Bullying is in the news again

The British charity Childline, which runs a helpline for children in need, has reported a 42% increase in bullying-related calls this year over last. An increasing number are from children 11 years old or younger; about half of the calls are about name-calling and other verbal abuse, and a third of it is about physical abuse. Today the BBC put up a “Have Your Say” page on the subject “How can bullying be stopped?”. The replies range from “you can’t stop it” and “it’s just part of growing up” to tales of meeting the bullies later in life and seeing their miserable state and of children being withdrawn due to bullying and the inaction of the teachers. There have been numerous reports of bullying-related suicides and of quite extreme violence, such as children’s hair being set on fire. This comes less than a week after Michael Howard (the right-wing opposition leader) gave a speech in which he attacked the decline in discipline in schools and respect for authority. Now, I lived through the time when Michael Howard was in government in the mid-1990s, and that government made speeches attacking “yob culture”, single mothers and using slogans like “back to basics”, and they became a laughing stock because of reports of Tory corruption, including (but not limited to) personal affairs, and one of their number ended up in jail. I was also at school during that time - Tory governments were in power throughout my school years (Maggie Thatcher and then John Major), and discipline was certainly not much in evidence at my school. At least, not where it mattered to me.

I’m not one of these people who say “respect has to come from inside”. There should not be tolerance for “undue disrespect”, which includes starting out on a position of disrespect. But children need to have confidence in their teachers in order to respect them, and if school staff treat them like dirt (and call them dirt - or worse - to their faces), allow other pupils to attack them and do nothing, or blame the victims, use racist abuse openly, use violence and/or threats of violence, publicly humiliate and endanger them, and give the impression that personal slights to teachers are a graver matter than bullying, all of which I witnessed at school, they do not deserve any respect. The same goes for incompetent teachers, like the one at my college who allowed political science lessons to be sidetracked onto football, and who filled in the gaps in his knowledge with details he made up.

As for what can be done about it, I’m not convinced that it can be eradicated entirely, but it can be minimised. One way is to reduce the pressure in an environment, by abolishing stupid rules, undue restrictions on children’s freedom, and obnoxious uniforms, all of which provide avenues for power play and also increase anger and resentment among the pupils. Others include removing spaces where bullies can trap victims, encouraging pupils to fight back (it doesn’t always work, especially if the bullies work in gangs, but they are less likely to pick on people who fight back), getting rid of prefects, and ensuring that staff are scrupulous in their dealings with pupils.

But it’s true that schools need sanctions to deal with bullies. At the moment, it’s very difficult to expel pupils - in the state sector, the school’s decision is not final, and a school can be forced to take back pupils who are violent to both teachers and pupils. The cane was abolished in 1987 (often blamed for the discipline problem, but it was abolished in several European countries decades earlier), and at my school this was commonly used as an excuse for why the school couldn’t do anything.

But I think the biggest problem lies in compulsory secondary education itself. Our society pushes children, and teenagers, through more school than is useful for most of them, and the result is that life is made difficult for the people who want to study. These schools are for the most part “exam factories”, and as John Taylor Gatto pointed out, don’t teach children basic life skills. In the English-speaking world we have a choice - we can make our own arrangements for educating our children, and we can establish our own schools. And as state schools in urban areas (where the vast majority of Muslims in the west live) get worse and worse, it’s essential that we as Muslims take advantage of this.

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