Redistribute the power

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Children can become bullies because they have no control over their lives, writes Kristyn Wise

My colleague and I stand outside the auditorium as our 600-plus audience is filing in. The students look at us but are silent. "Melissa!" a male teacher's voice booms through the silence. 'What do you think you look like in those trousers? In my office afterwards!"

"What's wrong with her trousers?" I whisper to my colleague. She responds with a puzzled look. It's finally our turn to go through the doors.

The head walks up to the podium and says: "Good morning, children." "Good morning, Sir," they say back. "We have some visitors today from the Children's Rights Service who have come to talk to you about bullying. I expect you to pay attention to what they have to say about this very important subject and to show them your respect." He gestures at us to come forward.

"Actually," I begin into the microphone, "We were hoping to show you some respect this morning." The young people are sitting up in their seats now, murmuring, and exchanging bewildered but interested expressions. It must seem to them that after such an astonishing statement, anything could happen next.

I wanted to add something about possible recourse if they felt that we didn't pay enough attention to very important things that they had to say, but I thought this might be a step too far. The teachers, positioned at alarmingly regular intervals around the room, shifted around and prepared to intervene if they needed to.

What I don't say in these assemblies is this: I believe that bullying only happens in schools because children have learned from the adults around them how to bully. My experience is that the culture of many schools encourages bullying through the behaviour of its staff. Bullying is about power, and the fact that children and young people don't have much of it.

It isn't that I don't like teachers. I married one, and we have regular and lively debates. He says that managing a room full of children is not easy, that teachers must have authority to prevent the classroom from disintegrating into chaos. All children need firm boundaries - surely I can agree with that?

But the point is that as adults, we get to decide what clothes to put on in the morning. Our managers don't tell us we cannot speak in the hallway.

They don't begin each day by sermonising about the importance of treating our colleagues with respect. Or insinuate that other people's thoughts have more value than our own. If they did, we'd all be looking for new jobs.

Adults have those sorts of choices.

Young people do not get to choose. They don't choose what is part of the national curriculum. They don't, strictly speaking, have any say in what school they attend. They have no choice about who teaches them when they get there. Above all, young people do not get to choose whether to go to school or not.

A social worker recently pulled me aside in a training session I was running and said "I'm a bit worried about where all of this is going. Don't you think the balance has gone too far the other way? I mean, there are teachers out there in schools who are getting chairs smashed over their heads. Doesn't that suggest that children have too much power?"

But let's think about this. Why are children who have experienced abuse much more likely to end up in prisons and psychiatric units? It isn't a lack of discipline that leads someone to smash a chair over someone's head, it's an over-abundance of it. It's a lack of respect, dignity and power.

There isn't any evidence to suggest that controlling children develops them into happy and socially skilled adults. But there is an abundance of evidence to demonstrate that no respect for children's basic human rights propagates precisely the sort of person who might smash a chair over someone's head. Individual adults cannot single-handedly reverse the damage, but they can exacerbate it.

Next time, instead of barking at Melissa about her trousers, ask her to join a group of young people and staff who are looking at the school dress code. Ask the pupils what they would like to see covered in assemblies. Why not let them run a few - without adult intervention. Why not have some students interview your prospective staff? As equal partners in the decision-making process?

I know, I know, so-and-so is off sick so you've just lost your only free period this week. You haven't got time to mark your papers, so you've really got no time to think about this sort of thing. Do as much of it as you can anyway.

Dr Kristyn Wise manages a local authority children's rights service. She is also the chair of CROA, the network of children's rights and advocacy services across England and Wales

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