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Are we all bullies now?

The latest anti-bullying initiatives will only further inflame parental anxiety, writes Claire Fox

The poll in today's TES reveals that school bullying is now a real worry for many parents, with more than a third saying they have a child who has been verbally or physically abused by fellow pupils. This is not surprising - because exploiting parental anxiety over this issue has become something of an industry.

Too often, anti-bullying campaigners assume that schools are not doing enough to cope with an epidemic, and that parents need to be vigilant that anti-bullying policies are more than just window-dressing.

In its latest initiative, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, the Government has echoed this sentiment. ChildLine guru Esther Rantzen has been appointed to head an army of anti-bullying tsars, explicitly to "act as a one-stop reference point for parents... who do not feel properly supported by the school, local authority or police".

But before we accept the terms of this debate uncritically, we should step back. One reason why schools come under parental fire is because of the way the phenomenon is being exaggerated and distorted by its loose definition in schools' anti-bullying policies.

Understandably, bullying is a dreaded word for any parent. Images of vicious thugs extorting meagre pocket-money, of relentless harassment by violent gangs, haunt the parental imagination.

But what is defined as bullying has changed dramatically from when parents were at school. It is increasingly difficult to tell where normal childish behaviour ends and bullying begins. Anti-bullying charters list sarcasm, spreading rumours, persistent teasing, name-calling, nasty looks and making gestures as acts of bullying, as well as "exclusion from friendship groups" and "ignoring or excluding someone".

But doesn't this describe almost every activity associated with the messy arena of the school playground and growing up? With such a broad definition, we should be wary of accepting impressionistic "official" statistics which imply that bullying is on the rise.

Looking back with this definition, I must have been constantly bullied in school. Conversely, I was constantly a bully.

As a matter of course, children are sometimes cheeky, spiteful, cruel and fickle in making and breaking friendships. This is part of the process of moving from childishness to maturity. To discuss that in the language of bullying can only confuse the issue. Schools' anti-bullying policies may well be confusing parents.

The literature's advice to parents is a recipe for anxiety. Tell-tale signs included in the National Association of Head Teachers' guidelines feature children who often appear to lose possessions and submit damaged or incomplete work. My friend's nine-year-old is forever mislaying his books.

If she followed the guidelines, she would have him diagnosed as a victim of bullying. Luckily, she knows he is just a bit scatty.

The website Bullying Online lists pointers such as "coming home with cuts and bruises... torn clothes... falling out with previously good friends...

being moody and bad tempered... being quiet and withdrawn... anxiety".

Parents are encouraged to rush to the teacher every time their pubescent offspring gets sulky or arrives home grubby and dishevelled. They will get themselves in a state if they are asked to read signs of a lively football game or teenage angst as potential evidence of dark abuse. And when the NAHT guidelines say that one sign is a "refusal to talk about the problem", you know this is not so much helpful advice as a green light for panic. If your child refuses to say they are being bullied, then maybe they are. It is enough to scare any parent.

No wonder parents are anxious when schools lose all sense of perspective.

Teachers are warned against using objective assessments of what constitutes serious problems.

The NAHT guidelines tell them that "while others may not feel that certain actions or words are of a bullying nature, if the recipient feels that they are being bullied, that is sufficient evidence to treat the case as prima facie bullying".

This can only encourage an unhelpful climate wherein every childish whinge or over-protective parental complaint has to be treated as on a par with grievous incidents.

With parents and teachers interpreting every schoolyard spat as harmful and every pupil portrayed as a vulnerable victim, it is not surprising that children regularly say they feel bullied. But isn't there a danger that genuinely bullied children are being sidelined?

When model policies state that "bullying, no matter how apparently insignificant the incident, is serious", it tends to trivialise the small minority of really nasty cases of bullying.

Should we conclude that "subtle bullying" such as "a muttered threat, a passed note or just a look" are as serious as getting your head kicked in or being cruelly isolated over a long period of time? Of course not.

Dealing with serious bullying means recognising that it is a rare and occasional risk to a minority of children. Let's not scare parents and children into thinking that the problem lurks behind every childish insult or misadventure.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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