A culture of blame is no answer to bullies

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Parent anger and the rush to litigation distract from the intelligent and caring solutions available, says John O'Keane.

MUCH is being made of our faltering society in which yob culture and curfew have become a natural part of the debate. In Scotland, we have heard of increases in violence on our streets, and of more violent deaths. There is an explosion in ownership of mobile phones, especially among young people, and a pre-Christmas push to sell even more to an all too impressionable client group.

Among many teachers there is a clear realisation that our classrooms and corridors require closer supervision and more finely honed skills of peace-making and counselling to ensure order so that learning and teaching can prosper. Our efforts take a heavier and heavier toll of patience, energy and ultimately of health.

For many of us, the most difficult pill to swallow is the fact that (and I make no apologies for bleating) this society doesn't really value teachers because the high value once placed on learning is no longer there. Added to that there is now real determination among many sections of society to complain about almost every service.

You then have all the unwelcome ingredients for the litigious blame culture with which we have to contend: parents who complain, pupils who complain and lawyers who complain on behalf of both are standard experience in today's schools. It is a far cry from the time when schools were intimidated by no more than pushy parents.

Many of my colleagues would agree that things "ain't what they used to be" and that, in many senses, that is a matter of regret. I don't make such statements lightly because I do believe that schools should be more transparent, that we should be more openly accountable and that we ought to be able to outline and explain what we are about. Unless we run in all of these races then our credibility would rightly be called into question.

My particular difficulty lies in a slightly different direction. In the many parent evenings which I have attended and addressed the question I most deplore is one of the most frequently asked: "Do you have a bullying policy?"

Why am I tempted to reply: "Certainly not. Why, we actively encourage pupils to threaten and vilify each other at least once a day without teacher intervention and take active steps to ensure that our targets are met."

What a ridiculous question. It assumes that the existence of a policy - perhaps written over a weekend by a stressed assistant headteacher - guarantees that he school is adequately addressing bullying issues. The health, well-being and security of all youngsters have ultimately little connection with a policy paper.

The proper care of children lies at the heart of a school. Schools which don't have that commitment every day in every class and at every break cannot hide behind a flimsy paper policy. We need to be active advocates for children and genuine educators of children so that prime among their "core skills" is a genuine respect for themselves and for others - whether pupil or teacher, child or adult. If pupils are not offered that experience then we cannot claim to educate young people.

However, I want to do more than just affirm that. Of course, I accept the responsibilities and hope that I live them every day. Equally, I hope that I have earned the right to say that the most corrosive and divisive issue between schools and their communities is that of bullying.

The range of consultants and agencies that now run on the back of a fear of bullying is a powerful negative statement about how schools see themselves and how we are viewed by a sizeable section of society.

Bullying is today's buzzword. It is the single issue which can ensnare any school because where incidents are wrongly and repeatedly reported as bullying, the tale grows in the telling.

Robust action by school's, education authorities and the Government is urgently required to regain the moral high ground. We must insist loudly that schools are virulently and implacably opposed to the tyranny of the bully. Our schools should actively promote mutual respect between pupils (and within and between other groups) and should be seen to stand up strongly when one pupil is oppressed by another, however difficult and stressful that position may become.

However, we must also re-

educate many parents whose use of the term "bullying" has extended beyond the dictionary to include lots of minor activity which is annoying, time-consuming and low level. The alacrity with which some parents insist that their child is being bullied in school is matched only by the speed of telephone connections from the child's mobile to the over-protective parent at home.

For God's sake, let's all give children the emotional equipment to deal with the slings and arrows rather than rely only on the telecommunication equipment which short-circuits the intelligent and caring solutions available.

John O'Keane is headteacher, Cardinal Newman High School, Bellshill. The views are personal.

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