Friday, 5 February 2010

Bullying in schools

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a piece of propaganda currently being circulated by some home educators. Since the subject of bullying is mentioned in it and since not a few home educated children have been withdrawn from school after supposedly suffering bullying, I thought it might be worth looking a little closer at the whole business.

Before we can say anything at all about bullying and its consequences or prevalence, we need to know what we mean by the word. There is no universally accepted definition of bullying. A common one, used by many schools and local authorities is; " a persistent, deliberate attempt to hurt or humiliate someone. " In order to count as bullying, three elements must generally be present. The behaviour must be deliberately hurtful, it must be repeated over time and there must be an imbalance of power which makes it hard for those being bullied to defend themselves. This then is the definition of bullying which I shall work with for now.

We see at once that much unpleasant behaviour in schools would not fall into this category. A smaller child being beaten up by two older boys would not be classed as bullying if it was a one-off incident. An ethnic minority child who was ostracised by his class would not necessarily be the victim of bullying. This makes it very difficult to measure the number of children who we might reasonably classify as victims of bullying. Surveys typically ask children if they believe that they or those known to them feel that they have been bullied. Obviously, any child who has been the victim of unpleasant behaviour might see himself as a victim and report this honestly. This does not mean that he actually has been bullied. Unless children are familiar with the definition used then the whole process of gathering information in this way is pretty pointless. One cannot ask children if they think that they have seen bullying and then mark those answers down as the incidence of bullying across the nation's schools!

Frequently, the incidence of bullying in schools is grotesquely exaggerated. Some charities do this by asking leading questions or, as in the case of Beatbullying, by only asking the victims of bullying about the matter. Their motive is simple. Just as a charity which works for victims of domestic abuse has an interest in convincing us that every other man is beating his wife, so to do charities working with bullying depend for their continued finance on a ready and large supply of victims of bullying. These are their stock in trade and without them the funding would soon dry up! Always look closely at the methodology of surveys conducted by such organisations. It is usually shoddy and deceptive.

The truth is that bullying has become something of a growth industry in the voluntary sector, with various groups falling over each other to produce ever wilder figures. Local authorities, anxious to be seen as tackling the problem, join in eagerly, thus demonstrating their own liberal credentials. It cannot be denied that using the definition above, much of what is often called bullying would not qualify if judged objectively and rationally. It would instead be dismissed as the usual rough and tumble of school life. It is wholesome too, to remember that bullying also takes place at home. The tremendous imbalance of power between a child and her parents makes a perfect setup for bullying. Some children escape bullying when they go to school!

I cannot resist a final word about Beatbullying, a charity famous for the huge rate of bullying which they have managed to uncover by questioning only the victims of bullying. Beatbullying was involved in a campaign against "cyber bullying"; bullying by texts and on the Internet. They chose as their public figurehead a pop group called N'Dubz. A few weeks ago, a member of this group apparently called "Dappy" was revealed to have sent obscene death threats , by text, to a young woman who criticised his music. I will not put the full text here, but it is enough to say that he promised to kill her and called her a word beginning with C which is not generally used in polite company. How ironic that one of the leading charities in this field should have chosen an aggressive and misogynistic cyber bully to promote their campaign against cyber bullying!


  1. "It would instead be dismissed as the usual rough and tumble of school life."

    Under which many get squashed.

    Working in school, one of the things that made me heave was how adults, who would squeal like stuck pigs were they treated in such a way by others, were prepared to write off appalling behaviors towards others as "just rough and tumble".

    I'm not sure what caused more damage to the ones at the bottom of the heap. The treatment from their peers or the lack of interest in terms of intervention from the adults, who were there to demonstrate "rules of engagement" in terms of life skills.

    Maybe that is why some kids called it bullying even when it doesn't "qualify".

    What those children communicated is that they regard the "rough and tumble" as serious, painful, hurtful and unacceptable. So they assigned it a label that fitted those qualities, possibly in the vague hope that the adults might pull their socks up and do something about it.

  2. I'm sure that this is absolutely true, Sarah. many of my own experiences at school fell into this category of being horrible , bit not really bullying. I am trying to make the point though, that if we are claiming that such and such a percentage of children are bullied at school, then we at least must be able to define what we mean by the word "bullying". It would be quite OK to claim that a certain percentage of children have unpleasant or undesirable experiences at school, but that is quite a different thing from being bullied. Some home eduators prefer to talk about bullying rather than just undesirable experiences, because of the connotations of aggression and violence that are contained in this word. Saying, "I withdrew my child from school because of bullying" sounds quite different from, "I withdrew my child from school because he didn't like it".

