26 May 2022
A Bad Case of Bullying
School turns on girl.
By John Watson
Nasty things smell and an unpleasant odour arises from last week’s story of a girl who left her private school as a result of bullying because she questioned an outside speaker on transgender issues. There is little to go on in the press because both the girl and the school have kept their identity secret. Nonetheless there is a mixture of fact and straws in the wind which indicate what it is all about.
One uncontested fact is that a female member of the House of Lords had been invited to give a lecture to the sixth form and that that lecture had very properly been followed by a Questions and Answers session. In the course of that session the pupil questioned the view of the lecturer that declared sexuality should take precedence over the biological position. So far so good. Whatever your view on the issue it is the role of teenagers to question and in particular to question those outsiders who, often rather patronisingly, deliver six form lectures.
It was now that things went off the rails. The girl was ruthlessly bullied by other sixth formers, ostensibly at least for challenging the received wisdom on this sensitive matter, to the extent that she felt unable to be in the sixth form centre and had to take breaks et cetera in the library. Bullying is an unpleasant feature of teenage life and one for which schools have to be vigilant. The girl and her parents must have expected that the school would step in and try to sort things out.
In fact they did nothing of the sort, preferring quite remarkably to side with the bullies and apologising to them for not creating a “safe space”. Unsupported the girl left the school, no doubt at some cost to her A-level prospects.
Those are broadly the facts and they leave some large gaps. Bullying is an unpleasant phenomenon and often the justifications given for it are simply an excuse for ganging up on someone who is weaker or different. Any excuse will do. That someone is of a different race or from a different social class, for example. In this case it was apparently that someone took a different political view. Perhaps the bullying would have happened anyway on a different pretext; you cannot tell from the press reports but, whatever the truth, the position of the school authorities is extraordinary. They have a duty to look after the children in their care and that must include a duty to protect them from bullying whatever the cause.
So what about the straws in the wind? There is one big one here and that is the unwillingness of the school to be identified. Of course they do not give as their reason the risk of being exposed as cowardly and useless. No indeed, they talk about the need to protect the identity of the child, and no doubt if pushed they will say that they had taken advice as to the correct course and had been told that the child’s interests were paramount. Of course they had, and any lawyer will tell you how advice of that sort normally suits the client’s interest and that if it had suited the school to make matters public it would have been easy to get advice to the opposite effect.
Another straw is in the comments from teachers appended to the article in The Times saying that the use of “trans issues” as the justification for the bullying of pupils and staff is by no means unknown. There is a pattern here of educational establishments being willing to join in witch hunts in order to buy themselves a quiet life. Is that what happened here? We cannot be certain but it may be.
Because we know nothing of the relationship between the pupil and her fellows or indeed the school it is hard to know what other issues may lie behind this apparent abandonment of responsibility by the authorities. If, however, it is really true that the school abandoned a pupil to the bullying of her fellows then something needs to be done about it. The school, we are told, is a private one. That cannot make a difference to the moral responsibility it has for the welfare of its pupils but it adds a contractual layer to the legal position. Many commentators have said that the school should be identified but the interesting question is whether the child or her parents have an action against it for negligence or breach of contract. If they have they should sue and, if they have not, the position should be examined by the Inspectorate. Either way a light needs to be shone into this dark corner and it would be quite wrong to brush things under the carpet on the basis of protecting confidentiality.