Signposts on the road to hell

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Twelve children a year kill themselves because of bullying. Maureen McTaggart finds out what can be done to stop the torment. With an empty body, and an empty soul, I stand and pack my books away. I feel a cold stone in the emptiness of my chest. That stone is my heart." These words were written in a school magazine by 12-year-old Susan as a reflection of her feelings of despair resulting from the taunts of "snob" and "slut" she suffered after being put in a higher maths group than friends.

Like generations of children she was fed the myth that sticks and stones might break her bones but names could never hurt her. And, until recently, a distinction has always been made between physical and verbal torment, which accepted that while one constituted bullying, the other did not - and only the former was worth worrying about.

However, research has shown that bullying is the cause of suicide for up to 12 children a year, and that 27 per cent of primary children and 10 per cent of secondary are its victims. Yet some schools still pretend bullying happens everywhere else except in their own backyard. Take the case of 14-year-old Ann, who was stripped to the waist by classmates who took photographs of her which they then passed around the school, causing her so much distress that later that evening she attempted to kill herself. The headmaster had earlier said it was only a bit of horseplay.

Delwyn Tattum, a reader in education at the Cardiff Institute of Higher Education and an expert on bullying, says that 1.3 million children a year are involved in bullying at any one time. He confirms that most of the bullying taking place in schools is the secretive kind. "It ranges from something as simple as someone being given a dirty look, to being excluded from groups and name calling." For centuries, bullying has been tolerated and accepted as a part of growing up. And many children have been restrained from reporting incidents by cries of "Stand up for yourself" resounding in their ears.

"Attitudes like these have to change," says Delwyn Tattum. "Bullying is a serious problem which is having a serious effect on hundreds of thousands of children. It simply can't be categorised as an acceptable part of growing up." Childhood bullying can have lifelong repercussions. Michelle Elliott of Kidscape believes teachers, in the frontline of the problem, are ill-equipped to deal with it. She thinks there is a big cover-up in schools where teachers have been afraid even to talk about the subject because to do so would be to admit that their school had a problem. Elliott recommends that at interview newly qualified teachers should ask what the school does about bullying and if they are told there isn't a problem, she would strongly advise them to look for a job elsewhere, "because no school is completely free of bullying, nor is any likely to eradicate it". But, she concedes, "we can be thankful that never before has there been such a volume of material for dealing with it as there is now."

Kidscape is the most well known of all the anti-bullying and general child safety initiatives used by more than one million children in primary schools. Its approach is a whole-school one, where schools are encouraged to set themselves up as places that don't tolerate bullying. "Everyone, including children, teachers and dinner ladies, has the responsibility to not allow it to happen and, when it does, to report it," says Ms Elliott. "NQTs are more likely to pick up on the signs and symptoms of bullying because they are usually very keen, eager and fresh to the situation. And they should not be afraid to tackle the child at the centre of the bullying group, using whatever means necessary - guilt, shame or even bribery." If a new teacher goes into a school where bullying appears to be the norm then they have to become the person the children will talk to. "Nothing is too minor," she says. "If a child feels uncomfortable about something, it is a problem."

Delwyn Tattum agrees: "Teachers must be prepared to listen when children come up and say so-and-so is picking on me, or taking my pen, because invariably behind this there could be a history of bullying. And it is important not to ignore something that is seemingly trivial. It is the small signs children give that tell the story."

Bullying happens in state and private schools, in all races and cultures, and among boys and girls. It can set back progress in the academic curriculum, but schools can do a lot to reduce it, says educational psychologist Val Besag, author of Bullies and Victims in Schools. She believes pupils are the key to creating a climate in which bullying is not tolerated; teachers should find out how to harness children's energy to encourage both victims and bullies to ask for help. She also says teachers must watch and listen.

Watching the playground should help identify bullies and victims. The bully often looks confident and assertive. The victim moves without confidence, is isolated, is at the end of queues, goes out to the playground late and comes back early. Besag believes there is something of the bully and the victim in all of us, and family life and society help to bring out or subdue the different tendencies.

However, Elliott does not go along with the "no-blame approach". She says it does not work with the chronic bully and favours a programme where each class agrees 10 rules of social behaviour that it will live by for the whole of the school year. Any infringement of those rules will be seen as a breach of contract. Teachers can also have the pupils compile a survey of bullying in their school. The children can then design their own school plan, getting rid of areas where bullies normally lurk, such as corners of the playground and toilets far away from supervision. Another suggestion is the setting up of bully courts where children elected by the student body meet once a week with teachers to discuss and deal with incidents of aggressive behaviour.

Elliott admits that a different approach is necessary when dealing with gangs of bullies. It is essential they are broken up and dealt with as individuals, starting with the weaker ones and making sure they are separated from their victim(s) by staggering play times and going-home times if necessary. "Prevail on the nature of the hangers-on - those on the fringes of the group," she says.

The curriculum can be used to raise awareness of bullying among pupils. Teachers should challenge their attitudes about it, increase understanding of the victims' plight. Using drama and role-play children can begin to understand the motives of bullies and what it feels like to be bullied.

An anti-bullying pack available from the Department for Education was launched last year amid criticism that it was too long and too vague. Called Bullying: Don't Suffer in Silence, it is the result of a three-year DFE-funded research project led by Professor Peter Smith at Sheffield University to help schools develop effective whole-school approaches. But Kidscape gives the pack A for effort and F for practicality. The charity maintains teachers want easy lists of activities which they can carry out in a short time to address the problem. David Brown, of the Anti-Bullying Campaign, thinks the pack does not do this: "It is too long and is likely to be left on teachers' shelves." But as those on all sides agree that bullying is a widespread problem and every little helps, NQTs should perhaps take it off the shelf and see what advice it has to offer.

There is some good news. Determined action can work. A group of 12 adolescent girls had been bullied into flirting with alcohol and drug abuse, truancy and sexual malpractices, all at the instigation of one dominant girl. The school was informed of events by a parent and, after persistent questioning, the problem was resolved by using the group's cohesion to repulse the dominant bully. Situations were engineered whereby all the girls except the dominant one were involved in group activities and were rewarded for their successful completion. The dominant girl was re-admitted to the group and its activities only when her behaviour had become conformist.

* Kidscape, 152 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW19 9TR. Tel: 0171 730 3300

* Anti-Bullying Campaign, 44 Priory Drive, Reigate, Surrey RH2 8AF. Tel: 01737 242880

* Countering Bullying Unit, Professional Development Centre, Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, Cyncoed Road, Cardiff, Wales CF2 6XD. Tel: 01222 551111

* Tackling Bullying in Your School edited by Sonia Sharp and Peter K Smith, Routledge, Pounds 14.99

* Bullying: Don't Suffer in Silence DFE pack, HMSO, Pounds 9.95 (free to schools)

* Bullies and Victims in Schools by Val Besag, Open University (1989), Pounds 10.99 * Bullying! Face It! Stop It! How, from Sheila Naybour, Governor Services, 5 Portland Square, Carlisle CA1 1PU. Tel: 01228 812481


These symptoms may mean a child is being bullied: * Deterioration of work * Spurious illness * Isolation * Desire to remain with adults * Erratic attendance

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