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Schools and Bullying: Knowing our Limits

October 19, 2012

Dr Bernard Trafford, Headmaster, Newcastle upon Tyne Royal Grammar School

There is something rather charming about us schools: we desperately want to get it right for every child. Actually, we do get it pretty right for them, just about: and we do so most of the time.

But we don’t, cannot do so absolutely all of the time. And we are not good at recognising that fact. And, when we find we are not coping with it, we don’t always behave well.

We don’t like to admit to our limitations, or our shortcomings. So when it’s a matter of bullying – which brings with it all kinds of feelings of guilt, sorrow, hurt and outrage – we tend to blame the victim (for not telling us openly or soon enough): or we blame the parent (for hiding it, being over-protective, whatever). And we say we could have sorted it out, if only they’d let us.

It’s not true, of course. We always feel awful when bullying happens despite our best efforts (and those efforts are strenuous, thoughtful, methodical and thorough). We feel we should be able to fix it. Hence why some schools, heads or senior teachers can be in denial when it goes wrong. On such occasions, victims and their parents are doubly hurt – by the failure to prevent the bullying, and by the school’s reluctance to accept that it got it wrong. Pain on more pain.

Any head who says there is no bullying in their school is lying – or otherwise hopelessly deluded. In schools we throw young people together and, as in all walks of human life at all ages, bullying happens. A kind, thoughtful and proactive school will minimise it. But it will still happen.

I can think of a young woman, now 27 or 28 (and still in touch with one of my former colleagues) who was, in effect, bullied out of school at the age of 16. She was charming, a very talented dancer: she shone in a school show. Two jealous girls made her life a misery. Clearly there were some insecurities in the victim’s background: talk of eating disorders, for example. Now in her late 20s she still deals with eating disorders. She is a dance instructor: but she bears the scars.

Curiously, the two bullies also left the school: all three girls made fresh starts in other places for the sixth form, and all did quite well at A level. There was terrible damage to the victim, and denial by the bullies and their parents – arguably another kind of damage.

I can think of a different case. A 12-year-old boy who, after just one year in secondary school, didn’t come back in September for Year 8. His mother said he’d been bullied on account of his ginger hair. We had no inkling it was happening in the school. They didn’t tell us, she said, because they reported bullying in his primary school: the school had acted heavy-handedly and all it had done was make it worse. So they didn’t tell us: and without us being able to do anything, he simply left and went to another school. We pray that the pattern hasn’t repeated itself there: experience suggests that it probably has, or will.

Those two cases simply serve to illustrate why in schools we feel so bad when we can’t solve a bullying issue.

But the point of my talk is to say that we should stop beating ourselves up. We must do everything we can, employ all the strategies we know and experiment with new ones, to prevent bullying. But we should stop being too proud or too insecure to accept that we won’t win in every case.

The overwhelming majority of truants/school refusers do what they do because of bullying or the fear of bullying. The merely ‘disaffected’ or alienated are a very small proportion. Sadly for children bullied out of school, local authorities offer few alternatives. Some suggest sending a bullied child to a pupil referral unit, alongside those who may have been excluded for behavioural reasons. Others point to a school’s inclusion or nurture unit: these can be hugely effective but for, the child for whom school becomes truly an impossibility, these are not viable alternatives.

The local authorities, their welfare officers and those who help children out of school, can be as inflexible as schools, equally unwilling to admit that they haven’t got all the answers.

That’s where Red Balloon comes in, almost uniquely. Red Balloon frequently boasts that it gets children back into school. More accurately, in nearly every case it gets them back into mainstream education, but that’s by looking after them until they are 16 when they can go to a college of one sort or another. College life is not the same as the tyranny of the school year group, the hectic classroom, the thronging corridors.
But Red Balloon has one enormous difficulty: it’s almost unheard of for local authorities or schools to fund the education of a bullied child in a Red Balloon Learner Centre. Schools, always short of money, are reluctant (sometimes unable) to devolve funding to a Red Balloon Learner Centre. They can become mired in bureaucracy with talk of Service Level Agreements and other procedures. And local authorities, equally strapped for cash, simply won’t find the money.

There is, of course, legislation in place that in effect fines schools if they do ‘lose’ children: this is to discourage them from wilfully excluding. But that protection for difficult children becomes a lack of protection for the bullied child. There needs to be a different mechanism, a freeing up, a willingness to fund alternatives: and a readiness to accept in the first place that school or local authority doesn’t have the answer, and that a radical alternative is needed.

This affects a very few children in a school or town: but nationally it adds up to thousands, and thousands of lives are wrecked. They are wrecked mainly because our institutions, our systems and our bureaucracy are so inflexible. In fact, they are intransigent.

Surely it’s time that we can and must make a change.

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