Tom Bennett

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Emma Watson isn’t being bullied. Slow news: hot topics.

Hermione ‘not bullied’.

The news is often strange. And rarely more so when it reports that something you probably weren’t even aware of, didn’t actually happen anyway, much like what goes on (or doesn’t) on the dark side of the Moon, or inside your bread bin when you’re asleep.

This was certainly the case in the news reports that Emma Watson, the elegant, elven superwaif best known for going through adolescence via her fictional avatar Hermione, denies the claim that she was being bullied at University. Did you know there was such a claim? You’d have to be a pretty devoted stalker to have noticed. Nevertheless, an enormous section of today’s media has been set aside and made holy for the purpose of reassuring your worst fears before they can blossom, by instantly raising them up and then cutting them down, like unto a reaper. Such is the transformative, restorative power of the press. Yea, blessed be the red tops, for they shall forgiveth all iniquities, healeth all diseases, even the ones you didn’t know you had.

The apparent non-charges relate to claims that, in her time at Browns University, Rhode Island, students would mock her, saying ‘ten points to Gryffindor!’ every time she got an answer right, which frankly I can’t believe wouldnt happen, but I have a childish sense of humour- it would never get old. Apparently the speculation grew (read: ‘was invented in the head of a bored hack’) when she decided to take a break from her studies ‘to concentrate on acting.’ Perhaps some of our news outlets can follow suit and take a break from celebrity non-stories to ‘concentrate on their journalism.’

But if she’s claiming that she wasn’t bullied (in other news: Charlie Sheen ‘isn’t joining the Space Program’ and Lindsay Lohan ‘didn’t assassinate Archduke Ferdinand’) then she appears to be one of the few. Over the last week we’ve seen a number of studies showing that teachers and Head Teachers all show significant levels of intimidation, harassment, and physical and verbal abuse, to a level that they would describe as bullying. The surveys (by the school leaders’ union the NAHT, and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) asked respondents to describe levels of intimidation faced, and what forms they took. Unfortunately they came to some ugly conclusions:

Out of 1300 respondents (from a membership of 28,000), around ten percent of Head Teachers said that they had experienced a physical assault by a parent or carer. Can you imagine? The Head of a school being subject to an attack by what I can only imagine to be a particular subsection of moron? I know that we live in a society where estate and title mean less and less, but there are whole circles, spheres of social barriers that have to be dismantled before an act of that type is to be considered.

Such is the life of the public servant; often villified, spat on, detested, in manner entirely at odds with the community role he or she occupies. Or, in the words of Richard Harris’s masterful English Bob in Eastwood’s opus Unforgiven, ‘I mean, why not shoot the President?’    

It gets worse: roughly one in five claimed they had been the victim of cyber-bullying. Three quarters said they had been subject to verbal abuse or threats from a parent. And interestingly, 86% of respondents said that the situation was- in their experience- getting worse, which I’m sure that many Behaviour Crisis denialists will rush to discount as unrepresentative, anecdotal and untrue, because as we all know, things have only gotten better. Production is up even more, comrades!! God save us from people who love state education so much they can bear no criticism of it.

The ATL survey swung the spotlight on to another related issue: workplace bullying, revealing that a quarter of respondents reported that they had experienced bullying at the hands of another member of staff. Out of 900 members surveyed who said they had been bullied, 50% said it was at the hands of a senior member of staff, a quarter said it was students, and another quarter said it was parents.

All such surveys have to be taken in context: sampling methods, sample sizes, sample audiences, etc all have to be considered beofre drawing conclusions form this kind of data. For a start, bullied members are far more likely to report bullying than non-bullied members would report non-bullying, for the simple reason that people who want to fill out surveys usually do so because they have something they want to communicate, rather than those who, a bit like the journalists at the start of this blog, have nothing really to say. And without seeing the surveys, it will always be hard to discern if the wording is in any way persuasive (‘How often have you been bullied? Always, regularly or just sometimes?‘). And finally, the word bullied itself is a very thick concept, containing within itself the possibility of multiplicities of meaning.