  3. "It would be quite OK to claim that a certain percentage of children have unpleasant or undesirable experiences at school, but that is quite a different thing from being bullied."

    It's just semantics. Bullying, with its criteria assigns at least lip service to intervention and comprehension. While all other forms of creating a hostile learning environment don't enjoy the same status.

    So children and parents will quite naturally grab hold of the one label that will allow them to express the level of harm, hurt, damage and discomfort done and try to garner the intervention and comprehension they need.

    IMO the issue is not who do we strike off the list of "harm done unto" because it doesn't conform to the one area considered valid, but rather, when are we going to front up to how we still condone poor social skills and attitudes in the next generation, on the basis that school is a parallel universe where the usual rules of engagement don't apply (unless it fits into the box of the one area which can spew a growth industry as opposed to a solution) expecting a 180 degree change once they exit compulsory education and getting all "shock !! horror!!!!!" when that doesn't happen.

    There is nothing wrong with some consensual rough and tumble within "non bleeding or broken" boundaries in school or out. Frankly I think I'd get more done if I let some of them have a ten minute wrestle before we got started to get the ants out of their pants

    But the key there is consensual. Whether the exchange is verbal, mental or physical

    And that is where we should be drawing the line, not chopping thing sup into tidy boxes and sticking just one of them on a throne of "worthy of concern and attention".

  4. Thank you Sarah.

  5. Bullying and violence are probably common, both in school and out. To that extent, schools mirror the real world. We really need to find out how common these things are before we can tackle them. To do that, we need to understand clearly and precisely what we are all talking about. As I said above, bullying also takes place in homes. Whether that suffered by children at school is worse than this domestic abuse is an interesting point. Exaggerating the scale of the problem helps nobody.

  6. Of course it is common outside of school, that's the chicken wot comes from the egg.

    Like I said, no point thinking you're going to get 180 degree turns in behavior and attitude when you condone or ignore via quasi-positive labels like "rough and tumble".

    At least if you are a member of the real world (i.e. an adult) you have a right of reply through the legal system. Even if bugger all happens to them you can at least give somebody a ball and chain made of a papertrail.

    Very few people wouldn't be off work with stress related symptoms if they were forced to perform daily in the kind of hostile environment schools can be for the kids in them.

    "Exaggerating the scale of the problem"

    Were these adults instead of children we wouldn't be talking about exaggeration and making sure we label attacks (emotional, physical, verbal) into worth counting versus not worth counting.

    Which I think is what hacks me off the most. We give the least possible protection to the smallest, the weakest and the most powerless and dump a shitload of salt in the wound by telling the little people at the sharp end that the situation that is deeply distressing them doesn't really exist because they are "exaggerating" thanks to not fitting into a set of criteria.

    I'd like a shrink ray, smallify all the people in charge of this semantic bull in schools, send them back in for a month on the wrong side of the chalkface and give them a reality check.

    I'd challenge any desk jockey in government, writing up what counts and what doesn't count as hostile/unacceptable, to work in the pit for a short time at least. To watch how many kids, who never get a finger laid on them or a bad word said to them, sacrifice the principles of solidarity and standing up for others if not themselves, in order to stay safe.

    Reduced to living as shadows hugging the wall, looking over their shoulders with achieving invisibility as a primary goal.

    Obliged by a sense of self preservation to continuously observe, but leave unchallenged violence, torment, cruelty, viciousness and slander in word and deed until it becomes something they regard as "normal interaction".

    Then let's see if they want to tell me that anything other than what fits the tight criteria of "bullying" is an exaggeration in terms of harm to both individuals and society as a whole.

    Maybe then they like me will realise you don't need a child to bleed all over your best Next dress to know they are being damaged.

    I'm not cross with you, you have raised valid points that shine a light on far more important issues that fester beneath the choice of label.

    I'm cross that far too to often my job has seemed to be the perfect preparation ground for working in a prison via shining a light on the "survival of the fittest/dog eat dog" dynamic.

    You say exaggeration helps nobody.

    I say vastly underplaying, all bar one tightly defined area, actively harms all of us.

    Unless we give parents and children a level playing field in which to have their issues (that arise from a "Lord of the Flies rulez OK, unless the criteria fit and then we go into lip service" set up) heard and acted upon, they are forced to use the only vocabulary that will allow them to get the recognition of the gravity of their situation.

    The focus should not be on swatting off those that are "illegally" using the term. The priority needs to be on why the hell we are trying to downplay the vast majority of the unacceptable behaviors and attitudes in schools, at such a cost to individuals (often half-pint sized) and the public as a whole.

    Sorry if the above got garbled.

