Wednesday, September 18, 2013


My collection of neckwear is sparse. I suppose I wear a tie, at most, once or twice a month but, perhaps due to having a paucity of things to worry about, I have strong views about them.

Many years ago, I was an assistant master at a public school where I spent an inordinate amount of time telling boys to do up their top shirt button and adjust their ties accordingly. I applied myself to this rather unenviable task with remarkable vehemence, which was odd in that I was a rather subversive member of staff. The sight of an undone top shirt button and loose tie simply hurt my eye, and it still does. If you’re going to wear a tie, for heaven’s sake wear the bloody thing properly.

I was reminded of this, and inspired to write the above paragraphs in my most Sir Bufton Tufton-ish style, when watching the Channel 4 documentary, Educating Yorkshire.

It features daily life, as seen through the highly selective and distorting prism of reality television, at Thornhill Academy, a secondary school in a pretty deprived part of northern England.

The headmaster, Mr Mitchell, who looks like a retired rugby international, has a thing about uniform as part of discipline. It was pretty galling, then, to see this head teacher lecture his charges about wearing ties while himself breaking my top button rule.

But, what was worse was the head’s stubble. Look, when you are at work, you need to shave every day or grow a beard. It’s a bit like the tie thing. Wear the stupid thing, or don’t.

So far, so trivial perhaps. I suspect that some of the officers who served in the Libyan desert during World War II, to take a random example of work-time mores, may have occasionally undone their top button and failed to shave regularly. Without losing control of their men.

But, what worried me about Mr Mitchell was his approach to bullying.

The school has a zero tolerance approach to physical violence – which sounds, at first, to be highly commendable. However, as anyone who has ever dealt with adolescents in a school environment will tell you, life with teenagers is not simple enough to admit of such a crude policy.

Ill-behaved pupils appeared to receive oceans of indulgence from Mr Mitchell whose motto was clearly “girls will be girls” (no doubt some of the boys are equally delinquent but, one imagines, the girls are more telegenic).

Twinkly-eyed and kindly with the troublemakers, Mr Mitchell seemed to reserve his sternest demeanour for a boy, Jac-Henry, who was clearly the victim of taunting, name-calling and non-physical bullying; (he and his friends are, it appears, quiet and studious; “I wouldn’t want to be one them”, said the naughtiest of the girls.)

Jac-Henry, like any healthy teenager, reacted to this treatment by lashing out on a number of occasions but without causing injury, let alone GBH. One of the recipients of his spontaneous wrath, a girl, was asked if she had “stamped on his head?” “I dunno,” she said. “I mira done…”

Jac-Henry was, variously, put in the school’s isolation unit (should schools have “isolation units”?), suspended, and given counselling which convinced him that he has serious anger management problems which could mar his future life.

Jac-Henry comes across as a thoughtful, intelligent and polite boy. His tormentors would appear to be anything but.

He was failed by his school because of its one-size-fits-all approach to bullying, and I have no doubt he ended up angrier than ever. It’s nothing as to the anger I felt on his behalf as I watched his headmaster, now something of a minor education celeb and shaving more frequently, indulging the little beasts (sorry, misguided and disadvantaged pupils) who, one is pretty sure, were making Jac-Henry’s life miserable.

Mr Mitchell’s application of the zero tolerance policy had the robotic quality of a call centre in the face of a complex, human situation.

Of course, we must remember that television is not omniscient and that being headmaster at Thornhill Academy is anything but an easy job. But this episode of Educating Yorkshire suggested that having a policy on bullying doesn’t equate to tackling the actual problem.

Because of the nature of much of the English state school system the children, now aged sixteen, have gone on to “college” to complete their secondary education. Jac-Henry wants to be a counsellor and he is still best mates with Brandon, the boy who pointed out, in a moment of blinding clarity, that school was victimising him because he was being bullied.

And Jac-Henry would appear to be as polite, decent and as considerate as ever. I just hope that his former school might learn from him.

You can watch the relevant episode of Educating Yorkshire here:

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