The ATL defines bullying as:

‘Bullying is the persistent (and normally deliberate) misuse of power or position to intimidate, humiliate or undermine.’

There is even a beautiful line further down, where it claims,

‘You may be the last to realise that you are being bullied. You might attribute stress to the pressures of dealing with students rather than the behaviour of your headteacher/principal or line manager. It may only be when a colleague discusses the matter with you that you realise what’s going on.’

So we have the very real (and potentially, statistically devastating admission) that bullying can be so nebulous, so tacit, that we don’t even notice it, or at least define it as such. Conceptually, this is a real problem for any survey that attempts to track levels of bullying within the profession. After all, some people will just laugh off jokes about, for example, coming from Scotland; others would see it as verbal harassment.

Way back in the 18th century, the libertarian and utiltartian philosopher JS Mill was wrestling with the problem of whether ‘offence’ could be categorised as ‘harm’. And I’m not sure if we’ve progressed philosophically any further from the answer of ‘er…sometimes.’ I used to have a University tutor who would casually put his hand on my knee and call me his ‘special student’, while I mentally marked the fire exits and bustled out the room to invented appointments elsewhere. At the time it just seemed awkward and impolite; looking back now, if I saw a teacher do that to a student I’d clobber them. If offence is characterised by someone being offended, then Gay Pride and Neo-Nazi rallies will face equal censure.

But even given these methodological constraints, even if we diminish the data to account for bias, there is still a significant statistical conclusion- bullying happens frequently, and often, to a significant number of teachers. There are no surveys, for example, claiming that bullying has improved, or that it’s a tiny, minority problem, for head Teachers, rank and file, and support staff. Such is the modern context of education in the state sector, where significant numbers of people are treated not only with less respect and dignity than they deserve, but with less dignity and respect than the desert of a dog.

The reasons are as myriad as human motivation, but underlying them all, as I mentioned at the start, is a breakdown in the acknowledgement of the teacher’s status as an authority, as an adult, and as a professional. For a parent to, as the survey reveals, ‘hit, grab, punch, throw a chair….etc’ at a member of staff indicates that they believe that physical or verbal intimidation is the best strategy to employ during…what? A conversation about the future of their child? A parents’ evening? No wonder some of our pupils find it hard to restrain themselves, or express themselves in a dignified way, if their key role models provide such a template for behaviour.

But this isn’t to launch a salvo at parents as a group: too often, the behaviour debate in this country is unbearably partisan- parents blaming teachers, teachers blaming parents, governments blaming whomever exists in their least significant voting demographic, and pupils blaming…well, everyone but themselves, usually. It’s a mess, and it’s stupid. There is no one group responsible for the problem. The problem lies in the way that adults and children now perceive themselves.

One of the things that I find significant as a teacher, is how much children want to hurry up and become adults. Perhaps this is a universal impulse- the adolescent sees the liberties of adulthood, and imagines it comes without cost. But what surprised me when I went into teaching is that there is a small, significant minority of adults who appear to be in an extended infancy- who reject responsibility, who don’t want to give up the luxury and carelessness of childhood, and who carry its values into their twenties, thirties, forties and sometimes even beyond. Like the parent who once said to me at Parent’s Evening, ‘How long will this take? Eastenders is on in half an hour.’

I fuss you not. Or the parents who admit that they don’t know what to do with their children. ‘I mean, all he wants to do is go upstairs and play with his PS3,’ they say wearily, as I wonder if the idea of not giving them a PS3 has ever crossed their minds.

I suspect we will never invent a method to banish people being cruel to one another; as long as  relations of hierarchy endure between people (and they will, they will) then people will abuse that power from time to time. But this is merely descriptive; for schools to adopt a prescriptive posture to these facts will require all adults involved in the process to acknowledge their responsibilities as well as their privileges, and to face up to the fact that children need us to guide them; that they need us to step up to the roles that we are placed in; that they need us to behave and communicate with each other in responsible and considerate ways, and that we share the common goal of raising children as best we can.

