Love can make the bullies back down;Last Word

27th February 1998 at 00:00
It was a dark and stormy night, a suitably Gothic backdrop for the tale that unfolded from the child who climbed into the car after school and burst into tears.

School was horrible, she sobbed. She never wanted to go back there, ever again. It had been horrible for ages, and now it was worse. Gangs were closing ranks. Names were being flung about, "bitch" and "****ing cow". They wouldn't let her into the changing rooms. No one in her class would speak to her, they just all turned their backs whenever she walked up. And "I don't even know I'm supposed to have done!" She isn't yet old enough to know that she doesn't have to have done anything. That bullying, like death and taxes, is always with us and that in any group, given half a chance, there will always be those whose basic instinct is to manipulate and others who only want to be led.

The wise parent at this stage stifles her own basic instinct to seek out those who have caused her child such hurt and wring their little necks, and tries to put the problem into perspective.

According to research published by the Schools Health Education Unit a third of girls in this school year - Year 8 - sometimes, or often, fear going to school because of bullying, while the results of a survey carried out by the BBC and The Observer published earlier this month show more than twice this proportion of seven to 11-year-olds say that bullying is their main worry.

But what are we supposed to make of figures like these? Do they mean that unfettered bullying casts a terrible shadow over the majority of children's existence? Or that it is merely an everyday unpleasantness of life? Are we supposed to wring our hands in despair at the scale of the problem, or shrug and say, like the charity Families for Freedom suggests, that a little light bullying never hurt anyone; on the contrary, it's an invaluable way of learning lessons for life?

There is, in fact, something to be said for this. Bullying is notoriously difficult to define, and neurotic attempts to smooth out every small wrinkle in children's lives are no way to raise healthy adults.

But the misery of children who are being genuinely bullied is terrible - even tragic, as the recent case of Kelly Yeomans, the Derbyshire teenager who took her life after neighbourhood bullies tormented her, has highlighted once again - and school have been right to devote time in recent years to developing strategies to deal with it.

These days most schools at least nod towards the problem with an anti-bullying statement, while about half have a more detailed anti-bullying strategy in place and the really advanced can call on a whole box of tricks - worry boxes, tutor systems, mediators and peer counsellors - to deal with problems as they arise.

Far harder, though, is the creation of a climate in which bullying goes so much against the grain that it only rarely rears its head, and then finds nothing to feed on. Harder still to hold onto this through the inevitable vagaries and reversals of school life.

As everyone who goes in and out of schools knows, every institution has its own atmosphere, distinctive as a thumbprint, in which pupils live and breathe and have their being. It is the thing that lies beyond first appearances, and even beyond the hard facts of facilities, intake and results, and is perhaps most closely aligned to the quality of the relationships within that institution.

Staff-head relationships, staff-staff relations, staff-pupil relations, parent-school relations all go into this mix, along with a million other interactions, great and small, and whatever primal soup is cooked up as a result is what students absorb, digest and pour back into the school via the way they behave.

This atmosphere cannot be masked or faked. It can't be bought in as part of a school improvement package, or laid down for others to follow by a school's senior management team. Fine words and formal policies will never paper over sour spirits or crabbed attitudes or poor communications, and there is nothing as keen as kids when it comes to detecting the gap between what adults say they believe, and what they actually do.

Nothing goes past them, not a look, or a tone of voice, or a mental absence, or an ill-judged aside.

If they sense fighting and squabbling among teachers, then they will fight and squabble among themselves. If they feel treated like children, they will behave as childishly as they know how. If something tells them they are valued only for what they can do, not for who they really are, then they will neither properly value themselves or each other. If, God forbid, they sense that they are not liked at all, then major trouble will follow as certainly as night follows day.

Disrespect, favouritism, sarcasm, indifference, carelessness, impatience, bad temper, lack of moral courage . . . put any of these things into a school, and they are what you will get back, just as you will get sloppy kids in a school which is heedless of dress and behaviour, and lazy ones in a school where the results are bad and no one expects them to be anything but failures.

Obviously for every one of these statements the opposite is true. Put in honesty and respect, care, support, praise and laughter, and it's what you'll get out. Underpin any school relationship with that elusive but pervasive quality that a Buddhist might define as "loving kindness", or that a classroom teacher might prefer to call "just liking the kids", and whatever flaws mark its surface, it will not only be free of the undercurrents of anxiety and insecurity into which bullying likes to put down roots and grow, but also spread its warmth to encourage a wider climate in which bullying is never fostered or tolerated.

Perhaps unfairly, though, when a school does manage to achieve such a climate its achievements sink down out of sight.

Our eldest's child's school was among those listed by the Office for Standards in Education this month as "outstanding", and received particular praise for the quality of its relationships. Teacher-pupil relations were warm and friendly, inspectors found. Staff supported each other, pupils were expected to value each other, tutors had strong relationships with their pupils, and classes were marked by praise, humour and encouragement.

Yet we parents hardly think twice about any of this. Because to us, as to the rest of the outside world, the main manifestation of a positive school culture tends to be the absence of problems for us to worry about.

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