I am, by nature, a cynical soul. So when the prospect of taking our eldest to a ‘bullying workshop’ came up, I was far from keen.
Early impressions backed me up - it was held in a church hall and had the whiff of earnestness about it that only the provisional wing of the Church of England could bring. The kids who came along looked deeply miserable.
But, over the day, they did a superb job. They took our boy, made miserable by two years of near-constant bullying, and started to put him back together. They gave him confidence, they gave him stature and they gave him tricks and mechanisms to deal with the small-minded boys who had given him such grief. He finished the day grinning, on a high. Almost normal. But only almost - because out of that room, there was only one they couldn’t complete. Like an IKEA bookshelf, there seemed to be a piece missing. This one, they said, only this one, needs therapy.
It was ours who was the most broken. And, without adding melodrama to an already fraught situation, the recent case of a fifteen-year-old boy who hanged himself after video of him being bullied was posted online highlights the awful consequence that every parent dreads.
After those twenty months or so of spiteful bullying, physical attacks and personal abuse, in the playground, in the classroom, in text messages and on social media, he was damaged. And a large part of me knows that his school failed him. In my view, this was an inevitable outcome of a bullying culture at the school. Not that the school actively encouraged it, but they managed, through a sort of institutionalised passivity, to isolate the victim, make him look weak and to allow the bullying to go on.
It’s not as if his school, a boys’ school in Croydon, were blind to it. They knew, because we told them, time and again.
After one year of it, we were prepared to pull him out - but he felt like a failure, and if we pulled him out he felt that would rubber stamp that status - the boy who couldn’t hack the teasing. So rather than feel like a loser, he gathered his ragged dignity around him and set off for one more year round the block. A phony peace broke out as the pupils in this all-boys school formed new alliances. He was, he seemed, set. New friends, new little gangs. It would be better this time.
It turned again. The leader of his new little crew wanted a victim and our lad, the youngest in his year and one of the smallest was an obvious target. It began again. Taunting, sneering, attacks. The same as last time - the ringleaders organising everyone to pick on the littlest in their midst.
After his previous experiences I expected some subtlety from the school - they seemed to point out to the bullies that he’d complained of a physical attack. That turned the volume up. The victim was now a snitch.
This is where it seems to get systematic. The boy gets bullied. The school seems to isolate the victim. It spirals until it gets unbearable.
The school has a code of conduct around bullying but they don’t appear to have read their own document. It promised a response within two days of an issue being raised. We mention a physical attack, they take over a week to respond. We tell them we’ve found him self-harming. It's the same laggardly approach.
Of course, I complain. I complain until the school complains that I’m complaining too much. And if I complain more, they say, it could ‘become impossible to continue to educate’ my son.
And then I begin to wonder...
I ask what the punishments for the bullies are. The school won’t tell me. They hint that there’s a privacy issue. I ask again, and they refuse. It seems to me there have been no punishments for bullying. They start to complain about the standard of our lad’s work and his punctuality. ‘How would your work be’, I ask, ‘If I spent your working day taunting you?’. They don’t answer. ‘How punctual would you be for a lesson where you’re offered no protection from bullies?’ Again, no answer. Meanwhile, the punishments for the bullied boy pile up. No homework means a detention. Fair enough - but not when a bruising attack seems to go unpunished. Then I realise - each punishment has ‘points’ attached. Those points are adding up - if he gets to 12 in a calendar year, they can ask him to leave. They seem to want the victim out. It’s easier to get rid of him, in the singular, than the bullies, in the plural.
The bullies’ parents, I felt, were even shoddier. I would hope that, if the situations were reversed, I’d front up, talk to my offspring, discuss it with the parents. Not these ones. Not these who’d been to our house for dinner. They blanked us. We were social lepers.
The school and the parents inadvertently colluded in the illusion that the problem with bullying lies with the bullied. By complaining about their treatment, the bullied person spoils the smooth running of the school, and break the illusion of a well-run establishment. Give the school a problem, give them something that actually tests whether they genuinely have the right skills to deal with difficult issues arising for pupils, and they fall into the line of least resistance. They isolate him as a weakling, isolate his parents as troublemakers and by seeing it as a problem to be hidden, not one to be tackled, they can ruin a young boy’s life. I can’t forgive that.
In the course of writing this I put these complaints, again to the school. They had already instigated an ‘investigation’ which took six weeks. They say they ‘are sorry you feel your son was treated unfairly’ and that the ‘governors take such complaints seriously and monitor essential policies, such as the school’s anti-bullying policy. Complaints [of bullying] such as yours will be taken into account at the time of the next review of the relevant policy at the next meeting of the School Committee.’ And that the school ‘takes a zero-tolerance approach to any form of bullying through their rigorous anti-bullying policies and procedures’, but they didn’t respond to specific points.
He’s in a new school now where the teachers see a broken boy who deserves support. He’s damaged and is harder work than many in the school. He’s behind in some lessons and can be disruptive, but of course he’s struggling to find allies in a new environment. And they deal with it. It’s not a particularly liberal regime. But it seems to be a fair one and one that cares whether he sinks or swims. I am deeply grateful for that, but that’s how it should be. I shouldn’t have had to spend two years fighting a school that ultimately appeared to side with the bullies.
He’s still not right, and the diagnosis shows just how badly schools can get it wrong. I don’t see any sign of them learning from the experience - and if they can’t learn, they shouldn’t teach.
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