Do as I say, not as I do

In the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer congregations ask forgiveness for offences of thought, word and deed—both in wrongs that have been committed but also in the good that has not been done. If the CofE is indeed the Tory party at prayer then one might hope that our leaders would consider their own behaviour in this light.

I write this blog at the end of anti-bullying week, a well established annual focus on the work of the Anti Bullying Alliance. Their vision is to stop bullying and create safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn. Anti-bullying week usually has some high profile support, and who could argue with its ambitions? Schools and other educational providers work hard to create safe learning environments, and they need all the help they can get to do this.

Financial support from central government is one important, tangible, aspect of this. Commendably, in 2014 the coalition government introduced a £2million fund specifically to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. The announcement was made at the same time as the publication of a summary of research into the best ways of preventing homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying and abuse. This found that measures were more likely to be effective if they were supported by senior leaders who could convey authority and ensure funding for anti-bullying activity.

One can’t help but feel that these last two points have been completely missed this week, as it is reported that the government has quietly withdrawn funding for LGBT anti-bullying initiatives. Here we see leadership that is not only removing funding, but also undermining its own authority to speak on bullying issues. Schools will be left to dig into their own pockets (in other words to take money away from other things) if they want to maintain the activities which, in the words of Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State at the time, are needed to ensure that “bullies do not stand in the way of our young people achieving their full potential.” This, at a time when the headlines are dominated by announcements of an additional £16billion to be spent on defence.

One might argue that defence spending is simply bullying on an industrial scale: whoever has the strongest arm can call the shots. During my times in school leadership the distinction between exercising authority and bullying was something that always worried me. I’d always hoped to lead an organisation where people (staff and students) did things because they knew them to be right, rather than because they were being forced to by those in authority. But of course, in reality, there are always times when people may not make the right decisions and have to be told to do something … or else. The consequences of not following instructions may well play out in a behaviourist scenario, and indeed that is exactly the foundation of many a well-controlled classroom up and down the land.

But there are times when someone clearly goes beyond what is an acceptable exercise of authority. A recent case in point is that of Priti Patel, home secretary, who has been found guilty of breaking the ministerial code of conduct, with compelling evidence of bullying. The fact that Boris Johnson seems willing to stand by her, neither asking her to resign nor issuing a reprimand, once again undermines his government’s authority to speak on bullying. That the report suggests Priti Patel’s behaviour may have been “unintentional” is neither here nor there: referring back to the Book of Common Prayer the penitents recognise that transgressions might occur through ignorance and weakness, as well as through one’s own deliberate fault. Ignorance doesn’t lessen the offence, or reduce the impact it has on others.

We have here examples of good that will not be done, through the removal of the HBT fund, and ignorance and weakness (a charitable view of Priti Patel’s behaviour), neither of which portrays our government in a good light, and neither of which sets a good example for those in schools who are trying to stamp out bullying. It would be shameful at any time of year; all the more so in anti-bullying week.

Chris Rolph

Featured image from Anti Bullying Alliance

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