My Best guide to beating the bullies

12th November 2004 at 00:00
omen's magazines have always played an important part in my education. As a child, my mother's Woman's Own was just as engrossing as Beano or Eagle.

Today my wife's Bella and Best keep me abreast of celebrity news, women's health and advice on how to be a good mother. Sadly, I seldom see the Beano, and Eagle is irreplaceable.

Recently, Best has run features about school bullying. They are familiar fare - stories of primary and secondary pupils who have experienced long-term bullying, accompanied by bland comments from a Government minister. Readers' follow-up letters were predictable too. Each contributed a further account of bullying, including a statement such as "teachers mutter on about proper guidelines and do nothing", or "the headteacher did nothing" or "the bully received no punishment".

Normally I skim over accounts such as these. Cases of bullying can be very complicated and sometimes involve family and community disputes far beyond the influence of any school. My advice to myself is "don't rush to judgment when you don't know the whole story". And yes, "the headteacher did nothing" probably has been said about me too and without a right of reply.

Yet the steady parade of bullying accounts in newspapers and magazines makes me wonder if some schools don't quite get it. Handling a bullying complaint well is one of the most important means of upholding a school's reputation. Get it wrong and the word will go round about the school's "bullying problem". Get it right and the parent concerned becomes your friend. But getting it right is not about an anti-bullying policy. It's not even about stopping the bullying. As the song says: "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it; that's what gets results." The way that you do it is by generously giving time and being an active listener.

An otherwise calm parent may change when bullying is suspected. She, it's usually she (fathers normally advocate direct action as in "give him a thump and stand up for yourself") can become aggressive and irrational.

Perhaps a touch of Munchausen's by proxy appears. Or there is a visit to the education office or a solicitor before giving the school a chance. By the time a parent sits down with a member of staff, she may have eroded her share of goodwill. The school also may have well-founded reservations about the story, knowing that another, less partisan, version is available.

Yet whatever the school's legitimate resentments, there is only one way to win. Be magnanimous and shrug off the insults. Above all, listen. Don't interrupt the flow of accusations. Don't get defensive. Don't react to sly remarks about the school's incompetence. Don't argue. Soak up the aggression. Show sympathy and concern. Clarify details.

This is not about a parent walking all over you. You keep your dignity. She has had her say. You explain how you will take the matter forward and, above all, you agree a date and time for a follow-up meeting. She leaves with the message that you take her concerns seriously and that school and parent will operate together to solve the child's problem.

From then on, the school is in the driving seat and will continue there as long as there is frequent communication and discussion with the parent. A better relationship means both parties can be honest about disappointments as well as victories. Joint working brings joint responsibility. Most bullying cases are solved quickly but, even if it takes time, it's unlikely that your parent-partner will go off to the press to criticise something that she has been part of. She's more likely to defend the school.

Do I live by my advice? Not always. It depends on my mood. But the possibility of my failures appearing in Best concentrates the mind. I'd rather read about "36 Best Budget Beauty Buys".

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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