Foster opinion: this year’s annual bullying awareness month

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Foster opinion: this year’s annual bullying awareness month

Foster opinion on bullying awareness

Foster opinion on bullying

Foster carers come from all kinds of different backgrounds which means at Rainbow we benefit from a range of opinions covering many issues that relate to fostering. These opinions may differ but we are all united in our commitment to do the best we can for the vulnerable foster children in our care. The caring qualities foster carers have make them sensitive to things that can impact fostering in a general sense. We, therefore, welcome, as a sign of real engagement, our carer’s contribution to the ongoing debate. Our thanks go to Caroline for this timely piece as this year’s Ant-Bullying Campaign concludes and we can all go back to wearing matching socks. .

In many ways, it is a sad reflection that in this day and age we still need an annual campaign warning us against bullying. Some might think this is evidence of a serious failure in our education system. Especially when so much of this victimization takes place routinely in school time and on school premises. It’s almost guaranteed the perpetual arguments about exam grades will continue. Perhaps there should be a collective drawing of breath on this subject followed by a collective focus on why bullying persists in our schools. Why? Because bullying can cause misery on a daily basis to those who suffer it. Exam stress is not a constant feature of school life. 

Of course, bullying doesn’t just happen in schools – many adults suffer at the hands of bullies in the workplace. But that remains an indication our education system has failed to deal with bullying at a much earlier stage. Again, the health of society is not, and should not, be calibrated by exam grades alone. Success can breed arrogance perhaps more than humility – which is another marker our education system is falling down. Schools should have at the heart of their ethos the goal of producing caring, compassionate young people. This should always be the overriding priority. Particularly as it is all too often the underdogs that fall foul of bullying rather than pupils enjoying stellar success. Not always but mostly one suspects. Maybe we need to approach what it means to be a ‘successful’ human being afresh. 

It’s clear that a zero-tolerance approach is not in place because of the apparent latitude bullies still enjoy. And of course because of the need for an annual campaign. We expect children to learn the alphabet from a young age so could we not imagine a system where codes of behaviour towards each other are learned with equal rigour? Perhaps the language of orderly human conduct needs to be defined better as well as reinforced in schools. We should not forget that adults in the workplace arguably enjoy greater protection from bullying. A legal framework carrying the threat of significant sanction for transgressors means grown-ups are more often than not better protected than schoolchildren.

It used to be commonplace for executions to be public. And not uncommon for poachers to be hung. Or in the more recent past, for small children to be forced up chimneys to remove soot. Such things today are unthinkable. And this is where we need to get to with bullying. Of course, the reasons why young people bully can be complex. Many have been victims themselves; not just of bullying but much else of a disagreeable nature besides. This is not about punitive measures and harsh deterrents because a consistent approach is what is needed and is evidently lacking. 

The goal has to be removing bullying altogether from the lexicon of human behaviour. The answer may be to educate the young to aspire to the idea of their own ‘best self’. And there’s no reason to suppose this couldn’t be adopted for the very young. We are all, even if not always aware of it, creating a personal philosophy built around life experiences. So why not create the basis for this in the early years. That this should be considered, and as a matter of priority, is clear from some startling statistics revealed by research into bullying: sixty-nine per cent of students surveyed admitted to online behaviour that was abusive to another person. A figure as high as this is obviously disturbing. It suggests enthusiasm for such behaviour is likely to be widespread. To set against this, another statistic provides some comfort though not much: forty-four per cent of those aged under twenty-five held the opinion that ‘real life’ means ‘only events that happen offline’. This supports the widely held belief that people behave very differently in the online world. The perception they have of their own behaviour and the norms of acceptability are shifted by this technology. Individuals may more easily overstep the mark when the verbal and non-verbal cues of face-to-face interaction are absent. 

Bullying can be, and often is coercive. The bully enlists subordinates to persecute the victim. Some may participate feeling this will afford them protection from falling victim themselves. To them, the bully has become a figure of authority. The dynamics that flow from this situation are particularly significant: ordinary people are likely to carry out the orders if given by an authority figure. And this applies even to the extreme action of killing an innocent person. This shocking fact was established by the famous Milgram experiment. Stanley Milgram conducted research into how far people would be prepared to go to obey an instruction even if it resulted in causing harm to another individual. in the experiment participants – all males – aged between twenty and fifty were drawn from the ranks of both the unskilled and professional classes. After being introduced, straws were drawn to establish who would be the ‘learner’ and who would be the ‘teacher’. The experiment was ‘rigged’ as the ‘learner’ was a member of Milgram’s team. The experiment itself involved word pairing with the teacher instructed to administer an electric shock each time the ‘learner’ made a mistake. Each time a mistake was made, the level of electric shock was increased going from 15 volts – a mild shock – right up to 450 volts a severe and potentially dangerous shock. Milgram’s ‘learners’ gave mostly incorrect answers necessitating the level of shock to be increased. The unpalatable result was that 65% of the participants continued to the highest level administering 450-volt shocks. But all the participants continued to 300 volts. Milgram concluded ordinary people if given orders by an authority figure would obey them. This is potentially significant as it is common for bullies to recruit ‘lieutenants’ who participate. For them, the bully can represent a figure of authority to be obeyed. The minions are all too often motivated to join in for fear they might be bullied themselves. 

It is easy for adults to overlook just how relentless bullying can be. Often a child has been a victim for a prolonged period before their situation becomes known to adults. And the consequences can have far-reaching effects well into the adult lives of those who have suffered. At the heart of this issue lies an unpalatable truth that children despite their assumed innocence, can be vicious bullies. They can act in ways that are merciless, violent, and cruel – often beyond imagining. There needs to be something of a paradigm shift that puts bullying at the centre of national discourse. It may be that a collective subconscious blind eye has been turned to this phenomenon. An argument can be made for its being culturally ingrained. One can think of the famous novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes and the vicious proclivities of his anti-hero, the school bully ‘Harry Flashman’. The genesis of this is the arcane and long-running expatiation by its adherents on the value of the brutality so much a part of the English public school system in the nineteenth century. 

The bully, it seems, inhabits our collective unconscious and it seems whoever has been bullied will remember their tormentor until their dying day. This was the theme of the short story ‘Galloping Foxley’ by Roald Dahl: its protagonist Perkins whilst traveling by train years after leaving school experiences trauma thinking his fellow passenger to be none other than ‘Galloping Foxley’. The soubriquet having been earned as Foxley – a prefect at Perkin’s school – affected a customary run-up before beating his miserable victim. We have to acknowledge there exists a certain fascination for bullies and for bullying. They remain with us in the contemporary sense cropping up in the publishing and cinematic phenomenon that is J K Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series. Our hero, Harry, has to cope with not just one bully but several: Dudley Dursley, Draco Malfoy, and the bloodless Severus Snape are as fleshed out in the imagination as Flashman still is. The problem is that in the fictional world it is usual for bullies to get their comeuppance. Indeed the narrative is driven by the assumed inevitability of this denouement. In real life, it should always be remembered bullies cause untold misery and suffering and for that reason, we all have an obligation to restrict their activities to the pages of a book.

(In this series the opinions expressed are personal and names have been changed.)

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