JEREMY PAXMAN, apparently, was bullied at school. So now you know. The novelist Mike Phillips was too, and on Radio 4's Room for Improvement he described how he learned to use laughter to distract his tormentors. And Alan Coren announced on the same programme that he had once been exactly the kind of bully that Phillips was describing.
Listening to obviously successful people discussing their own experiences in this way is reassuring, but it also reinforces the view that bullying is a rite of passage, both for the bullied and for bullies, and leaves no lasting damage. A new report out today, based on the views of 7,000 young people across the nation, reveals the dangers of such complacency.
The report, Bullying in Britain, has been complied by Young Voices, a unit that specialises in innovative research methods to extract information from children and young adults. A key finding is that half the young people interviewed had suffered bullying, and that one in 10 had been severely traumatised by these experiences. A 14-year-old girl victim said that she felt guilty and ashamed, and that there was obviously something "terrible" about her. Pushing and punching were common experiences.
None of this has the power to shock any more. Childline and others have long reminded us all of this terror that stalks the lives of schoolchildren. But reading these affecting testimonies, you begin to wonder whether a serious part of the problem is that too many people simply do not see this issue as a priority. They need to understand that bullying in schools is no more "natural" than domestic violence, and is just as inhumane, degrading and unacceptable.
For decades, in British society (and many other societies too), there has been an almost mythical belief that the victimisation of children in school by those bigger and more brutal than them is just something that happens: it is character-building, and it prepares them for the rough and tumble of real life. This government has hectored and lectured schools following the suicides of several victims in the past five years, and since September 1999 there has been a legal obligation on schools to take action.
Too many school heads, however, still prefer to ignore or underplay what is happening. It looks better on the league tables if all the chicks in their care appear fluffy and fine. Damilola Taylor's parents obviously think that more should have been done to protect him from bullies. But if children or parents complain, they find that they become further isolated, and are silently condemned.
As the poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote: "Power takes as ingratitude the writhings of its victims." In one middle school I know, the head takes pride in the fact that children who are bullied are expected to solve their own problems. In the pep talk he gives to parents, he says that he expects them never to listen to any complaints that their children bring home. A friend of mine did find the courage to protest that her son had been wetting his bed since a gang started harassing him. The head told her to take her child elsewhere because there was clearly something about him that was "provoking" the bullying. …