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Enabling aggression

We must take on violence in British schools

Artillery Row

My niece is being bullied. She’s 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 at her, in earshot of her distraught parents. The ring-leader and her malevolent sidekicks are serial offenders, from disadvantaged backgrounds (by all accounts), and they are  on the local area watch list for shoplifting. My brother, her father, is going out of his mind. His daughter is hurting and, as any parent reading this will understand, he is hurting, too. Last week, 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 young child to bear.

At every turn, her father has been ignored and fobbed off by the pastoral leader responsible for her safety. His daughter has been advised to make new friends — even though, through fear of being targeted next, the other children are reluctant to mix with her — whilst the perpetrators are given soft punishments that, instead of getting progressively more severe, simply get repeated time and time again — a risible merry-go-round that renders the sanctions feeble and pointless.

The Headteacher couldn’t even locate the school’s bullying policy

Undeterred and 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 When she eventually did, she was embarrassed to discover that it was out of date and should have been reviewed some time ago.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 breath-taking 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 and quite unbelievably, 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 niece is a victim of her school’s wrong-headed determination to keep disruptive, abusive and violent children in school.

Regrettably, such practices are widespread. Many of our schools have become unconscionably violent. Recently, for example, a twelve-year-old in Lancashire was beaten by a mob of ten schoolboys. His mother claimed that the assault “would never have happened if her son’s school had dealt with her complaints about bullying sooner”. In other incidents, violence in schools has been recorded and posted online, in what the National Bullying Helpline called an “escalating problem”.

Teachers are unsafe as well. “Teachers and staff in Scottish schools faced more than 22,000 attacks in 2021/22,” a report from the Sunday Mail in December said. In addition, according to the Daily Record, videos have been circulating on social media that show several violent outbursts from pupils. Consequently the Scottish Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth intends to announce a summit on soaring incidents of school violence and the classroom disruption that attends it.

Let’s not pretend that this is just a Scottish problem. Schools in England are also terrorised by violent pupils. A recent report in the Times found that aggressive pupils are pushing “tens of thousands of teachers to quit”. In my school, a fight led to a riot in which three members of staff were injured, one receiving a nasty cut to the head. It has indeed become an incredibly unpleasant place in which to work. 

The Rousseauian orthodoxy that views children as infallible must be repudiated

There are regular fights; staff members are attacked; one colleague was even filmed trying to break up a violent altercation, the humiliating video posted on Facebook for the entire community to see. I am leaving at the end of this academic year, deserting a sinking ship.

Such aggression is the depressing consequence of society’s refusal to discipline aggressive kids. We can’t keep giving them excuses. We can’t keep blaming their teachers. We must invest children with agency and empower them to take responsibility. That means clear rules, immovable boundaries and, yes, punishments for those who fail to respect them. The Rousseauian orthodoxy that views children as infallible must be repudiated.

A mixture of idealism and incompetence leads to resentment and confusion. Sanctions are arbitrary and rules inconsistently enforced. Effectively, the boundaries are blurred, teetering on non-existent. It is therefore no surprise that kids consistently cross a line they don’t know exists, even though socialised adults may consider such a line self-evident. 

If we want our schools to improve and to reverse the rising tide of violence enveloping our children, we must face up to the scale of the problem and confront the orthodoxies that obstruct reform. It won’t be easy, though. They are as ingrained and endemic as the violence they cause. 

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