MY niece is being bullied. She has been threatened and abused at school, on social media and even in her own home. Two weeks ago, the bullies screamed obscenities down the phone, heard by her distraught parents. The ringleader and her malevolent sidekicks are serial offenders, from challenging backgrounds – by all accounts – and on the local area watch list for shoplifting. Her father, my brother, is going out of his mind. His daughter is hurting and, as any parent reading this will understand, he is hurting, too. Last week, and with the agreement of the school, she didn’t go in at all. She simply couldn’t face the abuse.
Her abusers, of course, had no such fears, even though they’d admitted to harassing her, and to circumventing her desperate attempts to block them on social media by setting up new accounts and continuing to hound her with abusive pictures and hurtful messages. It is terribly cruel, and my niece is both tormented and deeply upset, perhaps unalterably. It is an awful burden for any child to bear.
At every turn, her father has been ignored and fobbed off by the pastoral leader responsible for her safety. His daughter was advised to make new friends even though, through fear of being targeted next, the other children are reluctant to mix with her. The perpetrators were given ineffective punishments which, instead of getting progressively more severe, are simply repeated time and again – a risible merry-go-round which renders the sanctions feeble and ineffective.
Angered by the school’s inaction, my brother organised a meeting with the headteacher during which, to his astonishment, she couldn’t even locate the school’s bullying policy. When she eventually did, she was embarrassed to discover that it was out of date and should have been reviewed some time ago. She clearly didn’t even know what was in it – a breathtaking oversight, especially when one considers the prevalence of mental health disorders linked to childhood bullying and the high number of suicides committed by victims every year. (This, incidentally, is a partially selective school with an outstanding reputation. Based just outside North London, it is feted by politicians and luminaries of all stripes. One well-known MP sent her son there.)
My brother made clear his view that the school was failing in its duty to protect his child. When he asked what the school intended to do about the bullies, the headteacher initially refused to tell him, apparently due to pupil confidentiality. After he persisted, insisting that any victim has the right to know the punishment meted out to attackers, she reluctantly obliged. They were to be placed in isolation; for how long wasn’t specified.
The day after the sanctions were enacted, the girls continued to attack my niece. Her refusal to attend school is quite understandable; her education disrupted by persistent abuse and recidivists determined to make her life a misery. The fact is that they are being empowered by a school which refuses to sanction them effectively, even though, by the head’s admission, they have a charge sheet as long as her arm.
Headteachers are flouting the law to keep unruly pupils in school, against the interests of the silent, harassed majority, as the treatment of my niece demonstrates.
Behavioural and bullying policies, if they even exist, are inadequate and inconsistently followed. Persistent rule-breakers are given chance after chance and innocent, hardworking children are prevented from learning in a safe and secure environment. I couldn’t tell you how many children I’ve taught who have – and here I paraphrase the Department for Education’s exclusion guidance – seriously and persistently breached school behavioural policies and harmed the education and welfare of others. That so many have done so with impunity is unforgivable. It is also unlawful. Schools have a statutory duty to protect the welfare of their pupils. They can’t do so without robust responses to poor behaviour enabled by clear, unequivocal policies. In short, this duty is not being fulfilled.
My niece is a victim of her school’s wrong-headed determination to keep disruptive, abusive and violent children in school, contrary to the often-stated contention that schools are only too eager to move them on. By refusing to fulfil their obligations to prevent bullying and protect her right to an education, they are placing the perceived need to avoid exclusions above her welfare. It is nothing short of a disgrace. It’s also about time that bleeding-heart liberals dispensed with their anti-exclusion narrative which puts the welfare of bullies above that of the innocent, silent majority. Perhaps they should consider the need to protect children from teachers and headteachers who, through inaction, give their violent peers permission to terrorise them. Just a thought.