Maureen Freely: Yes, we can beat the school bullies

When bullies in the playground knocked my son's tooth out, a teacher told me it was his fault that he had got in their way
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We must not forget Damilola. Some good must come out of his tragic death. We must make the streets safe for young children. As a nation, we can no longer tolerate bullies. These are just a few of the well-meaning refrains we've been hearing for a week now. To my knowledge, there have been no dissenters. We all want the same thing, at least in theory. How strange, then, that no one seems to want to discuss how to make this noble plan come true.

We must not forget Damilola. Some good must come out of his tragic death. We must make the streets safe for young children. As a nation, we can no longer tolerate bullies. These are just a few of the well-meaning refrains we've been hearing for a week now. To my knowledge, there have been no dissenters. We all want the same thing, at least in theory. How strange, then, that no one seems to want to discuss how to make this noble plan come true.

Instead, there's been the usual game of hot potato, with the usual suspects saying schools, parents, the community or the Government "should do more". Yes, obviously. We all should do more. But what exactly should we be doing?

The first thing we need to do, I think, is stop wafting around on a cloud of platitudes and come down to earth - look at what we already know about bullying, and what some schools are already doing.

The first thing you'll hear if you visit such a school is that the negative approach doesn't work. It is never just a question of "stamping out bad behaviour". You need to set limits with children and you need to let them know what will happen to them if they overstep them. But this isn't going to get you very far unless all children in the school know that their teachers care about them, are pleased when they do well, and are there for them when they have problems. They need to feel safe. If they feel safe, then they can stop watching their backs and get down to work.

The same goes for parents. If they are made to feel welcome in their children's schools, if they feel they can share their concerns with their children's teachers, they will stop treating the schoolyard like enemy territory. They can join forces with schools to protect their children from bullies, and also to protect bullies from themselves.

This might sound like common sense, but a new report from Parentline Plus shows that is far from being common practice. The report is based on an in-depth survey of 400 parents and grandparents who called its national helpline because of their children's problems in school in April and May of this year. The age group causing the most concern was 13 to 15, but roughly a third of all calls concerned children aged between 9 and 12. Although most callers felt their children had more than one problem, the problem they mentioned most and rated the most serious was bullying.

Of the 456 children mentioned by the callers, 161 were being bullied. Most of their tormentors were children, but in 11 cases the bully was a teacher. For 37 children, the bullying had become so severe that they were refusing to go to school. On the other side of the divide, 40 callers identified their own children as bullies. Twenty three described their children as physically abusive, 18 as verbally abusive, and 24 as aggressive. Thirty had children who had been excluded, and 12 had children who were about to be excluded from school.

You'd expect parents of bullies and parents of victims to have very different takes on the problem, but in this survey there were marked similarities.

There was a "strong sense" that many schools did not care about their children's emotional well-being, or did not see a link between emotional well-being and academic success. At the time of their calls, 239 parents had already tried to involve their children's schools. But many reported that the schools refused to take action, even when the bullying had involved incidents such as sticking a child's head down a toilet.

In schools where head teachers did take action, they often did so in such a way as to make the bullying worse. In one school, a head tried to stop four girls from bullying a classmate by naming names. After that, every girl in the year joined in and soon the girl was too afraid to go to school at all. In another school, bullies made a point of picking on the children the head named and shamed as underachievers every Friday in assembly.

One rather chilling detail: a good number of the callers were themselves teachers. You'd think they'd take some comfort from the fact that they knew how to play the game, but even they talked of being "helpless" and "ignored" and at their "wits' end".

The parents in the survey are not representative of all parents. People with children who are not in distress do not tend to be the ones who call helplines. Even so, the survey points to serious gaps in the way many schools understand, or rather, fail to understand pastoral care. And in spite of all the rhetoric in recent years about schools entering into partnership with parents, it is all too clear that many schools look down on parents and have no desire to listen to anything they have to say. When Dorit Braun, head of Parentline Plus, does work with teachers, one of her party tricks is to ask them to design a school that is closed to parents. Many find that they are able to keep pretty much to the design of the schools they are already working in.

This was very much the case in the school where my eldest child, now 21, was bullied when he was five. Even the PTA was a closed shop. You couldn't take part unless you were invited. It was next to impossible for a parent to have a word with a teacher. The same applied to children.

At the first parents' evening, when I mentioned that my son already knew how to read, his teacher was shocked, and admitted she had "never suspected this". The next week, when I was helping out in the classroom, she ridiculed him in front of the other children (and in front of me!) for always having his "nose stuck in a book".

The week after that, when bullies in the playground knocked his front tooth out, she told me it was "his fault that he got in their way". She said the same thing the following week, when they knocked out his other front tooth. The week after that, he began to walk in his sleep. He stopped the day we withdrew him from the school. Better, I think, if I resist the urge to shame and name it.

Compare and contrast with Batheaston Primary, where my two youngest daughters are right now. You can see the difference in the very design. The centre of the school is a courtyard. This is where I go to collect my girls at 3.15pm - instead of hanging around outside the school gates.

This school really does have a partnership with parents. It's not just a case of the head teacher telling us what to do, either. We all know that all we have to do if we want to tell her something is knock on the door. She doesn't just listen, she acts on what parents tell her. And it works both ways. If a child has a problem, she is quick to tell us and involve us.

Sitting as it does on the edge of Bath, it does not have the problems of an inner-city school. But its 200 pupils come from all backgrounds, and many have had problems in their previous schools. Here any bullying or "challenging behaviour" gets swift and serious attention. However, much more attention goes to children who act thoughtfully and considerately. Even more importantly, the school encourages children to solve their own problems wherever possible.

This year, the central courtyard is dotted with Friendship Stations, where pupils go if they have no one to play with, so that the child who is friendship monitor that day can help you find one.

It's a little thing, but like so many other projects in the school, it teaches children how to care for each other. And if they learn that, they're not going to turn into bullies, are they? It's really this simple. Damilola needn't have died.

mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

Comments