possible that some of the trouble with bullying may stem from parental failure – not by individuals but comprehensively – to be realistic about it?
In announcing her extreme measures for dealing with bullies, Estelle Morris did stress that "parents have an obligation to give the message to their children that bullying is no way to behave". But this piece of lip-service is so basic and so limp that it actually communicates the opposite notion to that carried in its words. Ms Morris is surely saying that her ministry believes parents cannot be relied upon to guard against bullying.
This is partly a function of our polarised society, whereby we, the respectable, are constantly fighting for our lives, or at least our lifestyles, against them, the unrespectable. The idea is that children are bullies because their parents do not care. But often the parents of bullies do care – they just have difficulty accepting that their little angel is not a victim but an aggressor. After all, it is the former, not the latter, that is the parental nightmare. This is partly because our fear of bullying has stigmatised the activity to such a degree that nobody wants to admit to it. But bullying isn't necessarily the mark of evil. I was bullied by scores of children during a childhood remarkable for my continuing stature as the serial victim of hundreds. One or two of my bullies did seem like psychos, but mainly they were just "going through a phase" on the way to a blameless adulthood.
But it's also because none of the plentiful advice given to parents ever deals with this side of the issue. Parents are advised on how to spot the signs that their child is being bullied, and always to be vigilant on that score. But I as a parent wouldn't mind a few tips on how to spot the signs that your child is doling it out rather than taking it.
Even the fact that bullying is now talked of as a school problem that the Department for Education should solve is an indication that parents are willfully unengaged with the matter.
The implication is that bullying only happens when the parental obligation is handed over to the teacher. But that's not true. Bullying happens among siblings, between family friends hanging out together during holiday time, among neighbourhood friends as well as school friends.
What action do parents take in these situations, when school can't intercede on their behalf? The sensible thing is for the parents of aggressor and victim to sort things out together. Sometimes this is all settled very easily. But sometimes parental hysteria ensues. Few parents want to face the idea that their child is the aggressor, and the problem may not actually be so terribly serious.
Everybody is primed to protect their children from victimhood, but it might be just as well to become more realistic about the fact that childhood bullying is a two-way street. Testimony from the victims of bullying and their families is commonplace. But how much more useful it would be to hear the other side of some of these stories.Reuse content