Welcome to another week of weak excuses

11th February 2005 at 00:00
I have misgivings about theme weeks at the best of times. Are they co-ordinated by anyone or can anybody announce one whenever the fancy takes them? Take last November's inaugural anti-bullying week. It received rather more attention than most weeks of this kind. National radio made it a key feature and the educational press and authorities took the theme to heart.

Understandably, the issues are immense and devastating for families affected. It is important to draw attention to these issues, and useful to highlight bullying within institutions by adults. After all, some of the greatest bullies can be inspectors and senior staff in schools.

I am, of course, a fierce proponent of the anti-bullying message, and the school where I am headteacher has an anti-bullying policy. But I have a difficulty with aspects of the anti-bullying message, and I often flinch when the term is used.

One example: the parent of a child who recently entered our school is adamant that her daughter is being bullied. Yet her child has never mentioned it to her class teacher or other members of staff, she appears happy and settled, and has many friends, none of whom has reported any concerns on her behalf.

One difficulty she does have, though, is frequent absence. Her attendance record is dismal and our education social worker has made contact to increase the pressure on her mother. Mum insists, though, that her daughter is out of school because of the fear of bullies. During one of our conversations, Mum explained that every day she has to ask her daughter:

"Who's been bullying you today?" Apparently, sometimes her daughter hesitates but with encouragement will eventually name a classmate. I despair.

Unfortunately this is only one example where allegations of bullying have been used to excuse difficulties a child is having. In some cases it is attendance, in others it might be behaviour. I hear the most improbable allegations of bullying of the least victim-like individuals, used to explain misdemeanours from stealing to name-calling to temper tantrums and rudeness to staff. "But heshe is being bullied," seems a frequent recourse for those struggling to explain their child's actions.

Is ours such a vile and bully-filled environment? Some days I feel it must be, and that our plethora of rewards, sanctions and positive approaches to behaviour are failing miserably. Other days I take some consolation in knowing that we are talking about a small proportion of children and their parents who seem at constant loggerheads with our school. The rest of our community continues happily with little need for contact other than support and discussion of their child's learning.

I'm not saying bullying doesn't exist for us. I do come across examples of vicious name-calling and threats being made. We deal with these swiftly and, I believe, effectively. But my concern remains that, like many societal ills with a name, it is sprinkled more liberally than it should be and is wrongly used to explain all manner of anti-social events and behaviours.

I might suggest a theme week myself: "Own up and be counted" week, during which all our parents targeted by the educational social worker or who have children with behavioural needs would acknowledge their responsibility, sympathising with the school and committing themselves to doing better. Now there's a week I'd support.

Suzanne Brown is headteacher of a junior school in Warwickshire

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