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17 October 2013

The intractable problem of bullying

The intractable problem of bullying

Photo credit: robben_b

On 20 June, Baroness Brinton initiated a debate in the House of Lords on the subject of bullying which remains a very live and worrying social issue.

Reference was made throughout the debate to the need to challenge all forms of bullying, particularly in schools. It was rightly emphasised that homophobic, racist and disability bullying were especial concerns.

One significant point, however, was that in a full parliamentary subject-specific debate, including an official government response from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, there was no mention whatsoever of religious bullying. This despite it being an acknowledged major problem.

Singling out, for example, racist and homophobic forms of bullying without any mention of bullying based on a person's religious belief and practice tends to privilege and affords priority attention to certain forms of bullying as being seen to be more prevalent and more deserving of focused remedial action than others.

However, recent research acknowledges that the most widespread form of bullying is probably faith-based bullying. Its lack of mention in the debate is therefore a serious omission that downplays its importance. The Evangelical Alliance is concerned about all forms of bullying and has made several representations to government bodies in recent years on the subject of failing to address the particular problems of religious bullying. It is right that the Government takes a strong stand against bullying, including racist, homophobic and other prejudice-based bullying. However, Government needs to stop appearing to elevate certain minorities above others.

In November 2008, the leading anti-bullying charity - Beatbullying – published its Interfaith Report showing that "one in four young people of all faiths have been bullied, often violently, because they have a religious position or their peers think they represent or practise a particular religion.Furthermore, the research indicates that there is little or no support, few outlets and limited provision for young people to talk about their faith. Almost half of young people do not talk about religious or faith issues at all. Disturbingly, and perhaps as a result, there is still a level of religious segregation and intolerance. The consequences are far-reaching. Many of those young people bullied could not concentrate in class, lost confidence and became scared or angry. Others self harmed, or found themselves drinking alcohol or taking drugs as a consequence. Being bullied made many feel ashamed of their religion, or made them question their faith."

The report and its significance were also highlighted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in its Triennial Review 2010, How Fair is Britain?

Bullying is also 'alive and well' in colleges, with more than one in ten adult learners experiencing harassment because of their religion, according to a report commissioned by the Skills Funding Agency in 2012. Just over half of the more than 1,100 respondents to the Agency's survey considered themselves to have a religion, with the vast majority of those - more than eighty per cent - stating that they were either Christian or Muslim.

Eleven per cent reported that they had been bullied or harassed because of their religion or belief. However, just under half of them had reported the incident to their college.

Pete Mercer, the National Union of Students vice-president for welfare, commented in response to the survey: 'Unfortunately, the evidence we have conducted on hate incidents contains some distressing findings, with almost one-fifth of hate incidents experienced by students in further and higher education thought to have an element of religious prejudice. Our research found that these incidents, particularly if they are persistent, often have major repercussions for the victim's long-term mental health.'[1]

In the United States, a recent study shows that evangelical Christians are almost three times as likely to report that they are the target of rumours or gossip at work and almost twice as likely to say that their boss has lied to them. Seventy nine per cent of Christians are more likely than others to be the recipients of derogatory comments or experience being the butt of jokes. It is significant that Christians are markedly less likely to confront bullying offenders or report bullying incidents than others.[2]

Further representations have recently been made by the Alliance to Lord Nash including recommendations for pastoral systems to include safe and confidential ways for pupils with religious beliefs to express their concerns, especially with regard to faith-based bullying. The Alliance has offered to discuss with the Department for Education and Childcare cost effective methods of improving schools' capability to deal with issues relating to faith-based bullying including potential e-learning and pastoral resources.

In response, Lord Nash has confirmed that "in condemning all forms of bullying as unacceptable we include bullying based on a person's faith. We do not intend to establish a hierarchy of bullying issues. All bullying is wrong and should be tackled by schools". Lord Nash indicated that he was satisfied that the government has the right strategies in place to tackle bullying based on a person's faith founded on inculcating a culture of respect.

It can only be hoped this does not reflect complacency in government with regard to bullying and that schools and other organisations really do understand and appreciate the particular nature of religious bullying which can be difficult to spot and deal with. The incidence of all types of bullying needs to be continually monitored and recorded and should be confronted immediately whenever and wherever it occurs.

[1] Published in TES magazine, 16 November, 2012

[2] Reported in Christianity Today, July/August 2013, p.9