And if we don’t? Then someone needs to take our Playstations away.

Nights in White City: How I learned to love the Beeb

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. ~David Frost

And today, Matthew, it was my turn. If you snorted Cheerios through your nose, I can only advise you to upgrade to a less lubricious brand of cereal. I spent another three minutes in Tellyland today, as a guest of Auntie Beeb’s hospitality, which for me is a novel enough experience to be worth talking about, although to the magic elves behind the curtain, I’m sure it’s as commonplace as custard.

They sure move fast in Tellyland: a phone call on Friday for a slot on Monday (somehow I’ve sneaked onto a last resort Rentagob Rolodex under ‘S’ for schools, or ‘O’ for opinionated), and the machine sparked into life. And it’s slick, like the Vatican. When they say ‘the taxi will be outside the front door at 6:20’, then Shazam– there it is at 6.15, accompanied by a text telling you what car and where. The cars are agreeable without being ostentatious, as if to say, you are important, but we are not profligates. The drivers are conversational without ever actually tipping over into intrusively racist or aggressive. The cab is deodorised but without the Alpine Forest Little Tree dangling from the rear mirror. And so on.

BBC White City is as familiar as every episode of Blue Peter, like a film set of Children in Need; it is, to be honest, a utilitarian and oppressive looking structure, no doubt much loved by the kind of architects who swoon over post-modernism and high rises, but wouldn’t actually live in one. Stalin would feel affection; Hitler would find the brickwork shabby. But it is what it is, and what it is, is an icon. And walking into an icon is always exciting. Ask Ray Charles at the Oscars.

The foyer was unmanned; in fact the whole building is surprisingly empty at 7.30 in the morning; perhaps I was expecting Terry Wogan delivering the milk, and Brucie scarecrowing through the corridors. At the desk I saw a box of poppies, which I had worried about in the cab: Poppy or No Poppy? Being of a generation that never learned its manners, I couldn’t tell if Remembrance Sunday marked the beginning or end to the season. What a minefield. So I grabbed what I assumed was a complimentary memorial flower, and left a guilty quid in the box.

Ted showed me around. I have to say, everyone there at that time was charming; exceptionally so; charming in an early morning way that I have never experienced, but given that my sole experience of early shifts has been opening restaurants, I expect that bin men, fishmongers and alcoholics aren’t a fair comparison. The Green Room (which is so tiny as to suggest that I had swallowed a tart with the words ‘Eat Me’ hand piped in icing on it) was, licence hawks, Spartan but agreeable; coffees and pastries, rather than the Champagne Trolleys that Clive James memoirs had led me to believe. There were a succession of friendly, youthful looking people dressed in shabby-chic who all looked enthusiastic, intelligent and glad to see you. It must have been their superpower.

After the greetings and the thanks, they sit you down (where I met my other participants, a lovely woman campaigning for more anti-bullying legislation), and we watched people from the Plasma Screen TV on the wall magically turn into real people as they walked off the set and back into the room. Honestly; it’s like watching a cartoon come alive, and you find yourself doing the double take that famous people presumably get all the time. Then I was taken into make-up, which for a man is an uncomfortable experience at the best of times and frankly, I can’t even imagine what that time would look like. Let’s say it’s odd to be powdered and brushed, and simply understand that without it, I would give the cadaverous appearance of Dot Cotton and my flesh would glow with Celtic waxiness.

Ten minuets before show time, I nipped off to the loo. Staring at the porcelain wall, a manly whole urinal away from the only other user, a well known face from the box stepped in, and placed himself between me and Barrabas. ‘It’s busy in here!’ he said, in a way that would have brought him nothing but pain in a Glaswegian pissoir. Telly folk! ‘Perhaps we should form a Barbershop Quartet,’ I said, trying to respond in kind. Fortunately it got a Mexican chuckle that I believe is rare in such situations.

