A surprisingly tender plant

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Bullying causes terrible misery, but it's a problem that can wither away under the gaze of an unimpressed majority. Victoria Neumark reports.

You walk in to the classroom as a new teacher. There are the faces, possibly eager and shining, possibly sullen and withdrawn, possibly alight with mischief. In this setting, at this time, these people are your responsibility. But how far out into their lives does that responsibility extend? In particular, should you be taking responsibility for bullying?

Increasingly, the consensus is that teachers do have a duty to deal with bullying. Awareness of the scale of bullying has gown in recent years - and the victims are less and less prepared to put up with it and nurse the scars for the rest of their lives. Sebastian Sharp, now a 20-year-old stockbroker, recently accepted Pounds 30,000 damages from Richmond Borough Council to settle his claims that between the ages of 12 and 15 he was bullied at Shene School. The case will inevitably lead to local authorities putting pressure on schools to do more to stop bullying.

Sebastian Sharp had a particularly gruesome time. He was constantly taunted, and on one occasion was tied with string and flung through a glass door. Eventually it got too much for him to take, and at the age of 15 he ran away from home, triggering a four-day nationwide search. He never told his parents what was going on, explaining away the marks from being thrown through the door as the result of falling off his bike.

School reports gave no clue as to the pattern of behaviour - increasingly withdrawn, shy, depressed - which was swamping Sebastian's previously communicative personality. Cautiously, his last report before the disappearance said that "on occasions he finds other members of the group demanding and stressful", adding that "he is prepared to talk about this and respond in a mature way to his difficulties". Perhaps this was code for "he is being victimised but there is nothing we can do about it".

At any rate, according to Mr and Mrs Sharp, the school management responded to their fears by "leaning back in his chair and saying: 'There's always an element of bullying in any school'".

Perhaps there is - but that does not mean that it should be tolerated. We don't think wives ought to put up with being beaten, or that children should put up with being sexually abused. With so much evidence that bullying does untold damage to its victims, it seems strange that anyone is prepared to accept it as a fact of life.

One group that is trying to do something about it is the Anti-Bullying Campaign (ABC), set up in 1985 in remembrance of Mark Perry, a 13-year-old who was cycling fast in order to avoid a bullying ambush, swerved into a lorry and was killed. In 1992, the campaign was relaunched in memory of Katherine Bamber, a 16-year-old who was taunted so badly in Kidderminster that she hanged herself.

In term-time, ABC receives 16,000 calls a year from schoolchildren and their parents. It says that there are ten deaths a year due to bullying. Deaths like that of Vijay Singh, aged 13, who in the weeks before he hanged himself, recorded in his diary and most poignantly in schoolwork - for which he received an "Excellent, one merit" mark - how he was tormented by bullies who took his money and beat him up.

Even mild bullying leaves its mark. Rob Penney, a cheerful, well-adjusted teenager at a Surrey comprehensive, has only been bullied once, but it affected him deeply. "A boy caught my eye and I didn't look away. After school he and his friends came up to me. My stomach had been churning all day in anticipation of this moment, but now it was here I was almost relieved that it would just be over. Nothing really physical happened, I was just pushed about. But it had a lasting effect. For a few weeks after my experience with the bully I regarded every teenager I passed on the street as a threat, and every time I even thought the bully had looked at me I was scared for the rest of the day. "

What can schools do about bullying? Perhaps the best thing is to take a leaf out of the book of schools that have no problem with it. One such is St Edmund Campion Roman Catholic Primary School in Nottingham. A recent Office for Standards in Education report found "no evidence of bullying" and cited "many small unprompted acts of courtesy and kindness" which, said the report, "are a credit to the emphasis the school places on good behaviour through personal development".

According to Ed Sweeney, headteacher at St Edmund Campion, the absence of bullying is a consequence not of anti-bullying campaigns but of an ethos that pervades the whole school. "Fundamental spiritual and moral values" are based partly on a shared religious heritage and a general social consensus embedded in the larger community around the school. But they are also the product of structural mechanisms which build mutual trust: such tried and tested devices as participative assemblies, teacher acknowledgement not just of academic achievements but of kindnesses, stress on collaborative work in class and on respect to each other and to teachers.

At Acland Burghley School in Camden, north London, an anti-bullying campaign, featured in a BBC television programme in 1985, has been using older students, often themselves either ex-bullies or ex-victims, to counsel children currently having difficulties. The service is confidential, though not to the point of sitting on life-threatening information. Being heard is in itself liberating.

Interestingly enough, bullies also use the service and find a place where they can, as one aggressive child, Chantel, says, admit that "I've had lots of problems too." "Do you think that makes it all right to do what you did?" asks her teenage interlocutor. "Not all right, no," says Chantel, squirming on her chair, "but it made me feel like no one was going to laugh at me."

Rob Penney again: "We shouldn't think bullying is just about the victim. The victim has no control over the bullying, does not know why he was picked on. It is often said that victims are picked on because they have asthma, or they have thick glasses. This is wrong; victims are picked on because the bully is insecure and sees them as an easy target."

