Another view - AoC should stop the carping and tackle the causes of bullying

25th June 2010 at 01:00

When I was young I had a friend whose father habitually bullied his whole family. Most noticeably of all he bullied the family dog. Causing it to cower, whimper and retreat under the kitchen table was what really gave him his kicks.

Such people are bullies pure and simple. It appears to be in their nature to impose their will on those around them. Others bully when circumstances allow it: in a relationship, a social setting or a workplace. They get, or are given, power over others; and power can do nasty things to people - right the way up to Lord Acton's famous dictum of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But neither explanation can account for the extraordinary level of bullying in further education, as indicated in a report published recently by the University and College Union (UCU). Of those responding, just more than half said they had been bullied at work in the past five years. Nearly three-quarters said they had witnessed workplace bullying in that period.

Given the method of collecting information, it is likely that these figures contain an element of exaggeration. Four-thousand FE and HE staff, all members of the UCU, were invited to give their views on what was termed "negative behaviour" at work. One in six did so - around 300 of them from the FE workforce.

Human nature being what it is, it seems probable that those who have been bullied are more likely to respond to such invitations than those who haven't. Around 70 per cent of respondents who reported bullying said they had made no official complaint about it. So what better way of getting it off your chest than filling in a survey and winging it off to the sympathetic ears of your trade union?

On the other hand, few FE insiders will be surprised by such reports, exaggeration or no. A similar study across a range of occupations carried out in 2000 found that 11 per cent of people had been bullied at work in the preceding six months, compared with a massive 41 per cent in the UCU sample.

So how might we account for it? Yes, FE has its share of "natural" bullies, just as it will have those who bully opportunistically. But so will every other occupation. First up must surely be the culture of managerialism that has become entrenched during the past 15 years or so, concentrating power in fewer and fewer hands. More power means more temptation, more opportunity to control, to manipulate - and to bully.

To this we should add the more recent importation of a so-called "business" ethos into colleges. Often this amounts to little more than a caricature of what goes on in the real business world: an emulation of the kick-ass school of management, picked up from watching Sir Alan Sugar being nasty to his underlings on TV.

But that is only part of the story. More important is the unremitting pressure that all in FE now work under. Everything has not only to be done but seen to be done, evidenced according to some labyrinthine structure deemed essential by bureaucrats rather than practitioners.

When you live in a culture of continual demands, the temptation is always to kick on down the line. When your workload is excessive and unreasonable, the obvious thing to do is to offload as much as possible on to those who work for you. And when time is short, so too are tempers.

So it's no good the Association of Colleges carping that the UCU report is out of date or that the survey sample was small. What it - and others with the clout to make a difference to this lamentable state of affairs - should be doing is addressing the underlying causes, rather than simply messing at the margins.

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