Daughter three has been having some problems with bullying at her school this year so, via the GP, we signed up for a free anti-bullying workshop this week. Daughter three was quite excited by the prospect as she was keen to meet people her own age who had been through similar experiences. The motivating factor was to make friends because the main outcome of bullying for her was a feeling of intense loneliness. She just wanted one person to be her friend, but bullying seems to isolate the bullied person in a way that becomes self-perpetuating. The other kids steer clear of the bullied person for fear of being targeted; schools often try to address the problem by, for instance, getting the pastoral care person to escort the child to class or giving them a code word so they can get out of class if they become anxious, meaning they become even more of an isolated figure.
Several of the parents at the workshop [all but one were women] wanted practical tips on how their kids can stand up for themselves and the workshop did provide these. The only thing was that daughter three has been bullied before in primary school. She had already tried all the tactics. The problem for her was lack of support from friends or any kind of emotional support from the school. I’m also not sure focusing on assertiveness for the bullied person is the golden ticket to successfully addressing bullying, but I suppose it can have a positive impact. It sounds remarkably like all those books teaching women to be assertive in a hostile work culture. The focus is on the individual woman. And how much harder is it for a child to take on a whole group who are against them than for an adult woman? Daughter three was taught to look at things from the bystander or bully perspective, which is good, but don’t they need to see things from her point of view? Why can’t more be done to deal with the bullies or the bystanders or to change the school culture generally?
I know changing a whole culture takes time and resources that schools often don’t have these days. I sent a letter to daughter three’s school head complaining about the lack of emotional support for daughter three. I doubt it will have any impact because the school, like many, is in the midst of a funding crisis and any counselling services it has had have likely been cut. Many of the teachers are leaving, no doubt worn down by target culture and general stress. But a bit of empathy goes a long way and is cost-free, although tired, demoralised staff may not see it that way.
All the parents in the workshop were asked to write down why they think children get bullied. Being different was the main thrust of it – being too clever, not being sporty, being too tall, too thin, too quiet, not white…The list goes on. I talk a lot to people about gender and, by extension, other forms of diversity in my work. There is a big focus on making work cultures more inclusive. Surely this needs to start at school? The kind of one-off sessions or tick-box anti-bullying assemblies that many schools offer just won’t do it, particularly in the early years of secondary school where the herd mentality is so strong. A sense of inclusion needs to infuse the whole system.
*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.