'We must stop excusing bullying as banter'

Banter, intentionally or not, can leave invisible scars – we need to teach pupils when it's time to stop, writes one mental health expert

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When I was in Year 7 a teacher said, in front of the whole class, that a pin badge I was wearing on my blazer was "stupid" and told me to take it off.

Actually, that’s not strictly true. I asked her for some more sketch paper and she said I could have it "as long as you take that stupid flower off". So I suppose there was technically an element of choice involved.

Her statement provoked an impromptu round of applause from the "hard" girls in my year, who started jeering, giggling, shouting "yeah" and high fiving one another, a moment our teacher visibly basked in. Burning scarlet with embarrassment and indignation I took the pin badge off, secreted it into my satchel and was given my extra paper. The lesson continued.

Not a dramatic incident, by any stretch. Pretty pedestrian, in fact, you might be thinking.

Profound loss

Now I’m going to give you some context. When I was 10 years old, my cousin, Chloe, died of a very rare form of stomach cancer. We were as close as sisters growing up, with less than a year’s age gap between us. Needless to say, Chloe’s loss had a profound effect on our entire family.

Afterwards, I used to save up a proportion of my pocket money and make a monthly donation to a then little-known charity called Marie Curie Cancer Care. In return, they would send me a little fabric daffodil in a jiffy bag, which I used to fasten to the lapel of my school blazer. It was this that my teacher, ignorant of what the badge represented, called "stupid".

As a result of that incident, two things happened. The first was that I gave up CDT, which was the subject the teacher taught, as soon as I was able to. The second was that, when I was old enough, I got a tattoo of a daffodil on my ankle. This one, I reasoned, no one could tell me to take off.

More than a decade after the original incident, a law firm I was working for told me I needed to wear opaque tights, even though it was the height of summer and more than 30 degrees, to hide the tattoo on my leg. I told them to shove their job up their arse and walked my bare legs straight to the job centre. It was only then that I finally forgave myself for not refusing to take the pin badge off, that day in school. All the intervening years I had blamed myself for, as I saw it, prioritising some squared paper over honouring the memory of someone I loved. Daft, I know, but that’s how I felt.

Surviving banter

This week, headteacher of single-sex, independent Francis Holland School in Sloane Square, Lucy Elphinstone, declared that "sensitive" girls should be taught to better withstand "banter" if they are to survive the modern world. In a statement reproduced in The Telegraph, she qualified this by saying:

“I think girls are, perhaps by nature, sensitive and easily hurt. Very often when we hear something that is just gentle teasing, we tend to call it bullying and boys would never call each other that. They are used to calling each other nicknames, pushing each other around and making fun of each other – but it’s often a sign of endearment. And girls need to learn to not take themselves quite so seriously, to laugh at themselves a little bit more and to understand that teasing isn’t necessarily something that is cruel or unkind.”

I should qualify my opinion by stating that I have visited Francis Holland School – at both sites, in Sloane Square and Regent’s Park – and I have found it to be excellent. Pupils are, in my experience, confident, enthusiastic and a pleasure to interact with.

However, I take issue with the headteacher’s comments on three counts:

The first is her assumption that boys naturally engage in and enjoy this sort of discourse and never take offence. Ben Vodden, a boy who grew up locally to me in Essex, took his own life at the age of 10 after being on the receiving end of what his classmates maintained was "banter" every day on the school bus. There are some boys – and girls – who enjoy banter as a way of bonding with their peers, but it should always be approached with caution and after you’ve established enough to know that the person on the receiving end will find it as funny as you do.

The second is the notion that putting up with banter will serve girls better in a working environment, which is something Ms Elphinstone goes on to add later in her statement. The appropriateness of banter is about context. With mates in the pub, or family over Christmas dinner, when meant with genuine affection, it can be lovely. In a professional environment, it’s most often used as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour. In particular, sexualising women in an effort to denigrate them is often passed off as "banter" and it is not something young women should ever be encouraged to passively accept.

My third point of disagreement is that the emphasis should be placed on how the perpetrator of banter "meant it". I have no doubt that my teacher thought she was being funny when she told me to remove my daffodil. I don’t think she’s an inherently horrible person who was trying to cause me harm. I doubt she would even remember the incident, now. Yet it’s left an indelible mark on my memory.

Invisible vulnerability

I don’t consider myself particularly "sensitive" but, even if I was, I’m not unusual. There is a world of invisible vulnerability out there and we should strive to create a culture where those with unseen points of sensitivity can nevertheless flourish.

Teenage years are an ideal time to teach young people that banter is for recreational spaces, with people you know very well and if that if they get even the slightest inkling that you’re making someone uncomfortable, they should stop. Any consequent upset is not the fault of the victim.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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