11. Bullying as a virus
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Bullying occurs in virtually every school. In most cases, staff will pick up the problems before they get out of hand, but the bullies at Eydon Vale intimidated their victims so thoroughly that they would not dare complain. At that point, communications between school and parents broke down and Ofsted threatened to close us. When the school went into special measures, the key players were sacked, paid off & given non-disclosure agreements, so we never found out why things had gone so badly wrong. The father of one of my gifted students made just this point to the newly arrived Chair of Trustees at the Parents' Forum. And he accused Ofsted of systemic collusion.
“Five years ago, when Alice started here, it was clear something was seriously wrong with Eydon Vale. Just to give one example: she had hardly any homework. The marking was patchy, too. I’m a pilot, Sir Henry. We have confidential, non-punitive strategies for reporting defects before they get worse. If this had been my plane, I would have told the authorities about these issues before the problems got worse. But because Ofsted is a blame game, nobody said anything. Checks should have been carried out before this ... this plane crash, Sir Henry.”
Apologising for his late arrival at the Parents' Forum, the Chair of Trustees said he would pass on all such complaints to Ofsted. He restated the recent history of the school and the difficulties that central government, the local council and the academy trust had had in deciding on its future. He confirmed his support for the new building and said that, from all he’d heard, Eydon Vale had already started to improve. This reassured the parents. They agreed that the school was already much quieter and the children were working harder. Those with Year 11 children in the higher GCSE sets were delighted with the masterclasses.
Next morning, I had a phone call from Mr Appleby, requesting a secret friend for his Year 7 son, Nicholas. Every day since he started at Eydon Vale, the same Year 11 student had been stealing his dinner money from him. It had been torture, not knowing if he would be hit or how badly he would be hurt every lunchtime. It had gone on for so long, that Nicholas’s father had felt powerless.
Having worked out which boys had the same lessons as Nicholas, I asked his form tutor for his advice on a secret friend. Two of them were ruled out as everyone knew they were buddies of Nicholas. The third readily assented, safe in the knowledge that no one would ever guess he had been an informant. Anthony Plimpton trailed around after Nicholas during the next day’s lunch break, and it was not long before he observed the bully in the act.
Anthony immediately reported to my office and wrote a statement, signing it with the agreed number. After a phone call to Rhiannon, she sent for the boy who had carried out the bullying: Phil Jimson. Asked if he minded turning out his pockets and confronted with the evidence of the secret friend, Phil admitted the truth and wrote his confession.
“Why did you do it?” Miss Starr asked.
“It happened to me when I started here, and no one seemed bothered,” Phil replied.
At our Rules and Sanctions Meeting before term started, the staff had been adamant that if pupils broke the law, the Head should inform the police. Because Eydon Vale had been categorised as a “turbulent school”, the Home Office had asked Holmesside constabulary to prioritise our needs. So when Rhiannon Starr contacted them, there was an immediate response. By 1:30 that afternoon, Phil and Mrs Jimson were in the police station. He was charged with demanding money with menaces and suspended from school. His mother was asked to bring him into school on his return for a formal meeting with the Governors’ disciplinary sub-committee.
The news quickly spread around the school. No one knew who the informer was, not even Phil Jimson. Which bully would be Miss Starr's next victim? This sense of uncertainty had an immediate and dramatic effect on the statistical data we had just begun to gather. In her assemblies the following week, the Acting Head compared bullying to a virus. "The best way to stop its spread is for more of you to break the code of silence."
In that weekend's email, I congratulated her on our progress, adding the hope that she and I could create something akin to the "heterotopic", discursive space that Foucault imagined, somewhere "other", transformative and challenging to the educational status quo.