It's only a secret from adults

Bullying is not a clandestine activity in schools - children know all about it, even those in primaries. So why don't the grown-ups do something? Seonag MacKinnon reports

A leading educational psychologist has described Scotland's track record in tackling bullying as "tokenistic" and called for a major national offensive, particularly in primaries.

Speaking in the wake of the HMI report on the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway where a 16-year-old bullied victim committed suicide in February, Alan McLean, principal psychologist for Glasgow North East, says: "Schools can leave themselves open to criticism that their action over bullying has been fragmented and tokenistic. The Government can lay themselves open to this criticism as well."

Exploding the myth that bullying is essentially a secondary school issue, he insists that it is "a bigger problem in the primaries, as they are appallingly resourced for management time. They are trying to manage so many innovations without the time to do so."

McLean is the author of a major survey published earlier this year of 16,000 primary and secondary pupils in 75 Strathclyde schools, which indicated that one in 20 pupils is experiencing acute difficulties because of bullying - in primaries, more than one in four pupils said they were victims.

"Bullying starts in P2, 3 and 4," says McLean. "I will guarantee the hard core of bullies in secondary started in primary and, undetected, the most extreme of them will become criminals."

As for the victims, if the problem is not resolved they will bear long-term effects similar to those of post-traumatic stress victims - emotional crippling, lack of confidence and depression.

The Scottish Office is currently reviewing with education authorities what measures can be taken to combat bullying. Past initiatives include a support pack Action Against Bullying, issued to all Scottish schools in 1992, and the appointment of an anti-bullying development officer in 1993 on a two-year contract. This was not renewed.

Press reports on the Stornoway tragedy suggesting that bullying is a fact of life leave McLean aghast. "I listened to commentators suggesting that there is nothing we can do about it and couldn't believe what I was hearing. Imagine a bullied kid listening to that. We've known for years that there is so much schools can do which makes a major difference."

Schools which identify and tackle bullying report an 82 per cent success rate in stamping it out, says McLean, whose department produced an award-winning Bullyproofing Our Schools pack in 1994 as part of a well-resourced offensive by the old authority. The pack was anchored in information gleaned from the early findings of the 16,000 Scottish pupil survey.

McLean says the single most important thing a school should do is take a pro-active approach, tackling school culture. Bullying in schools should become as unacceptable as drink driving has become in the wide community in the past 20 years.

"The key target for schools should be the bystanders. Pupils should come to see it as naff, ugly, a bit much. The victim usually feels shame. What we should do is transfer it to the bully by combating bystander apathy.

"The mistake schools make is to treat bullying as isolated incidents. Ad hoc punitive responses are inadequate. Growing awareness of the negative effects of bullying is by far the most important factor in young people stopping it. It happens naturally as most pupils mature, but we should aim to accelerate it."

Recommended school strategies for raising consciousness and changing attitudes include stories, workshops, discussions, worksheets and questionnaires. An anti-bullying policy, leaflets, posters, parents' meeetings and training courses for teachers are also important. The aim is that the entire school community should understand what bullying is and how it feels.

Children in the survey also suggested closer supervision, possibly with video cameras of playgrounds, corridors and dinner queues, and called for diversions during breaks such as clubs or games or simply music in the dining hall.

Relations between children could be improved, they said, by more social events and the immediate break-up of ringleaders if bullying arises. Bullies could be helped to understand the effect of what they do, and dispatched to a different class or school if necessary.

McLean urges schools to beware bullying myths. The stereotype is of an older misfit boy beating up another boy behind the bike shed. Two-thirds of bullies are male, but bullies are not incompetent, socially inept people. They usually have a strong personality and are manipulative. If the ringleader is a girl, she is likely to be sophisticated and intelligent.

Only about 15 per cent of bullying is physical. It can take the form of name-calling or not being spoken to, belongings damaged or threats or coercion. Whatever the bullying, it is uncommon in remote parts of the school since an audience is part of the motivation.

Typically the male perpetrator is playing power games and feeding his ego by presenting himself as a hard man. The girl's motivation usually stems from a desire to make her own social group closer by creating an outsider. McLean comments on the stereotype myth: "We used to think of bullying as the silent nightmare. It is only a secret from adults. The children all know what is happening."


Susan is a 22-year-old student studying English at a Scottish university. Following her family's return to Scotland after several years in England, she and and her older sister suffered three years of bullying on the 25-minute journey to and from school. In her second year at university she had a near-breakdown, gave up her course and was diagnosed as clinically depressed - a condition which therapists put down to the effects of bullying at school, very low self-esteem.

She says: "I was called 'fat bitch', 'whore', 'English lover', 'Sassenach'. For some reason the driver often missed our stop on the way home and we would have to walk up and tell him. They would clap and jeer: 'Now you'll have to walk, you lazy bastards'."

"The bullying only really happened on the bus but there was no escape while you were on it and the intimidation stayed with you.

"They seemed to pick on us because we were new, had an English twang in our voices and because they thought it was uncool for sisters to hang around together. We were the outcasts during those three years and I left school a year early to get away from them. I was lucky I got good marks in my Highers but even if I hadn't, I wouldn't have stayed on.

"My sister seemed to cope with it much better, perhaps because she has a different personality or because she was older. I think adolescence is the worst time for bullying to happen when you are forming the sort of person you are going to become - you can't rise above it all at 15.

"I was unhappy at 15, 16, 17, but I don't know if I could have put into words that it was bullying. I would come off the bus and be shouting and swearing: 'Why is there never anything to eat?', 'Why isn't this done?'. My mother took the brunt of it and I was aggressive to my sister, thinking 'I'll be really mean to her, then I'll be cool.' "My sister went to see the headteacher about one boy. He got pulled up for it but this made it a thousand times worse because they knew it was she who had reported him. I wouldn't have known who to speak to about bullying, and I wouldn't have wanted the attention. To this day the school doesn't really know. I feel a huge amount of bitterness. I would love to tell someone, shout at them to look out for it in pupils there now.

"I am ashamed that on one occasion when I saw a boy being bullied on the bus I did not stand up and defend him. I felt that if it was him, at least it wasn't me.

"One day, long after I had left, I saw one of the bullies unpacking apples in Safeway. I wanted to ask him if he knew who I was and if he had any idea what he had done.

"If I have any advice for anyone being bullied now, it is to try not to take it personally - know that in 10 years time that person will be of zero importance and you'll be able to soar above that crap.

"If there is an opportunity to get out of the situation by, for example, changing school, I would take it. There is no shame in it. My parents suggested changing but I said no.

"If teachers have an intuitive feeling that someone might be bullied, go out on a limb and ask - don't wait until they come and tell you, because they aren't going to."

* ChildLine Bullying Line 0800 441111

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