My little boy is now eight years old and my wife and I have begun to turn our attention to the choice of secondary schools in our area. We both agree that our main concern in choosing a school is not its reputation for academic excellence but rather its capacity to foster social development.
In short, we are looking for a school which engenders an environment of kindness, tolerance and generosity of spirit.
My concerns are motivated by my personal experiences at a boy's grammar school in the last throes of corporal punishment. Somewhat paradoxically, any physical bullying was mainly the prerogative of the teachers while any psychological torture was usually left to the pupils. As I was an introspective and passive youngster, I generally managed to escape the attentions of the teaching staff. In contrast, those selfsame characteristics attracted the interest of those pupils at the school who specialised in random verbal assaults.
After suffering passively for several months I discovered almost by accident that I possessed an unusual gift. I was capable of directing a stinging, sarcastic observation toward any aggressor of such withering effect that he would be rendered instantaneously cowed and compelled to retreat. This dubious talent served as an invaluable survival mechanism throughout my school years and it never once occurred to me that I was using cruelty to fight cruelty.
Not unlike myself at his age, my son is a sensitive boy with a gentle disposition who loves his primary school, but I fear that his personality might attract the same unwelcome attention that I experienced at secondary school. Our dilemma is how best to prepare him to cope with such an eventuality. Since he was very small I have always made a particular effort to encourage my son to play sport and be robust physically. My unconscious reasoning, I suppose, was that somehow sensitive children transmit their fragility through their body language. My wife's approval for this has waned over the years. When I wrestle with him, she worries that I am actively teaching aggression.
I vigorously retained my stance until recently when I became a teaching assistant at a local secondary school. Initially I was delighted and reassured to discover that schools no longer tolerate anything resembling the kind of culture that was allowed to fester in my youth. Sadly, I was soon reminded that despite the clear manifesto of zero tolerance, casual and even sustained cruelty continues to flourish among the pupils. What I have since found particularly disconcerting is that there is no discernable pattern to the bullying. Passive victims in one context can suddenly morph into active protagonists in another. Both the bullies and the bullied seem to defy any consistent profile based on either physical or personality characteristics.
Such observations reminded me that currently the zeitgeist supports the belief that personal wellbeing is founded on self-insight. I am sympathetic to this philosophy and it has caused me much consternation to listen to the countless number of times I've heard a teacher ask errant pupils: "Why did you do that?", only to receive the exasperating, mumbled response "I dunno."
Pupils have twigged that such appeals to ignorance have a mitigating effect on their accountability. Surely any child who resorts to bullying needs to understand their own choices if they are ever going to feel genuinely responsible for them?
Such experiences have taught me that merely encouraging my son to stand up for himself either physically or verbally is not going to be enough. I still believe that it is important for me to foster his confidence in his own physicality, but we are destined to fail our children if we believe we can simplistically inoculate them against the bullies.
Mark Higgins is a teaching assistant