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Bully boys and the real little beasts

Bullying is flavour of the month at our school. Combating it, that is, not encouraging it. A classroom notice proudly announces that a group of Year 5 girls are running a "Champagne" against it. It is a standing agenda item for the students' council. Even the infants' cloakroom warns off five-year-old thugs. And, of course, we have a policy. Bullying is, we all agree, a Bad Thing.

I do not mean to take bullying lightly. I have known children driven to suicidal despair by the torments of their peers and schools need to fight it. I am just concerned that in raising the profile of bullying we are devaluing the currency.

"What did you and Peter do at playtime?" I asked an infant I collect from school. "Well, he bullied me for a bit, and than I bullied him." Normal small boys' rough and tumble is redefined as an anti-social act. Any minor hostile interaction, however well matched the protagonists and evenly distributed the animosity raises they cry of bullying. Anxious parents must think it a compulsory element of the national curriculum.

The bullying policy paints a picture in which the school population divides neatly into bullies and victims. Its emphasis seems to be to cure children of their tendency to be victims. The advice given is sound: avoid being alone, keep away from the bullies' stamping grounds, don't react to teasing, be assertive and confident, and talk to an adult. But in this climate of over-reporting, adults may not always be able to distinguish the important incidents from the trivial.

Even more damagingly, children who follow the advice in the policy, read all the books in the "bullying box" and still find themselves tormented, teased and socially excluded, may have their misery compounded by a feeling of failure.

Two separate problems exist. There are the true bullies, the violent and disruptive who delight in the misery of others. Then there are generally small children who tend to while away their time being beastly to each other if they have nothing better to do.

There are things we can and are doing. We have improved the quantity and quality of our lunchtime supervision, and our parent-teacher association is raising funds to provide more outdoor play equipment. Older children are encouraged to take responsibility for younger ones, and the general ethos of the school, which encourages kindness and consideration, must have an effect in the long term.

The hard cases are excluded - for progressively longer periods from playtime, from class and ultimately from school. We have never had to take the final step, preferring to work with the child, parents and professional help if necessary to find the cause of the anti-social behaviour and amend it. These boys, and they are almost boys, are the ultimate challenge to the principle that says everyone is of equal value. When the staff succeed, as they often do, the satisfaction is enormous.

Personally, it is some of the girls - clean, tidy smiling, successful and deeply malicious - who I would like to see excluded. I re-read Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye recently, and shuddered at the awakened memories of the hell that little girls can create for each other. Funny thing, memory. Apparently, most people when questioned remember having been bullied at school. No-one ever seems to remember having been a bully. I wonder what happens to them all when they grow up?

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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