Damage control

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Bullying infects the whole of education. It's a system which sets everyone up to suffer, staff too, argues Tim Field

Since 1996 the largest group of callers to our bullying hotline has consistently been teachers and lecturers. They range from nursery assistants to university professors, but secondary school staff have always predominated. In most cases the identified bully is a headteacher or principal with the same profile: few qualifications, a lack of relevant experience and a history of conflict with staff.

During research into pupil suicides caused by bullying, which we named "bullycide", it became clear that if bullying is rife in the playground then it's likely to be rife in the staffroom, and vice-versa. A teacher or principal who is bullying members of staff is also likely to be bullying the pupils. The bullying is designed to try and hide the fact that the principal is a poor teacher who lacks interpersonal skills and who does not have control of discipline.

After a bullycide, a school's ethos becomes clear through the way it tries to minimise damage to its image, including denials that there's any bullying at all. In some cases prevailing values are revealed as a school tries to evade responsibility through discrediting the dead child and vilifying the bereaved family.

David Blunkett's ruling in 1999 that every school should implement an anti-bullying policy contained no performance yardsticks. Numerous government-funded and other anti-bullying initiatives have been similarly lacking. Glossy leaflets and coloured arm bands do not of themselves bring results, and any anti-bullying strategy, for pupils or staff, which fails to mention accountability will yield few, and often no, long-term results.

In environments where bullying is rife but denied by the head, the good teachers - always the majority - become disempowered and disenfranchised.

As one teacher put it: how can you expect to instil decent values in young people when the very principals are unprincipled?

Empowering headteachers to impose on-the-spot fines for parents of truanting pupils fails to address the underlying problems that give rise to truancy in the first place. Bullying is one of the most commonly cited reasons for truanting, so how does victimising targets of bullying and their parents constitute a solution?

Oxfordshire, which has a track record of failing to deal with bullying of teachers, has spent tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money pioneering the jailing of mothers of truants, a policy which some might see as the modern equivalent of burning witches at the stake. However, the council was forced to admit that its actions produced nothing positive. The Government is now having to face up to the fact that the pound;1 billion spent on truancy programmes has brought about no measurable improvement in attendance.

The real picture of school performance, and levels of bullying, can be gauged, not through league tables based on exam results, but by measuring staff turnover, sick leave, supply staff, stress breakdowns, suicides and attempted suicides, ill-health and early retirements, grievances, dismissals and employment tribunals.

Tim Field is webmaster of Bully OnLine at www.bullyonline.org. He is also author of Bully in Sight (pound;18.90) and co-author, with Neil Marr, of 'Bullycide: Death at Playtime' (pound;16.50), both published by Success Unlimited

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