Bullying in schools - Are Victorian attitudes towards children partly to blame?

Professor Al Aynsley-Green, the new children's commissioner, has announced that tackling bullying in schools is his number one priority.

His comments come in a week when bullying in schools is very much in the public's mind- after a schoolgirl was stabbed in the eye and, in another incident, a victim of bullying was found guilty of manslaughter after killing one of his tormentors with a pool cue.

But are we in a state of moral panic over violence in schools? If you remove a bully from school- another will appear, argues Dr Hilary Cremin, Director of Citizenship Studies in Education at the University of Leicester. She says the most effective way of tackling bullying in schools is through educating young people in how to deal with group behaviour.

A survey in 1993 (DfES) found that around one in ten children are victims of bullying, but Prof Aynsley-Green is suggesting that this has increased to almost every child in school.

The issue here is how bullying is defined. Certainly it has become a word that is used very frequently in schools. If what is meant is bullying in its widest form (teasing, name-calling, psychological bullying) then it would certainly be accurate to suggest that almost all children are bullied.

Bullying implies an imbalance of power, and the deliberate attempt to cause harm. In the jostling for power, status and control that takes place in any group setting (animal, adult or child) bullying is certainly manifest. This is not to suggest, however, that bullies are a clearly identifiable group who can be 'dealt with.' A child who has more power at one moment, and who is using it to bully a less powerful child, may find themselves in a relatively powerless position a moment later, and could become a victim themselves.

Relationships in groups are rarely stable, and it is the fluid and dynamic nature of peer relations in school which makes tackling bullying so difficult. If a teacher removes a child who is bullying, another one will appear. Bullies are a function of groups, and teachers can only really be effective if they educate young people in how to deal with group behaviour, both the positive and negative aspects. Hilary Cremin's work investigating peer mediation as a strategy for reducing bullying is an example of this - see: http://www.le.ac.uk/education/staff/hc74.html.

The recent case of a girl who was stabbed in the face with scissors represents every parent's nightmare. It must be stressed, however, that this case is extremely unusual. The fact that bullying in its widest sense is pervasive in schools does not mean that these extreme incidents are common in schools - they are not. In fact a young person is safer in school than in anywhere else in the community, including the home. International research into violence in schools (Smith, 2003) shows that there is moral panic throughout Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia concerning increases in violence in schools. None of this is borne out by research.

In general, schools take such incidents extremely seriously, and do all that they can to ensure zero tolerance of violent and abusive behaviour. This is not to say that schools are havens of peace. They are a continuation of the communities that they serve, and it would be naïve to suggest that pupils, teachers and parents are transformed as they walk through the schools gates. The media and globalisation have a part to play. So does the climate of the education system itself. The current education system values academic achievement above personal and social values and skills. Teachers have been brought into line and required to go 'back to basics' in the classroom by successive conservative and labour governments. They have less time now than ever before for responding to children's emotional needs. ressures of the standards agenda, league tables and OfSted leave little time for dealing pro-actively with peer relationship issues. Teachers have raised standards, improved exam results, and ensured that more and more 18 year olds can enter university, but all of this is at a price. They have done as they were asked.

As a contributor on a phone-in programme on national radio, Hilary Cremin was confronted by callers who wanted the re-introduction of the cane for bullies. It is hard to imagine how this would reduce a climate of violence in schools. It is also hard to understand why these attitudes persist despite widespread support of the rights of the child. Why is it still acceptable to propose the use of violence against children when its use against adults has been unacceptable for decades? If it is tenable to cane children, then surely it must be tenable to flog workplace bullies? After all, the problem is just as wide-spread amongst adults. Here, Hilary Cremin believes, is the crux of the problem: Victorian attitudes towards children persist in society, and lead to the diminishing of their voices and power. Some of our institutions still expect children to be seen and not heard. Those who can reclaim some power through hoisting themselves up in the eyes of their peers will do so. Slapping them back down will merely result in more subtle attempts to gain advantage and power.

Schools need to be places where children are safe, rules need to be agreed with all young people and applied in ways that are consistent and fair. This, however, is only the beginning. More needs to be done to empower teachers to work pro-actively to develop the pro-social skills of the young people in their care. This needs curriculum time and proper training and support for teachers. The introduction of Citizenship as a statutory obligation at secondary level is a positive sign, as are many of the ideas enshrined in Every Child Matters, and the opening up of the 14-19 curriculum. It is to be hoped that teachers will increasingly be enabled to respond to the needs of the whole child, and to actively work towards non-violent, ethical and moral school communities.

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