The agony of knowing your son's being bullied – and the school is too politically correct to punish his tormentors
21:07 GMT, 24 October 2012
00:20 GMT, 25 October 2012
Each day at 3.15pm, the school gates open and hordes of boisterous children spill happily out on to the Tarmac. My son, however, is not one of them.
He makes his way across the playground, shoulders hunched, head down, dragging his bag. He exudes a weariness that singles him out from his peers.
I can see, from ten yards away, how bad his day has been. I take in the frown, the nervous gesture he makes with his hand across his brow and the way he glances warily about him. I know — my heart lurching — that he is summoning all his energy not to cry.
‘You OK’ I ask, as casually as I dare. He nods, desperate to hold it together until we get to the car. But I know, and he knows, that all is not ok. We’re into the fourth week at a new school and — I’m going to use a word now that I have discovered is a little like throwing a bomb into a room — he is being bullied.
That’s right. Bullied. Not picked on, teased, or made the butt of some playground pranking. But bullied. I know it’s an emotive word — a word that is often over-used and bandied about unnecessarily (I know this because the school in question keeps telling me this repeatedly).
But when you have a ten-year-old who was previously confident but now shakes on the school run; who loved school but now spends the majority of his evening begging to be allowed to stay at home the next day — then, excuse me, I’ll use any word I damn well please.
Trust me, I’m not a precious mother. Nor am I one of those who feels the need to endlessly enter the school to put my maternal oar in. My approach — until now — has always been one of: ‘Get out of the car — see you in six hours.’
When we decided to move Monty to a new school at the beginning of Year 5, just shy of his tenth birthday, I wasn’t unduly worried.
He had been happily attending the same small, idyllic village primary since 2007. But two years ago we moved to a house ten miles away, out of the area, and since then I’ve been spending an hour in the car each day doing a 40-mile round trip to get him there and back.
I decided to send him to the local primary at the end of our road. It’s much bigger, with a more mixed social intake. I reasoned that this was surely a good thing. I want my children to learn with children from a variety of backgrounds. It opens their eyes to the wider context that it takes all sorts to make the world go round.
Well, that’s how I felt before. Now I snort at my naivety. Because, from bitter experience, I know that this ideal only works if those other children have a similar code of behaviour and manners — one that is reinforced by school and parents alike.
Writer Shona Sibary
More than half of bullied children have been physically hurt, with 34 per cent needing medical attention
And before you accuse me of being a judgemental snob let me put this to you. Is it acceptable to kick another child relentlessly in the small of their back during a lesson
Or to tip them out of their chair Or to erase the work they have spent the last 30 minutes doing from the whiteboard And that’s the stuff that went on when there was a teacher in the room.
Bear in mind we are talking here about a village school in the leafy Home Counties — not an inner-city primary on special measures. So when Monty initially admitted to me, in floods of tears, what was going on, I had every faith the problem would be nipped in the bud, swiftly and effectively.
How wrong I was. To begin with, the head teacher acknowledged there was an issue with two of the boys in that year group who were feeling ‘a little insecure’ about Monty’s arrival. I ventured that Monty was feeling a little insecure about being chased up a tree and having his trainers ripped off his feet and thrown over the hedge.
But, hey ho, it was early days and I still felt confident that things would be dealt with.
Monty’s first week was dreadful. I watched as he put a brave face on the business of being the new boy, while sinking further into dismay because these bullies didn’t ‘like’ him.
I could see part of the problem was that — with three sisters — Monty is probably a bit more in touch with his feminine side than his peers.
By nature, he is communicative, a little quirky, and more likely to break into song in the playground than kick a football.
He does ballet, musical theatre and talks about his emotions, which, admittedly, might make another type of boy conclude that he’s a weirdo, or a geek — two of the names he was repeatedly called during his first week.
All this is, of course, par for the course. My husband Keith and I explained to him that there will always be people who don’t like you and one of life’s lessons is to toughen up and deal with it.
Then we went to the school to ask what the hell was going on. The head teacher reiterated that the situation was ‘being handled’. These two boys had behavioural issues that they were working on.
Things got worse. In his second week, Monty was repeatedly followed into the toilets (where I suspect he was going to have a quick cry) and relentlessly pursued at every turn.
Any mother will identify with the angst of seeing your child unhappy but having no power to deal with it. I was sorely tempted to speak to the boys’ parents but the look of horror on the head’s face when I suggested it stopped me in my tracks.
Another of my bright ideas was to invite the bullies to tea — but this time it was the look on Monty’s face that made me realise I was clutching at straws.
By now, we were speaking to the school every day. Or rather, they were repeating the same thing to us over and over again: ‘We have a zero-tolerance approach to bullying.’
This was beginning to sound like point number one on some Department of Education guideline sheet for schools: ‘Buy time by telling the parents what they want to hear. Eventually they’ll believe you.’
But I didn’t. I was fast losing faith. The school might, indeed, have zero tolerance. I have zero tolerance about crisp packets being shoved down the back of the sofa but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
The tricky bit is implementing a consequence. So, I put it to the head teacher: what punishment are you giving these boys for making my son’s life a misery
‘Oh, none,’ she replied. ‘We’re going to set up a drama group to help the three of them (including Monty) deal with their social responses.’
Social responses What on earth was she talking about I felt like she had swallowed a whole political correctness dictionary!
I rushed from the room, went straight home and told Monty that if either of those boys came anywhere near him again he had my permission to punch them — a social response I felt was quite appropriate under the circumstances.
But I knew he wouldn’t. He’s no angel, but punching is not his style. Then the school suddenly changed tack. ‘This isn’t actually a bullying matter,’ the head teacher informed me at the beginning of week three.
‘Bullying is the relentless targeting of one individual, and these two boys behave like this towards every child in the class.’ She then suggested — with Monty present — that it might be best to just ‘put up with it, and stop taking their behaviour so personally’.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. By shifting the focus from ‘bullying’ to ‘general bad behaviour’ it seemed as though she had cleverly placed the onus of the problem on Monty — deflecting it away from a word she appeared desperate not to have the school associated with.
According to ChildLine, there has been a rise in bullying in schools and there is much evidence to show there is often a discrepancy between what teachers consider to be bullying behaviour and what their pupils report is actually happening.
Indeed, bullying remains the second most common reason for children to contact ChildLine, with 31,599 counselling sessions being carried out last year — approximately 87 per day.
To this end, the charity are launching a ChildLine schools service next month — run by trained volunteers — who will go into schools across the UK and hold workshops for children, in particular those aged nine to 11 years old, about bullying and how they can be supported.
Of course, it will be too late for Monty. But that’s OK because I have taken matters into my own hands in the best way I know how. I have moved him somewhere else.
Call it running away if you like, but when you have lost all trust in your child’s school to nurture and protect them with common sense and no other agenda, then what other option do you honestly have
I know my decision was a good one because now, at the end of the day, Monty has a bounce in his step and is bursting with enthusiasm.
He’s still dragging his bag along the ground, mind you. But perhaps you’ll understand when I say I honestly couldn’t care less…