A clear message to all bullies out there

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
The Government last week did more than simply produce a much-needed anti-bullying strategy. It also gave a practical demonstration that bullying is no longer to be tolerated, for the strategy comes hard on the heels of the departure of Chris Woodhead as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector.

Mr Woodhead, of course, did not go round the country backing teachers against walls and knocking their teeth out. But David Blunkett's new teacher pack reveals that bullying also includes "name calling and teasing", "threats and extortion", and "spreading malicious rumours".

Of course, as any counsellor will tell you, the psychological damage caused over years by this sort of bullying will not be put right overnight. No doubt there are, at this very moment, careful counselling sessions designed to enable Woodhead's many victims to confront what has happened to them.

You can imagine the toneless voice of a broken headteacher, as he fights back tears: "Three years ago, Woodhead's gang came for me. I knew from the look in their eyes, the way they held their clipboards. I couldn't run away. Where would I run to?" It's only now that years of playground torment will be revealed. But why didn't anyone stand up to Woodhead's gang? Well, of course, someone did. So often, children who are being bullied fear to speak out, lest the bullies return. Whenever anyone thought of answering Woodhead back, no doubt a little voice in their head said: remember Brighouse.

And they looked down at the ground again, stayed silent, and hoped that soon he would go away and bully someone else.

Back in 1997, Brighouse - Professor Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer - worked with Woodhead on the Government's standards taskforce, and told him firmly to stop bullying schools.

He put it diplomatically: Woodhead, he said, "over-emphasises pressure on schools and does not offer them enough support".

A few months later, Woodhead sent his gang of inspectors into Birmingham and soon a draft report, containing some derogatory remarks about Brighouse's management style, led to a furious row between the two. When the final report eventually appeared, the offensive remarks had been removed and instead there was praise for Brighouse and his staff for running an efficient service.

Despite this apparent U-turn by Woodhead, several Birminghm headteachers began to feel they were getting more than their fair share of attention from Ofsted, and that if Brighouse removed himself from the scene by resigning from the standards taskforce, they might have fewer visits from Woodhead's gang.

Perhaps they were wrong, but bullies succeed more by reputation than direct threats. Less than a year later Brighouse, resigned.

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Woodhead and I were schoolboys, there were many schools where bullying was considered normal, and in many ways desirable.

At my Jesuit boarding school there was a lonely and unpopular boy who, if you stroked his face, would shriek and cower. Naturally, several times a day, someone stroked his face. But one terrible day, he was a second or two slow in shrieking, and everyone realised his desperate calculation that, if the boys thought stroking his face hurt him terribly, they might refrain from really hurting him. From that day onwards, his life was utterly miserable.

There was also a boy whose mother was called Pixie, and whose classmates somehow discovered this shaming information. Throughout his schooldays he was pursued down corridors with echoing whispers of "Pixie".

In those days, in many schools, bullying was formalised in the prefect system. Perhaps the Labour party might not have made its misguided attempt to bully Ken Livingstone over the London mayoral election had its own candidate, Frank Dobson, not been head boy at Archbishop Holgate's grammar school in York.

In that role, he once forced Malcolm Clarke, now chairman of the Football Supporters Association, to write out 500 times: "Objects of interest under the table would not be noticed if the viewer were concentrating on his meal and table manners."

About that time, Chris Woodhead was at Wallington county grammar school for boys. And so was John Randall, who is now, as head of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the hammer of the universities in much the same way as Mr Woodhead was the hammer of the schools.

What nameless horrors went on in the lavatories and corridors of Wallington county grammar school between 1957 and 1963? If you have first-hand experience, tell me about it. An e-mail to francisbeckett@cobeck.clara.co.uk will reach me, and I can refer you to a sympathetic counsellor.

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