Pauline Haseler agrees that bullies themselves are crying out to be heard, but adds that concern for the problems of bullies (who may come from depriving, violent, bigoted or chaotic homes) should not override the importance of helping victims and their families, who may often feel themselves to be at fault. She puts it like this: "The bully has a problem which is taken home by the victim." Mrs Haseler points to envy, either of material possessions or of family affection or academic success, as one of the triggers for bullying behaviour. "Never blame yourself for having a loveable child and making a bully jealous," she says.

Sue Mulvany, adviser to Kirklees education authority, sees bullying essentially as a problem of self-esteem. Whole-school policies to raise every individual's self-esteem are the best way to make anti-bullying strategies work, she believes. Work on respecting and listening, circle time and co-operative games, drama improvisations and imaginative writing will only go so far if it is kept within the classroom.

According to Brenda Cotton, head of Little Parndon Junior School in Harlow, Essex, "There must be complete respect from the teachers for the children to learn how to respect each other." Little Parndon Junior School uses the Education for Human Values (EHV) syllabus throughout the school. EHV and other materials like it use tools derived from psychotherapy and eastern religions to help children build positive relationships. However, teachers who are going to run sessions of quiet sitting, for instance, or who are going to ask their class to visualise and mentally resolve difficult situations, need to be prepared for consumer resistance (not to mention cynicism from their peers).

Mara Christie, head of Heritage School in east London, warns of the dangers of getting into a "no win" situation in which punitive sanctions threaten all the participants. Don't say: "Neither of you is leaving until you admit it. " It is important, she says, for "both children to feel they can do better or be better": sympathising with the issue rather than with the predicament will allow everyone to see that "it's awful when children do this" rather than "X is awful and Y is a hopeless victim". A school-wide culture of "talk-and-tell", an understanding that school is a caring community in which teachers, parents and children can create a place where playing is not synonymous with violence, must be a priority for any behaviour policy, she believes.

As Brenda Cotton says: "It's not just the children who have to ask themselves, 'How would you feel if it was you?'" Imagining even the most hateful child at the point of going to sleep, their eyelashes fluttering on a vulnerably soft cheek, their aggressive fists uncurling, helps a lot, says Sue Mulvany.

Involving the whole class in dealing with what may seem a private problem is a relief for the teacher as well as the victim: bullying is a surprisingly tender plant which can wither under the gaze of an unimpressed majority. Shrinking the drama of oppression to a problem which all can solve goes a long way to healing the group.

Above all, says Ms Mulvany, the primary teacher should not be afraid to put him or herself down at the children's level of need. "Nothing beats the skill of a living, warm, enabling primary teacher putting an arm round a child's shoulder, looking them in the eye, making it clear that you value that child, that that child is loveable."

Not that bullying is confined to pupils. As Mrs Bennett, head of a department in a London comprehensive, says: "Bullying by other staff is a major problem in secondary schools." The TES mailbag regularly yields tales of sexual harassment, sarcastic undermining, hurtful exclusion and even malicious giving of bad references by those in positions of authority in schools. What do you do if you are bullied as a teacher? The consensus seems to be that getting another job, even changing career, can be the only way out for the victim; whatever psychological problems the staff bully may have are long past the point where a friendly arm around the shoulders can unleash a confession of guilt and remorse.

Signs of being bullied

* Being sullen, withdrawn or disruptive * Picking on someone else, as a means of getting into the pecking order * Constantly telling tales, hiding something more serious * Slipping in references in creative writing or drawing * Hanging back at the end of lessons as if there is something important to tell * Not wanting to go out at playtimes

* Not wanting to go to the toilet, perhaps even wetting the pants at fear of going to the toilet (where much bullying takes place) * Crying at the drop of a hat about anything * Being fearful of the company of others and hence reluctant to undertake any task involving a small and relatively unsupervised group, be it an investigation, paired reading, drama improvisation or sports activity * Being reported by parents as for changed behaviour, nightmares, bed-wetting and so on * Carrying signs of physical injury Strategies * Create a culture of trust by discussing issues of control and power, bullying and relationships in PSE lessons, in assemblies and whole-class sessions, allowing vulnerability to be respected * Hold circle time discussions, either with games ('What makes me feel goodbad is. . .') or with personal news * Take every opportunity to relate curriculum issues to relationships, particularly with literature, developing empathy with fictional characters and historical situations, children in other countries and settings * Establish a no-blame approach, whereby actions may be unacceptable but people are not

* Refer to bullies as themselves in need of help: seeing them as also vulnerable can in a deep psychological way help the victim * Teach strategies to children to help them identify their experiences and deal with them, such as: body language ('stand strong'); move away; tell someone * Do supervised drama improvisations * Identify areas of the grounds that are unsafe and alter or police them * Make it understood that teachers are not invincible either but that they are genuinely concerned to help * Include children in developing a whole-school behaviour policy, to increase their purchase on their own lives * Give everyone some responsibility, some sense of their own worth within the school

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