Nothing nice about tackling bullies

28th October 1994 at 00:00
As with any behaviour or discipline problem, bullying needs to be dealt with on more than one level. Most of the recent work concentrates on treatment of bullies, and the hope of weaning them off such activities. This is, of course, very important, but is only part of the story. It depends for its success on the assumption that all bullies can be brought to see the error of their ways if they are shown the damage that they do, or if their reasons for bullying are understood.

Treatment has two main drawbacks. It operates after the event, when someone is already hurt. Also, it is often only effective to the extent that the victim is able to come forward. Some people bully because they enjoy the exercise of power, and are not concerned by the damage it might do to others.

Power is the key here. Bullies take power where proper authority either lacks it, or lacks the will to use it. How many teachers have been told to avoid confrontation? Most of us have, I suppose. If heads and staffs abdicate power, bullies will come forward to fill the power vacuum.

The reduction of bullying and its control will happen when the proper authority exercises the proper power throughout the school: in lessons, in corridors and in play areas. This involves staff looking out for trouble. It means that they must never turn a blind eye to the breaking of discipline. Poorly supervised corners need blocking off. Running in corridors needs stamping out. Verbal abuse needs to be heard and stopped.

Heads, especially, should never be seen ignoring trouble, for if they do they undermine anyone else who seeks to control it.

Too many teachers confuse "care" with "being nice". Care will involve saying "no" at times, confrontational or not.

The idea of treatment being given by peer counsellors (TES, October 7) is dangerous for all concerned. The example given in the article is of a pupil counselling would-be suicides and runaways as well as bullies. Surely this is a professional job, with the need for years of maturity and training? As with any such process - or, indeed, no process - there will be cases where the counselling seems to work, and the bully stops. But the problem might have resolved itself anyway.

Without control the bully would, in any case, go on operating while awaiting the cure. Who would be responsible if real damage were done to another pupil at this stage? How would the adolescent counsellor deal with her feelings if a victim of one of her caseload committed suicide? How would she handle a case of a would-be suicide who decided to go ahead anyway after counselling?

Where would the responsibility lie, personally and in law, for such an event, especially if it were suggested that a line of counselling had been wrongly chosen for the case, or a proper treatment not given for a real disorder?

Pupils need protecting from too much responsibility. The responsibility belongs with the head or staff. If they need help, or feel unable to cope with a pupil's problem, they need to seek out the relevant expertise, not push the matter on to a pupil.

Ian Brown is a former teacher

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