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 challenging backgrounds - by all accounts - and 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, and 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 really 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 advised to make new friends - even though, through fear of being targeted next, the other children are reluctant to mix with her – and the perpetrators given ineffective 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 inefficacious.
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 When she eventually did, she was embarrassed to discover that it was out of date and should have been reviewed some time ago.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 brother rightly protested and made clear his view that the school was failing in its duty to protect his child. When he asked what the school intended to do regarding the bullies, the Headteacher initially refused to tell him, apparently due to pupil confidentiality. After he persisted though, insisting that any victim has the right to know the punishment meted out to their attackers, she reluctantly obliged. They were to be placed in isolation, for how long wasn't specified.
Anyway, the day after the sanctions were enacted, the girls continued to attack my niece. They clearly hadn't worked. Now she's refusing to attend school, quite understandably, her education disrupted by persistent abuse and recidivists determined to make her life a misery. More to the point, though, is the fact that they are being empowered by a school that refuses to effectively sanction them, even though, by the Head's admission, they have a charge sheet as long as her arm.
With this in mind, I read this week's TES. According to an article by Warwick Mansell, Headteachers are breaking the law to offload pupils with behavioural issues. Unable to provide the authorities with the evidence to support fixed term and permanent exclusions, they are unlawfully and informally pushing pupils out with managed moves and threats of expulsion - ostensibly, and rather selfishly, to improve their results and ultimately secure their positions.
Knowing the propensity of schools to bungle paperwork, I suspect that this is more the result of incompetence than any malign conspiracy to get rid of unwanted and unvalued pupils in a bid to improve headline figures. In other words, if schools kept accurate records and consistently followed clear behavioural policies, it is often the case that pupils unlawfully pushed out would've been legally and permanently excluded instead.
Indeed, whether pushing them out unlawfully or finally deciding to permanently exclude, most schools do it as a last resort.
In fact, in my experience, Headteachers are flouting the law to keep unruly pupils in school - against the interests of the silent, harassed majority, as the treatment of my niece demonstrates.
Behavioural and bullying policies, if they even exist, are inadequate and inconsistently followed. Persistent rule-breakers are given chance after chance and innocent, hardworking children are prevented from learning in a safe and secure environment. I couldn't tell you how many children I've taught who have - and here I paraphrase the DFE's 2012 exclusion guidance - seriously and persistently breached school behavioural policies and harmed the education and welfare of others. That so many have done so with impunity is unforgivable. It is also unlawful. Schools have a statutory duty to protect the welfare of their pupils. They can't without robust responses to poor behaviour enabled by clear, unequivocal policies. In short, this duty is not being fulfilled.