Gareth Lewis on school as a form of bullying and zero tolerance on bullying

Bullying - Zero Tolerance
Bullying in schools is a problem that appears to be becoming progressively worse
with the passage of time. The reasons for this and possible solutions are
discussed in the following article:

"I realised that my own experiences of going to school, sending my own
children to school, and even of being a school teacher myself, had given me no
insight into the reality of school bullying"

I first became aware of the problem of bullying in schools about ten years ago,
when the Local Education Authority asked me to provide individual lessons, at
home, for a girl who had attempted to take her own life.

I had no idea of the nature of her problems but one day while we were doing
'lessons' (which generally consisted of playing card games, talking things over,
and looking after her baby brother) she suddenly announced that if she met
such-and-such a girl, she would kill her. I was stunned by the strength of the
emotion that was being expressed and I realised that my own experiences of going
to school, sending my own children to school, and even of being a school teacher
myself, had given me no insight into the reality of school bullying. I was
dealing with a girl whose early life had been ruined by her experiences at
school, and society at large seemed to be prepared to turn a blind eye to her
sufferings.

In recent years I have been made aware, by the many parents who have written to
me on the subject, that this was not an isolated case, but something that is
being repeated time and again in schools across the country.

It seems to me that the people running the schools, who ought to be doing
something about this problem (teachers, politicians, doctors, etc.) are still
failing to see the situation clearly and cannot grasp that if even one child is
driven to the brink of suicide by their experiences at school, then there must
be something very wrong indeed with the way in which we educate our children.

"It is not the job of a parent to send their child into a situation that
might be difficult or dangerous for them, and school is no exception to this
simple rule."

Facing the Facts
The reason why the issue of bullying is not being dealt with properly is because
people are not prepared to face the fact that schools currently bully children
in almost every aspect of their organisation. Left to their own devices,
children would have no inclination to sit tests and examinations, they would not
sit quietly behind desks, they would not be quiet when the teacher was talking,
they would not study the material on the school curriculum, and in truth, they
would not go to school at all. Everything that they do at school, is under the
influence of some form of coercion - which in other words could be called
bullying. This may not be the way that teachers would like to describe their
activities, but if you investigate how they keep 'order' in their classes it is
by doing such things as threatening to keep children behind after class, 'making
an example' of children that they deem to be troublemakers, shouting, and
similar techniques with which we are all familiar from our own time at school.

The modern trend of having a more rigid curriculum and more frequent testing has
reduced teachers' ability to meet their classes half way and to spend at least
part of the time doing things that the children want to do. The result is almost
constant harassment and hectoring (bullying) to make the children do well in
tests that can have no meaning for a child, and which are relevant only to the
adults who set them.

Given that coercion and resentment run through every strata of school life it
should not be surprising that it sometimes breaks out in the form of the
pitiless persecution of one child by another - and when this happens, it is
naïve and unthinking of us to blame the children concerned, rather than the
system in which we have placed them.

"The problem of bullying has arisen because people have assumed that there
is a level of bullying which is acceptable - which there is not."

An Acceptable Level of Bullying
The problem of bullying has arisen because people have assumed that there is a
level of bullying which is acceptable - which there is not. People think that it
is all right for teachers to impose their authority upon children up to a
certain point, and that it is only when they resort to a certain level of
physical violence that it becomes unacceptable; similarly, they think that a
certain amount of unpleasantness between 'school friends' is normal and that it
only constitutes bullying when violence is involved or when the victim starts to
demonstrate ill-effects.

These peculiar ideas are the result of the long-standing belief that it doesn't
matter that children are unhappy at school. It is even commonly said that no
child likes school, but that the experience is good for them. Precisely why it
should be good for a child to be made to go somewhere where they are unhappy, is
difficult to explain, but because the idea has taken a firm root in people's
consciousness, it is now often accepted without question. While this is the
case, the problem of bullying can only get worse; if we accept that it is
acceptable to inflict a small amount of misery upon children, then who can draw
the line as to where is should be stopped? The only practical solution to
bullying is to eradicate it altogether.

"It is not the job of a parent to send their child into a situation that
might be difficult or dangerous for them, and school is no exception to this
simple rule."

Zero Tolerance on Bullying
Zero tolerance on bullying can be achieved by parents not putting their children
into any situation in which they are not happy. This is not an argument against
school, it is an argument in favour of radical school reform. If parents simply
refused to send their children to places where they were unhappy, those places
would be forced to change, or they would cease to exist.

Furthermore, it is not an impractical suggestion. A simple application of common
sense would allow parents to make the best use of schools, instead of being
bullied by them to do things that they do not want to do.

For example:

· Young Children: It is not logical that children as young as four, five
or six-years-old should prefer to be at school rather than at home with their
families. More than two or three mornings per week of school or nursery
attendance is bound to be stressful for any young child; institutions that
demand more than this should be avoided.

· Reading: If a child has difficulty learning to read at the expected
time, school can rapidly start to become a very traumatic experience. The school
work itself becomes a form of bullying as children feel oppressed by the
pressure to acquire a skill that has no meaning for them.
As soon as it becomes apparent that a child is having difficulty learning to
read, you should consider removing them from school, and only reintroduce them
when it becomes apparent that their own interests are synchronised with those of
the school.

· Tests and Exams: Schools that put tests and exams, and their position
in school league tables, at the top of their list of priorities will never be
able to serve the individual needs of the children who attend them, and should
be avoided until a young person has made their own decision that they want a
particular qualification for some specific purpose.

· Signs of Bullying: Children are not able to step back from what is
happening to them at school and say, 'I am being bullied'. School is difficult,
unpleasant and stressful for many children, but the majority are prepared to put
up with everything that they encounter at school because they believe that this
is what is expected of them. When these stresses become more than they can cope
with, they start to display symptoms that are universally acknowledged to be
signs that they are being bullied. This includes such things as asking not to be
made to go to school on certain days of the week, developing stress-related
illnesses such as colds, headaches, stomach problems, etc. on school days,
having difficulty sleeping, truanting from school, depression, tearfulness, etc.
If your child displays these symptoms remove them from school straight away: it
is not the job of a parent to send their child into a situation that might be
difficult or dangerous for them, and school is no exception to this simple rule.

"People can be encouraged to learn, they can be inspired to learn, and it
may even be possible to persuade them to learn, but they cannot be
compelled to learn."

Voluntary Education
The thrust of this argument is that parents should send their children to school
for much less time than is now considered normal, but they need not worry that
spending less time in school will be bad for their children's education. The
history of the past hundred years should be sufficient to convince everyone that
compulsion and education are incompatible: people can be encouraged to learn,
they can be inspired to learn, and it may even be possible to persuade them to
learn, but they cannot be compelled to learn. (Anyone who doubts this should
take a little time to remember their own school days and their own resistance to
learning things for tests and exams). This means that parents who succeed in
introducing choice into their children's education are not only helping them to
have a happier childhood (free of bullying), but they are also providing them
with the opportunity to take responsibility for their own education - whether it
be in school or out of school - and thereby to take the most important step
towards achieving the success in life that all parents wish for their children.
Education must be voluntary, it cannot be compulsory, and while school
authorities fail to grasp this fact, it is up to parents to make it a reality
for their own children.

Gareth Lewis

This newsletter is edited by Gareth Lewis, author of One-to-One, A Practical
Guide to Learning at Home
Questions and comments: garethlewis@freedom-in-education.co.uk
© 2003 freedom-in-education http://www.freedom-in-education.co.uk

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