What's the crime Mr Wolf?

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Get on with it, get over it or get out. The bully mantra may not be heard in the staffroom, but it exists. So how do schools handle it? Hannah Frankel finds out

When bullies in the staffroom outnumber those in the playground, schools have to act fast. But many still deny there is a problem - especially when the bully is the headteacher or a senior manager. "Not enough employers are proactive about workplace bullying," says Carole Spiers, founder of the Carole Spier's Group, a stress management and well-being consultancy.

"They bury their heads in the sand and so the conspiracy of silence continues. The typical and easiest outcome is that the perpetrator stays put and the victim moves on. Then the bully's reign of terror continues indefinitely."

It is hard to measure the extent of workplace bullying in schools, partly because many victims keep it secret and partly because no single national organisation handles grievances. However, all the indicators point towards it becoming a dangerously prevalent trend.

Last year, 701 teachers contacted the Teacher Support Network about workplace bullying, discrimination or harassment from other adults.

And research by the Ban Bullying at Work charity suggests one in five workers has been bullied in the past two years. Translated to schools, that equates to 100,000 bullied teachers.

The implications for teacher retention are colossal. Studies have consistently found that 25 per cent of those being bullied at work will quit - a further 20 per cent who witness bullying will also leave their jobs.

Samantha, a head of department from a secondary school in West Yorkshire, has left her job. "For a year I did not fully understand that I was being bullied," she says. "When I did acknowledge it, it made me stressed. I was relatively new and had no one to talk with. The school had a polarised staff and it was hard to know who I could trust."

After months of being repeatedly threatened with disciplinary procedures about a range of issues (including her absence following her partner's death), being continually ignored by the head, having her workload increased despite pleas for support and being excluded from decisions that affected her, Samantha collapsed at school and was rushed to hospital.

Even then, the school rang her seven times in one hour the following day demanding she email in work. Just three weeks after her return, Samantha was experiencing severe headaches, panic attacks and neuralgia and was again rushed to hospital. She was signed off by her doctor and has now handed in her resignation.

The TES has spoken to several teachers who have had similar experiences.

Many follow a familiar pattern. The victim is often unaware that they are being bullied, but then small incidents start to add up.

The bully may ignore victims, not consult them or become overtly critical.

There are also frequent reports of ganging up and a sense of "them" turning against an increasingly isolated "you". The inevitable result is a sense of disempowerment and decreasing self-esteem. Following a deterioration in mental andor physical wellbeing, teachers attempt to talk to a non-bullying senior member of staff, who all too often tells them to "take no notice". The next step is to turn to their union representative for help.

Fiona has been an Association of Teachers and Lecturers area representative for north-west greater London for almost nine years. She is supporting four teachers who are off work due to bullying-related stress, but is usually handling many more.

She says: "We know bullying is out there, but it can be difficult to identify and tackle. What may be unwarranted workplace bullying to one person is assertive management to another. In the majority of cases, the normal way out is for the victim to leave the school and perhaps the profession as well."

In Carole Spiers' experience, there is no such thing as a typical victim, although those at either ends of the spectrum - teachers who seem particularly weak or those who are popular and successful - are most likely to fall foul of bullying. And as for the bullies, they come in all shapes and sizes.

There are the bullies who are proud of their fearsome reputation, those who are genuinely surprised by how others perceive their behaviour, and those who emulate a very poor management style due to their stressful work environment.

This latter category has seen the most marked increase over the past five years, says Carole, as the senior management team lacks the time or energy to value their staff or even practise common courtesy.

Whatever type of bullying is being used, research conducted by Charlotte Rayner, professor of human resource management at Portsmouth Business School, says early intervention is crucial. But that can be easier said than done if the victim is unaware they are being bullied.

"Most people think of bullying as physical assault or some sort of screa-ming abuse, but that is rare among adults," says Charlotte.

"Much more common is a series of small, seemingly innocuous incidents that are hard to label. But the behaviour is likely to continue until the bullies are told it is unacceptable, so it's important to be aware of the signs and report it quickly."

Lyn Witheridge, director of the Andrea Adams Trust, the UK's only charity dedicated to tackling workplace bullying, agrees.

She says: "Bullying seems like such a childish word that it's often hard for adults to admit it's happening to them. Teachers help the kids deal with it but, when they are at the receiving end, they don't know where to turn."

It is essential, therefore, that schools create and publicise a specific workplace bullying policy. Included should be a clear statement that harassment will not be tolerated, examples of una-cceptable behaviour, and procedures for preventing and reporting bullying in confidence.

"No one wants to have to sue their employer or go to court over this," says Charlotte. "All they want is to be treated reasonably at work, keep their job and maintain some level of normality. It is up to every school to protect these basic rights."

www.andreaadamstrust.orgwww.teachersupport.infowww.bullyonline.orgwww.carole spiersgroup.co.uk


Keep a diary of each occurrence, with time, dates and witnesses. If you hand this over to your manager, keep a copy for yourself.

If you are being bullied or harassed via emails, letters or memos, keep copies for evidence.

Speak to your union representative as soon as possible: they can accompany you to meetings with your manager.

Let your line manager know as soon as you can because they have a responsibility to resolve the issue.

Keep a copy of meetings with your manager and always have a brief meeting with your union rep afterwards.

Let the bully know in writing that you find their behaviour unacceptable.

If you don't feel able to do that, ask your union rep to write on your behalf.

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