‘Want to stop bullying? Let’s start with our deeply unimaginative curriculum’

“SNOWMAGGEDON” was the story that dominated much of the media coverage last week. As “extreme” weather has a tendency to do whenever it makes an appearance in our otherwise dull climate, it pushed any “non-essential” stories off the radar.

As a pundit on mental health, body image and education, I am now more than au fait with stories I’m scheduled to speak about being wiped off the board in favour of pressing considerations such as the Duchess of Cambridge looking like she might be a bit pregnant or getting a new fringe (yes, really). However, even I was disappointed when the snow settled upon us during Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which happened to also contain not only Self-Harm Awareness Day and World Book Day but also the release of some new research commissioned by the YMCA on appearance-related bullying.

The report, which revealed that more than half of under-18s have been on the receiving end of appearance-based bullying, was spearheaded by the Be Real Campaign, a collaboration between YMCA and Dove that seeks to improve the body confidence of the nation.

The research found that 80 per cent of the respondents said that the bullying had taken place at school or college. Despite growing concerns about cyber harassment and trolling, the study showed that “traditional” forms of bullying were still the most prevalent. Some 70 per cent of those surveyed said the bullying happens “mostly in term time” with the school holidays representing some “light relief”.

The long-term implications of bullying can be devastating. Research shows that half of bullied people go on to exhibit symptoms of depression in later life. Be Real’s research revealed that 53 per cent of those bullied about their appearance were experiencing anxiety as a direct result and 29 per cent felt depressed. A third said they had begun to avoid activities they usually enjoy and were isolating themselves because their confidence had been affected.

While only quarter of those surveyed said that action had been taken against the perpetrator by their school or college, Denise Hatton, CEO of YMCA England and Wales, was quick to point out that this didn’t necessarily represent a failing on the part of staff: “Many were reluctant to report their behaviour…. for fear of the bully discovering they had ‘snitched’,” she told me.

Lessons on bullying

Of course, if the report had enjoyed the expected amount of media attention, the inevitable cries of “schools should be doing more to tackle this!” and “teach this in PSHE!” would have followed. Indeed, the study itself claims that “young people felt lessons on bullying should be a compulsory part of the curriculum”.

I wonder, however, whether this represents an effective solution. It certainly doesn’t in isolation. I have speculated in previous columns about the wisdom of a culture that, partly because of Ofsted downgrading schools with frequent recorded incidents of bullying whilst simultaneously placing no legal obligation for them to be noted in official records, actually incentivises schools to ignore bullying.

Similarly, BBC World aired a report last month that looked at bullying from an oft-neglected perspective – the motivations of the perpetrator. So often, in situations where a person feels bullied, there is nuance. The “bully” is having a hard time or the “bullied” has behaved in ways they aren’t particularly proud of, perhaps lashing out when it all becomes too much. In attempting to categorise the situation into black-and-white, hero-and-villain, we miss an opportunity to address the real root of the problem.

In many respects, bullying needs to be destigmatised. It happens, even in the “best” schools.

In a wider context, how pupils treat each other is as much about their environment as it is their individual circumstances. To not treat another person in a way that makes them feel bullied and intimidated requires empathy. Another word for empathy is imagination – it is the ability to envisage the perspective of another person and treat them as you would wish to be treated.

Imagination is not, despite the commonly held belief, something you either have or don’t. It, like all brain function, is a skill that can be developed and nurtured. Reading and the arts have been shown to be most effective in honing the skill of imagination – the exact subjects that are being sacrificed at the altar of an education system increasingly more concerned with grammar than creativity and a home life in which everything is too busy.

Indeed, a Manchester-based piece of research by Kids Insights released for World Book Day found that only 51 per cent of pre-school children are read to daily, almost a third of under-18s never read and eight out of 10 young people spend little to nothing on books.

Bullying can’t be solved by an hour of PSHE slapped on an aggressively competitive, individualistic and empathy-free environment. As with most things, the solution is far more complex and far-reaching. Policy-makers questioning the wisdom of a primary syllabus that grades children on how neat their semi-colon is as opposed to their grasp of the story they’re writing might be a good start.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion.

For further information please visit https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/want-stop-bullying-lets-start-our-deeply-unimaginative-curriculum