The hate that dare not speak its name

12th December 2003 at 00:00
David Henderson listens to one headteacher's experience of changing the attitudes of her pupils (below) while the school ethos conference, organised by the Anti-Bullying Network in Dunblane, hears about the importance of listening

Norwegians can talk openly about dildos and orgasms but not school bullying, the country's children's commissioner last week told the conference.

Trond Waage, a leading international figure on children's issues, said his country was now getting to grips with bullying after introducing fresh legislation to protect children.

The prime minister, councils and unions have signed up to a pact, backed by intensive training for teachers, to remove bullying within two years.

Mr Waage said the aim was to promote a new openness to help the 60,000 children who are bullied every year.

Tough legislation, introduced this year, gives individual children the right to a positive learning environment, physically and psychologically.

"My office has had lots of phone calls from children saying, 'how can you let me suffer another two years?' That's a strong message," Mr Waage said.

Local authorities and schools have been forced by the legislation to run leadership training for teachers who are now open to court challenge if they fail to take preventative action.

"The legislation says that after a child or parent reports in to the headteacher, the school has four weeks to respond," Mr Waage explained.

Failure to respond triggers the intervention of the local authority and beyond that lies the courts.

"This is a good portal to start working on the learning environment because if we bring up proactive, positive leadership in schools we can maybe reduce bullying by 80 per cent," he continued.

Young people had to be involved in school life much more, listened to and treated with respect.

Mr Waage said one of the main reasons teenagers were dropping out of youth football was because they were not involved in decisions about games, training and positions. Adults retained the control. Some 80 per cent were involved between the ages of 8-12 but numbers dropped away sharply. "They said it was like being in school," he said.

The reality was that young people's lives had changed and they were no longer content to be told what to do. It was now the "negotiating generation".

Margaret Doran, head of schools in Stirling Council, called for teachers and other professionals to go beyond tokenism in involving pupils. Too many adults were making decisions that affected children's lives without listening to their views.

But she added: "If teachers do not feel empowered in our schools, it's difficult for them to promote empowerment for our children and if parents are alienated, then they are not likely to encourage our children to be active citizens."

Many young people, she continued, led dislocated lives which forced them into angry, anti-social responses. Schools needed to connect with the sources of problems and bring in other key staff such as mental health workers and experts who could work with substance-abusing families "on a daily basis".

Brian Boyd, a Strathclyde University researcher, believed schools were much better places than 20 years ago when the book, Tell Them From Me, highlighted that 60 per cent of young people felt they were not valued.

These days, feedback from pupils was 95 per cent positive. They liked school and teachers, Dr Boyd said.

But schools had work to do. "There's no question that if you draw up an Identikit of the kind of pupil who is going to be valued in most secondary schools it would be: you have to be brainy, you have to wear uniform, you have to speak proper, you have to be well behaved, and above all else it is certainly better if you haven't had any brothers or sisters or mammies or daddies who have been excluded." Dr Boyd said teachers would sometimes be hit by "challenging and unpalatable" responses when they asked pupils about their school. They had to listen and deal with it.

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