    My knickers are well and truly twisted. Which does little to help my clarity

  7. "Bullying and violence are probably common, both in school and out. To that extent, schools mirror the real world."

    I can't accept that for a minute. From a social perspective, the environment a school most closely mirrors is a prison, not anything I've ever encountered in the real world.

    Violence is certainly not common in the real world, and to the extent it happens it can be dealt with by the law. I don't recall, in my day, many victims of violence expecting it to be dealt with by the teacher. At best, the perpetrator would be reprimanded, and then the two parties returned to the 'cells', only to be dispatched together to the unsupervised 'exercise yard' the very next day.

    As for bullying, I guess the real world example is "bullying in the workplace", something I've never come across but must assume exists. Again, this is very different, since a) the victim has at least some chance of being emotionally mature, being an adult not a child, and b) they have a choice to be there or not. There may be some room to argue to what extent someone has a choice to be at work, but the fact remains they most certainly do have a choice. A child certainly doesn't.

    The rest is just semantics, as Sarah said, and to some extent it's in the eye of the beholder - if the child perceives that they're being bullied, they probably are. Whether or not you want to reclassify some instances of this as "unpleasant or undesirable experiences", the fact remains that it's a situation that isn't good for the welfare, or education, of the child in question.

    As for the N'Dubz fiasco, birds of a feather flock together don't they.

  8. I can't accept that this is merely a matter of semantics. The claim was made in the home education poster I reproduced the day before yeaterday that 450,000 children are bullied every week. Before we accept this astonishing figure, surely we need to know what the authors mean by bullying and how they gather their statistics?

    To make such a claim and then say, "Oh everybody knows this is true", is not really on. A lot of unpleasant things happen at school and in the wider world, including within families. I do not think there is anything uniquely horrible about schools, or that any more bullying takes place there than in the rest of the world.

  9. I'm pretty sure it's very significantly matter of semantics. As a wise man once (i.e. right at the top of this page) said:

    "Before we can say anything at all about bullying and its consequences or prevalence, we need to know what we mean by the word. There is no universally accepted definition of bullying."

    Of course, that makes putting any kind of figure at all on how many children are bullied each week a ridiculous exercise (not only can you not define it, you can't measure it), and to that extent I agree with what you're saying.

    I still insist that school is not like the real world though, for the reasons I stated above. To add to that, children (being children) do not necessarily yet know how to behave in society, they need guidance and (dare I say it) education.

    I'm not on some kind of anti-school rant here - the initial source of much of their idea of how to behave comes directly from their family environment, and as you rightly say there are families where bullying and violence are the behaviours on display for the children to learn from. The problem is that those behaviours are brought to school, and the nature of the school environment is such that children behaving like that tend to rule the roost to a large extent. They don't learn how to behave from the tiny proportion of adults there, since they're the teachers - authority figures (to some extent 'the enemy'), and deliberately not part of the social aspect of school life. Instead they learn from other children (the blind leading the blind), and mostly children of exactly the same age as themselves. To me, at least, this doesn't seem right. It might work better if all the children came from decent families, but they don't.

  10. If you are going to try pedantic semantics then you had better be a little less sloppy with your definitions.

    I can recall one child that only picked-on each of his victims once in most cases, so by your definition none of them were bullied and yet he was most certainly a bully; a sense of terror was created. I understand that this is not uncommon.

    Individal incidents can have a devastating effect on a small child; are you saying that these don't matter Simon?

    Let's also remember that there are many teachers that routinely employ a form of non-violent bullying in order for them to maintain the unworthy sense of superiority that seems be the the main reason that s significant few them do the job.

  11. No this was not my definition at all, but one used by many voluntary groups and local authorities. If we make a statement such as ""Every week 450,000 children are bullied", then at the very least, we need to decide what we mean by bullying. What is your definition, Anonymous and how prevalent do you think this problem is?

  12. If a child is the victim - even only once - of a persistent bully, then that child has been bullied.

    A one-off incident by child that is not persistent might be regarded as part of your "rough and tumble".

    Physically, the two types of incident may be equally bad for the victim but in the latter case the perpetrator is probably not creating the sense of nagging terror created by a real bully. That terror is one of the traits of a real bully; the harm is partly psychological.

    As for the prevalence of the problem, I've no idea except to say that I was shocked by the degree of violence in my own child's "very good" primary school, and that was one of a number of reasons for deregistration.

    I have to agree with CiaranG that school is more akin to prison than real life. Schools have largely become a containment mechanism.

    I agree with much of what you say about bullying having become a growth industry for the voluntary sector; however this is a symptom of something that is very wrong and should not have to be tackled by such groups when the answers lie in schools and homes of bullies.