Then we were led through to the studio. Have you ever seen the set of the Today show, or Tonight with Jay Leno, that kind of thing? Well it’s nothing like that. This is the British version. There’s about five people including the presenters and the sofa, and if there is a producer somewhere holding one finger to his ear and saying, ‘Camera five go to the profile in six…five…four…’ then I have yet to see him. This is the austerity Beeb; this is the Beeb facing off to a belligerent coalition of Murdoch-fanciers. The lining might be Damascan silk and ermine, but the top cloth is most definitely Yorkshire cotton.

Just as I sat down and the floor manager carefully threaded a mike onto me, she looked down at my lapel: ‘Bill and Sian aren’t wearing poppies. You can of course do what you like, ‘ she whispered, ‘But they’re not wearing one.’

I took mine off, lancing my thumb seconds before the camera cut to us.

Almost alone in the studio, it felt like we were having a chat in someone’s front room (were that someone Chris Tarrant, or Philip Schofield). The minimalism was a blessing, because it clears all nerves. Bill and Sian are, giving them both their due, flawless. It makes me realise that ‘broadcaster’ is actually a professional job, rather than just something that ex-Big Brother contestants claim to be once they’ve done a few live spots down the Inferno (Clapham North’s premier nightspot). If you saw it, then you’ll know it was over in a flash; we got bumped later and shorter because some Somalian pirates decided to release two hostages on the same morning I was on the sofa, rather selfishly I thought, but then as pirates I suppose they know no decorum or sense of occasion.

Two minutes after the interview, I’m stepping into a taxi and it’s all over. The amount of thought and planning that goes into that short slot was boggling; some people put less into planning a wedding. And as I pulled off, I noticed something tucked away in a corner of the forecourt that warmed my heart in all four chambers: a police box. An old fashioned blue police box. This was the BBC, you see. A seven year old child inside me hooped and whooped as we drove away.

Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. ~Edward R. Murrow

Cruel Intentions: How bullying can be stopped in cyber space

It’s National Anti-Bullying week, and organisations like Action Work and the Anti-Bullying Alliance are raising the profile of an ancient evil wearing a very new suit: Cyber-Bullying; when people experience harassment and abuse via the internet, or other information/ communication technologies. It’s a foul, horrible way for people to interact, and sadly, it’s on the rise; hardly surprising given the speed with which instant messaging, mobile phone use and social network participation has blossomed exponentially. Remember Twitter? Started in 2006. Facebook? Launched in 2004. Even mobile phones themselves weren’t part of Everyman’s daily luggage until roughly the Millennium.

Communication technology has moved so fast, has created and then colonised new markets so quickly, that our culture struggles to catch up with the impact it has on our daily interactions. Which is where, amongst other residents, the cyber-bully steps in. DfE data from 2003 suggested that even then, approximately 16 children a year in the UK committed suicide due to cyber-bullying. And over two thirds of teenagers surveyed admitted that they had, at some point, been the victims of internet abuse, such as:

  1. Hate messages, where an aggressor leaves a plain threat or insult
  2. Flaming; when a discussion on a forum or website turns nasty, quickly
  3. Identity theft: setting up a social network page for someone without their consent, then posting false opinions under that alias- usually designed to inflame opinion against them , or to instigate trouble between peers
  4. False allegations: claiming, for example, on an anti-racism website, that Person X is a racist, then posting personal details
  5. Releasing private information about that person, to encourage further privacy invasion

And so the grimy list continues. The impact of this can’t be stressed enough; I suspect that many people, for whom internet familiarity has come later in life, struggle to see what an impact this can have. That’s because young people increasingly identify themselves socially with their on-line personae; so when an attack is launched at them on-line, it’s experienced as a direct attack on their identity, their relationship with their peers, and their reputation. After all, cyber-bullying doesn’t just affect the intended victim; it also has an impact on the friends or peers of the victim who witness the attack. Just like a conventional assault.

