Katherine Long can’t remember the actual moment when her wonder in her son’s ability and love of learning turned into a worry. Or when she started losing confidence in herself and her parenting, and faced every school meeting trying to hold it together, to stop the tears, when she sat down to discuss “how Josh was doing”.
Josh was seven when he moved from a local primary school, where he had been happy but frustrated, into a carefully chosen school that promised small classes and the chance to thrive, says Katherine, a doctor from Sussex.
“Josh had always been so articulate – he was reading by the age of three, conversing with adults like a child more than twice his age,” she says. “It was like he couldn’t switch his brain off. We could see he was longing to go a bit faster, learn a bit more. But after a year at the new school he seemed unsettled and was talking about boys hurting and taunting him.”
When Katherine shared her concerns with Josh’s teachers, they treated her reports as Josh’s problem rather than the school’s, saying they saw no evidence of bullying in class and calling on her to challenge Josh’s “idiosyncrasies”, suggesting he was triggering problems by “always putting his hand up” or by being “oversensitive” to normal playground banter.
Katherine says each meeting that followed seemed to focus on Josh and how he was coping rather than his classmates and the behaviour he was reporting.
“My husband – who had been taught in a school where bullying was part of a man-up culture – felt Josh needed a little toughening up, and my mother, who had been a head teacher, had often talked about nuisance parents who are always fussing rather than letting a school get on with its job. Her words would ring in my ears whenever I felt inclined to call the school,” says Katherine. “Josh was a happy, bright, confident boy and I just couldn’t believe – or didn’t want to believe – that he was being bullied.”
He was, though, and the abuse continued for more than two years and caused the Long family untold anguish – until a visiting gap-year student saw, and reported, what was happening out of sight of teachers.
This is, it seems, what bullies so often do. Slowly but surely they not only undermine a child’s happiness (and therefore learning) at school, but also – if they go undetected – leave teachers to shine a spotlight on their victim’s behaviour rather than theirs when problems arise. As a result, it’s not only the child’s confidence that is affected but the parents’ too.
The Longs’ case is shockingly typical. Even with all we know about bullying, hundreds of thousands of children are still victims of physical and emotional abuse at school.
The focus during Anti Bullying Week late last year was the staggering number of children with special needs in mainstream schools who suffered at the hands of their peers. But reports around this particular issue can sometimes leave parents feeling the causes of bullying are somehow cut and dried: large classes, or a challenging intake.
When they look more closely at how bullies operate they become aware, as Katherine did, that in any setting where there is an imbalance of power among pupils (and where children’s concerns aren’t heard and acted on) anyone who is different and misunderstood can become a target.
“Josh was small for his age, had red hair and joined halfway through the term. I can see now that there were lots of things that made him vulnerable,” says Katherine. “But it seemed to be his eagerness to do well and contribute a lot that attracted attention. The ones who went for Josh were the boys he called the ‘popular ones’ or the ‘top dogs’ in the class.
“Maybe they felt challenged, or just irritated by his enthusiasm. But they weren’t encouraged to get to know, understand or include him. Josh says now that he felt worthless and ignored, and that it was like we’d been brainwashed into believing it was all his fault. He feels our response – and the teachers’ reaction – was almost harder to deal with than the bullying. He carries that with him still, and so do we.”
Kidscape, the national anti-bullying charity, says that the multifaceted and often manipulative nature of bullying (be it physical abuse or persistent teasing, excluding or humiliation) can be a stumbling block to teachers recognising the problem and delivering a clear anti-bullying policy.
Settings where there is an imbalance of power – the “populars” or “top dogs” described by Katherine would be typical of this – can create a culture where bullying can thrive and where anyone who is different can become vulnerable. In fact, they report frequently seeing bright children such as Josh at their self-help workshops, brought along by parents and carers who, like the Longs, have been made to believe they’re somehow to blame.
“We know this is a side of bullying that doesn’t often get discussed partly because, once families feel vulnerable and start to doubt themselves and each other, they keep the problems hidden away,” says Peter Bradley, Kidscape’s director of services.
“We know it can often bring up a clash of opinions at home. Who knows who is right or wrong? But when emotions are running high, this can cause huge conflict. We meet fathers, for example, who find it incredibly painful to see their child bullied, and feel impotent in the face of the school’s reaction.
“They may, sometimes, put pressure on their kids to react in a certain way. They may want to see them fight back. Their partner may want the opposite. Couples may argue about whether the child should go in to school at all.
“We also know that a child who has been through hell at school can lash out at siblings,” Bradley says. “This is not only frustrating for parents, but can leave them at odds over how to discipline their child – who they know has already had a rough day – or even thinking such behaviour somehow proves the school is right to think their child has problems.
“Bullies effectively disempower the family in the same way they disempower the child. What we try to do is give those families power back by explaining what bullying is, what their rights are, and help them find a path through the destruction. The workshops make a huge difference, but we know there are so many more parents who never seek out help.”
Kidscape has teamed up with four other national charities to help schools understand how differences can trigger bullying, and how by helping children understand difference better, the whole school community can learn more effectively – about themselves, as well as about the subjects of study.
One of the charities, Potential Plus UK, supports children with high learning ability. Its chief executive, Denise Yates, says that schools often don’t understand how being gifted or talented can lead to emotional abuse.
“It’s an issue for children from all social and cultural backgrounds, but I know parents who’ve gone out of their way to find a good school where they believe their child’s talents will flourish and simply don’t expect their child to be bullied. They can be left confused and believing that same good school must be right when they suggest it is them, or their child, that is to blame,” she says.
“If the problem is recognised, there are strategies teachers can introduce to prevent it. If left to carry on, though, we find that children will modify their behaviour and start hiding their ability or messing around to fit in with their peers rather than be bullied by them. Then you have new conflicts between parent and child. It can be soul-destroying.”
“We moved Josh to a different private school when he was 11,” says Katherine Long. “They heard our story and said they could help. I remember the first parents’ evening. I crept in fearing the worst; I’d got so used to teachers talking about Josh as a problem. But it was all positive. It wasn’t about Josh being the perfect student; it was more that they understood him, related to his passion, recognised and embraced his differences.
“In doing that – and doing that for everyone – they promoted more understanding among the pupils. That has continued – Josh is doing his GCSEs now and is loving school. When I think about how they have nurtured him, I am overcome with emotion all over again, but this time for all the right reasons.”