Children are back at school after the holidays, but what if you discover your child is being bullied? There is help around, but you have to ask for it. Jane Hardy reports
School bullying is on the increase. The Department of Education conducted a survey into bullying in the province last year, involving interviews with 1,000 Year Six pupils. Shockingly, 17% of the 10-year-olds said they'd been bullied two to three times a month - or more frequently - in the previous couple of months.
The extent of the growing problem is indicated by the number of organisations created to deal with it. From Childline, which in Northern Ireland received 2,000 bullying-related calls from secondary school pupils in 2006-7, to Bullying Online, they all aim to combat a situation that can be so damaging to a student's psychological health and well-being that it can in a few cases even lead to suicide.
Leslie-Anne Newton, of the Northern Ireland Anti-bullying Forum, says: " Going back to school can be an anxious time for some pupils owing to the fear of being bullied, but they should have the confidence of knowing that their school will respond to any alleged bullying".
She explains that since 2003, all grant-maintained schools have been required to have anti-bullying policies in place - "but policies are only effective if they are implemented in practice".
One family that knows from experience the real cost of bullying was prepared to speak out. Father David (42) said he first noticed something was wrong with his younger son when the family was on holiday in Fortaventura in March.
"We were sitting down for a meal together in the restaurant when Tyler sat by himself at a separate table. When we said, 'Come and join us', he said 'It's ok, I'm used to sitting by myself'." Then the whole, upsetting story of classmate bullying emerged, with taunts, name-calling and sending to Coventry part of the battery of tricks used by two or three of Tyler's male peers.
As soon as he admitted what was wrong, and that it had been going on for months, David's son became upset and started crying. And his parents realised, with hindsight, that there had been signs of trouble.
"There were times taking him to school, when he'd complain of headaches and stomach ache, and would cry about not wanting to go to class." Tyler's parents had put this down to natural dislike of school, but it was more serious than that.
David reacted as most parents would - angrily. "I was angry at first, yes, and approached the school. They said they had an anti-bullying policy, but it's only a piece of paper. It's no good unless they follow through."
Then David got onto the internet and checked out the many anti-bullying websites and sent an email to the school, at which point a meeting was set up. The family also have friends in high places and contacted Lord Laird who helped speed things up.
"The bullies were a few of Tyler's class mates, all boys. They started calling him Dumbo because his ears stick out slightly."
Generously, David didn't blame the children themselves or even their parents. "I honestly don't blame the children, and you can't blame the parents either as they may not know anything about it. I blame the school."
You can understand why; they claimed they would make the bullying stop, and instigated a diary or log system whereby Tyler would write down incidents each day as they happened, and note how he felt.
There was a problem with this approach, however. " Tyler is six and can't write a complete sentence, so when he showed us his log saying 'I had a good day today' or 'I played with some children', we knew somebody was telling him what to write or helping him fill it in."
David's older son, Jamie (11), observed what was happening to his younger brother. It was, in his words, scary. "It did put me off school a bit," he admits.
Jamie realised Tyler was having problems as early as the second day of term. "We were going in to dinner and I was behind him in the queue; someone said 'Big ears' right behind him. I went 'Don't call him Big ears'"
Then the bully went and complained to the teacher, so the principal put the whole class in detention, "which wasn't fair" . Jamie then did the sensible thing and told his parents - "I felt really cross about it and wanted to tell the bullies off".
The family has learnt lessons from this traumatic experience and would like to see some positive anti-bullying action. David says: "I've learnt not to believe everything you read and to listen to your child. You think that sometimes children get stick, and it's normal but it can end up serious. Don't sit back, you'll regret it later." David also has words for the school involved: "I think the school should perk their ideas up a bit, and I'll be going round on the first day of the new term. It's a new beginning for Tyler and for us."
'My biggest fear is ... she won't be happy
'UTV presenter Alison Fleming (36) lives in Holywood with her husband Damian Heavern (37) and their two children, Annie (3) and Finn (2). Annie will be starting pre-school this week. She says:
Annie, my daughter, starts pre-school this week and I can't believe that she's actually starting her educational journey. It seems like only yesterday she was a tiny baby. Annie's my eldest child so this is the first time I've had the starting school experience.
As a parent, I think my biggest fear about sending Annie into a school environment is the worry that she won't be happy. I'm not worried about the school or the teachers, it's just a general worry about whether she'll thrive in that environment. We took her to pre-school for a couple of days at the end of June and she seemed a wee bit worried at first, asking if I would be staying with her but after a couple of days she took off playing and didn't seem bothered at all. Since then her dad and I have spent a lot of time chatting to her about what she'll do when she goes to pre-school and trying to bring it into conversations. Mostly because she's at an age where it needs to be kept real for her otherwise she'll forget about it.
She's usually fine about being parted from me, but I suppose this will be a wee bit different because it'll be such a different experience. She's been away from me for longer periods of time - and since I work, she's been used to day nursery from 9am to 5pm.
She's used to being around other children, but I think pre-school will be great at getting her used to doing more things that children do. Like at home, she wouldn't be a great eater of fruit but at pre-school she'll see other children doing that, and also things like brushing her teeth.
I also think pre-school will be great for her because it gives children a bit of structure, routine and an idea of the education system. If Annie's worried about something she will tend to keep it all in and there could well be a few worries on her first day. She's such a gentle wee thing, but I know she'll be fine.
Her little brother will really miss her though. Finn is two and they are like best friends, I think he'll be lonely without his big sister around and won't know what to do with himself. I don't think he's jealous of her going to school though, I think he's perfectly happy playing and kicking his football around but I suppose it'll be his turn soon enough, which is quite frightening.
I can't even think about her starting primary school - it's far too soon for that. When that comes around I'll have a nervous breakdown. Pre-school is all I can deal with at the moment."
Interview: Chrissie Russell