What can schools do to help combat this?

There are a number of excellent websites and resources available to schools in order for them to address this, but I suggest the following strategies as a good start:

1. Take it seriously. Cyber-bullying can be a living Hell for the children who experience it, so don’t pretend that it’s just a few nasty words in the playground. Comments can stay on-line for a long time; children often accept rumour and allegations as gospel, so lies become truths and damn the victim, especially when they are hurtful and personal.
2. Have a school policy. This has been a requirement in all UK schools since the 2006 Educations and Inspections Act, although not every school has one yet. Of course, a policy is worthless if it isn’t enacted, but it’s a start; it shows that the problem has at least been thought about. And of course, it lends itself to public scrutiny and discussion, particularly when it isn’t sufficiently versatile or realistic.
3. Netiquette. Every school should be teaching their children about what is acceptable practise in cyber-communications and what isn’t. Teachers mustn’t be afraid of laying down the law with regards to this: children will take their behavioural cues from somewhere, and it’s best if it’s from a responsible adult and not the loudest mouth in the chatroom. This can take place in IT lessons, assemblies, PAL lessons, RS, Citizenship- anywhere, in fact that issues of responsibility are discussed. For example:

  • a) Never post something in a public area that you wouldn’t be happy to share with the whole world
  • b) Never give out personal information about yourself on an open forum: address, phone number, where you’ll be, when you’re alone…
  • c) Remember who your real friends are: kids’ self-esteem is so deeply wrapped up with their peers, that they can race each other for friends added in the popularity contest of adolescence. But block-adding means that people you aren’t close to can see your thoughts and feelings…and can get in touch with you.
  • d) Sort out your security settings: every social network site has settings that can be modified to allow varying levels of access to varying circles of friendship. In my opinion, some sites have a long way to go in order to make this sufficiently simple- naming no names, but in my Book, some sites need to Face up to their responsibilities towards children and make the settings easier to access and amend.
  • e) Don’t respond to vicious attacks; save them as evidence.

4. Teaching children how to deal with Cyber-Bullying. This means encouraging them to report it whenever it happens. The irony is that cyber-bullying leaves a forensic trail you can see from space: Service Providers, the Police, and sometimes even in-school IT technicians can track down a post to practically the nearest metre, and usually to a specific terminal. Mobiles too. The bullies can almost always be caught- IF they are investigated. This means telling pupils that they can respond to this, and they don’t need to be victims. And it also means having a network of teachers in the school that vulnerable children feel they can trust with the information; after all, many victims internalise their anguish, often blaming themselves. And the Child Protection Officer (CPO- every school should have one) needs to be one of the first ports of call after it’s been reported.
5. Get the parents involved. If I had a child that was being insulted, harassed and bullied by some mysterious cowards, I’d imagine I’d like to know about it. Schools mustn’t shy away from this- and they mustn’t pretend it’s not serious. For some pupils, it’s a matter of life and death.

Bullying has always been with us; in fact, until the seventies, it was accepted by many in the UK as an inevitable part of growing up, as if Lord of the Flies was the typical youth dynamic. Well, it may be inevitable- maybe even a part of human nature- but that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything about it. The new technologies present this old problem in novel and complex ways: the victim can often become part of a network of avenging bullies, retaliating against the original attacker, quickly involving others. Blame can often be difficult to assess- who started it? Who’s the real victim? And of course, the anonymity of the internet and SIM cards can mean that conventional barriers to antisocial behaviour- customs, fear of retaliation- are removed, and aggression is easier to express. But that anonymity is a shade; an illusion, IF the victim gets the right support to track down the harasser, and IF the victim’s guardians take the event as seriously as the victim does.

Finally, the best thing teachers and schools can do is to model good methods of communication between themselves and their pupils, and being role models for how to speak maturely, and how to resolve conflict, and disagreement. If we can train children how to express themselves with wisdom and kindness, or at least tolerance and manners, then we will have helped them in more ways than one.