“Our 11 year old son has only just started secondary school and has come back almost daily with accounts of being bullied by older boys during the lunch-break. His shirt was torn on one occasion on his way home. This never happened in his primary school. My husband thinks it is part of secondary school life for boys and says Tony should fight them all back. I want to speak to his class teacher as I think the school should deal with it. It is not just a personal problem. However, Tony thinks this will make it worse. I think it will be worse both for Tony and the bullies to let it continue”.
Starting a new school, whether infant, primary or secondary, is not a casual experience. Beginnings can send us back to earliest feelings of uncertainty and newness even if we are also excited and pleased about the new start. Moving to secondary school after top juniors is a particularly significant change. Some schools aid the induction process by providing visiting days and giving older pupils pastoral tasks. However, there are points in every school day where a new pupil has to face his peer-group on his own. It is those relatively unprotected moments that reveal the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the institution. Indeed, before choosing a school it is worth observing the children at breaks or hometime.
When Childline began a Bullying Line they found that most moments of violent bullying (75%) took place precisely at those unprotected moments. Breaks, the lunch-hour and the journey to or from school are the times, as Tony has just learned, when some institutions do not or cannot maintain an adequate supervisory structure. Sometimes this is due to fear. Without adequate support, the teaching staff themselves can be the victims of school bullying.
“I was just grateful when I got inside the staff-room”, said one teacher from a large comprehensive. “I was as frightened of passing some of the older violent boys in the street as my young students were”. A serious joke that circulated in her staffroom went “Mummy, I’m frightened of going to school. The children frighten me and the teachers don’t support me.” Mother: “Now just pull yourself together, son. Remember, you are the headmaster”.
Educational psychologist Lesley Holditch points out, “Only a short time ago discipline in school was often only legalised bullying by teachers (in the use of corporal punishment). Now it is the children who have taken on this role. However, there are also big differences in bullying levels in schools according to the morale and nature of the staff group.” Where violence is only held in check by fear the reasons for it cannot be examined.
The sight of some new pupils can be a red rag to bullying feelings in older pupils. The shiny new uniform and hopeful faces of the “new babies” can evoke direct rivalrous anger.
John, aged 15, was expelled for his violent behaviour to new first year pupils like Tony. He was co-leader of a gang which specialised in damaging the clothes of new boys. “Milksops”, he mockingly called them. “Coming all clean in their pretty new uniform!” It took him some time in treatment to realise that the abusive term “milksop” conveyed his sense of maternal loss as well as his jealousy of cosseted younger ones. His co-leader Ivor had a violent father and sympathetic teachers had hoped his school experience could provide an alternative model. However, Ivor either sought out violence from other children or became a bully.
A victim of bullying may actually provoke anger in others yet be totally unconscious of their part in the process…there can be a thin line between being a bully and being a victim in some cases.
In the first 3 months of Childline’s Bullying Line 2,054 children were counselled. 50% of the reported bullying was perpetrated by groups of bullies rather than individuals and most children seeking help were, like Tony, in the 11 to 13 age-range. Hereward Harrison, Director of Counselling for Childline UK commented “The big surprise even for Childline was that children said bullying hurt and was wrong, whilst adults, because of their own past experiences, said it was a part of growing up.” There is an important distinction to be made between acknowledging the existence of bullying and accommodating it as an inevitable fact of life. If children sense that their teacher knows of the existence of bullying but will not do anything about it, they will give up asking for help.
Mrs F is quite right in thinking that without action bullying will continue. Whether it is a group or individual issue, it is not something that can be grown out of if it is ignored. Indeed, bullying continues in the adult workplace.
What can Tony’s parents do? It is very easy to have a fight over how to deal with bullying! Ideally, they need to come to a consensus together and discuss it with Tony and his teacher. There is a task the school needs to accomplish in creating a structure that will guarantee the physical safety for all its pupils. With the help of his parents and teachers Tony needs to insist and assert that bullying is not acceptable. It takes individual courage when isolated to deal with threats but this is feasible if he knows he is backed at home and by the school.
Childline emphasise that schools where the whole class and staff work on the problem deal with bullying far more effectively.