Bullying - what is really going on?
I am fascinated, as many Headteachers must be, by the allegations of bullying within the Department for Education. The irony cannot be lost on anyone that the very institution which requires us to be on top of all such issues, seems to be falling foul of them itself.
The word itself, ‘bullying’, is hugely emotive and the onus placed upon schools to both spot and tackle this crime is, quite rightly, very heavy. We are required to have published policies, to record incidents and to manage even those problems which occur off site. The increased role of text messaging and social networking has placed a huge burden on teachers in recent years.
Any Headteacher who tells you that there is no bullying in their school is either lying or very badly informed. It’s how quickly you identify it and how you handle it that counts. Human nature, with all its frailties and idiosyncrasies, will make bullying possible in any community; one has to assume that’s true for adults as well as children. This is why, although bullies are often stereotyped as big boys taking lunch money (think Nelson Muntz in the Simpsons), bullying in the workplace also has to be taken very seriously. And here we have Michael Gove saying he didn’t know anything about it. It’s the same scenario as for heads – dishonest or misinformed?
Not only do we have to accept that bullying occurs if we are to handle it, but we also have to appreciate that it’s rarely simple. Certainly real villains and real victims can exist and the latter in particular need to be totally protected. We are all aware of the terrible consequences for those driven to the edge by bullying and I don’t want to deny that these cases do occur.
However, the reality in schools is that bullying more often arises from a lack of empathy on both sides. Very often the so-called ‘bully’ is dealing with something in their own life which causes poor behaviour or, more common still, has mis-read the response of their ‘victim’ who might have seemed indifferent or even to share the joke. Empathy does not come easily to some teenagers and they genuinely need help with it.
Equally, although the victim always needs sensitivity, they too can often benefit from guidance on how to manage their own reaction or how to interact more successfully with their peers. This is not the equivalent of blaming the rape victim because of how she was dressed – it’s more to do with understanding how our behaviour can be misunderstood or inadvertently anti-social (true of lots of teenagers). It’s about their willingness to engage and give details and not expect a magic wand in the first instance. It’s possible to find strategies without forcing a young person to change identity.
As parents we can help by not taking everything our child says as gospel truth. This doesn’t mean that a child is lying – they are probably describing things exactly as they see them. But an adult who can explain that there may be another perspective is extremely helpful.
So bullying is an emotive term that no one in teaching has ever been able to ignore. Clearly the Secretary of State for Education has had to respond to it too. It’s the skills of empathy, social awareness and listening which will finally address this problem with most children; schools strive to deliver those every day. They won’t be examined by the new ‘rigorous’ GCSEs but I hope someone at the Department for Education has those skills in bucket loads if they are to move things forward from this current mess.
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