This story first appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in April 2014.
In December 2006, parents Paul and Caroline Vodden experienced a devastating and life-changing event – their 11-year-old son Ben committed suicide.
What could have caused a bright young boy, in his first year of secondary school with his future ahead of him, to hang himself?
It became very clear that his death was the result of one thing – persistent and cruel bullying on the school bus.
I’ve just met Ben’s father Paul Vodden. He was in Wiltshire at the first Busk Road Transport Safety Conference held at the headquarters of fleet management specialist Arval in Swindon.
Paul and Caroline were launching The Vodden Report – an online survey to assess bullying on dedicated school buses.
They secured funding to carry out the survey of children last year from The Diana Award and their efforts have been supported by organisations including 4Children, BullyingUK and Kidscape.
Ben tried to deal with the bullying
Hearing this family’s story literally stunned the audience into silence. Paul described the kind of bullying his son was experiencing.
“Had it just been Ben’s peers he may well have coped with the bullying but the bus driver decided to join in and, in our view, this took the situation to another level.
“Most of what he said I cannot repeat but it included comments such as ‘you’re a d***head’ and ‘ask your parents to get you a friend for Christmas as you’re a billy-no-mates’.
“Here was an adult taking part in his denigration. This adult should have been someone to look up to, not someone who helped persecute him.”
At Ben’s inquest in West Sussex an open verdict was recorded. The bus driver denied disliking Ben but admitted making such statements to him, saying they were ‘banter’.
It was also claimed the school had treated each complaint as ‘isolated’ and did not treat the incidents as linked so the picture of a campaign of bullying didn’t emerge. The bus company concerned said its driver couldn’t possibly have behaved in that way.
“Our family was let down by everybody at every turn,” Paul said. “The council, the school and the bus company.”
Management at the school has now changed and, Paul said, matters had apparently improved.
Since that time Ben and Caroline have been vocal about issues relating to bullying and want to raise awareness of the hidden ‘hot spot’ of bullying – the school bus journey.
It’s interesting to consider in the majority of cases – if a school trip is arranged there has to be a ratio of adults to children on board. However on the school bus, no such rules apply. Often the only adult is the bus driver whose main job is to drive safely from A to B.
“The situation on the dedicated school bus is, by its nature, potentially problematic as far as bullying is concerned. There is no formal supervision and virtually no opportunity of avoiding conflict situations,” Paul said.
When the Vodden survey was completed, 541 responses from children were received and 268 talked of bullying on the school bus.
Paul said: “This survey should be seen as a realistic snapshot of what is happening on dedicated school buses and a general indication of the effects and consequences of bullying in general.”
Those children who took part were asked what they felt like doing when they were being bullied:
*38 per cent said hide away.
*17 per cent said fight back.
*16 per cent said tell someone.
*9 per cent considered suicide
*8 per cent campaigned against bullying.
When asked how long bullying had been going on, 77 children said it had been more than a year.
When they were asked ‘was the driver aware that the bullying was taking place?’ the results were:
*43 children said yes.
*44 children said no.
*155 children gave no response to the question.
*ten children said they would prefer not to say.
In conclusion the Vodden Report says that bullying on the school bus is a significant problem and that children in Year 7 are particularly at risk. Forty per cent of children who took part in the survey, said bullying had started in that school year.
Paul said: “Therefore the time when children are moving from Year 6 in primary school to Year 7 in secondary school should be recognized as a time of particular vulnerability.”
It also concludes that the role of the school bus driver is key.
“It is clear that the role of the driver is significant,” the report says. “Only four were recorded as taking action to alleviate the bullying, 42 were reported as taking no action even when many of them were reported as knowing what was going on and a very worrying 17 were reported as joining in.”
“It is pertinent to ask whether the driver of a bus can reasonably and safely be expected to monitor children’s behavior whilst giving full attention to the serious undertaking of driving. But if not the driver, then where is the ‘responsible adult’ who can intervene to safeguard children from bullying during their daily journey to and from school?”
Paul and Caroline’s MP, Annette Brooke recently brought up these issues in Parliament.
She said bullying on school buses includes both verbal and physical abuse such as spitting, punching, slapping and pushing.
“In what other situation are as many as 50 or more children forcibly restricted in a confined space for up to an hour, with a single, untrained adult present, who is undertaking a separate task that requires their full attention?”
Education minister Lis Truss praised the report saying it was up to local authorities, schools, bus companies and parents to take action together. She said:
“When contracting to provide school transport, local authorities can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. I strongly urge them to do so.
“We acknowledge that tackling bullying outside school is challenging, but we have been clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted upon.
“If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a child or another member of the public, the police should be informed.”
The Vodden Report makes a number of recommendations. These include:
- School bus drivers being given specialist training in safeguarding children.
- A trained adult or chaperone should be present on every school bus.
- Policies should be introduced making it clear who is responsible for dealing with bullying on the school bus.
The Government has announced A levels are changing. Qualifications will now be based solely upon the ability to pass or fail within a three-hour window of time after two years’ of study.
The Government wants students to pass A levels through examination only.
When I’m writing for anyone else, I would write about this dispassionately, reporting the matter and canvassing the points of view of others. However, here in my blogging space I can talk as an ex-A level student and as a mother of a teenager.
For me this decision is a dreadful backward step.
Let’s not sugar coat this – it’s also a way of lowering the number of people who go into higher education.
It reminds me of a cartoon I saw on Facebook this week, shared by a teacher, showing various animals standing in front of a desk where a teacher was telling them that their pass depended on their ability to climb the tree behind them. The animals included a monkey, an elephant, a bird, a fish….you get the idea. It sweetly encapsulated the problems of examinations when I was doing my O and A levels in the 1980s.
The truth is, we are not all the same and we excel in different areas and that’s how life is. I firmly believe the pressure of an examination is good and I advocate them – but I also believe equal weight should go to course work over the years which shows a level of consistency of achievement, or not, as the case may be.
For me that’s a fairer reflection of someone’s true ability.
In my days in the sixth form, I loved my studies and I worked very hard. I consistently got As and Bs in my work and that was the expectation for my final examinations. But I knew I wasn’t good at examinations. I found the pressure difficult to manage, I found revision overhwhelming, trying to cover everything all of the time. I didn’t know where to start and went for a scattergun approach. It didn’t work.
My fears were realised when I just about scraped through my A levels. I didn’t fail but I didn’t do well enough to go to a university in the country at that time.
Ironically there was an examination at that time called an S level – higher than an A level. It was in English literature and involved three questions, and you could take texts in with you. I was the only one in my school who took it, a week after all the other examinations had finished. Everyone was demob happy and I still had another exam to do.
Armed with my Complete Works of Shakespeare and Complete Works of Chaucer, I didn’t worry about that one, because I could take the texts in and I knew I could find quotations really quickly. Got a distinction in that exam – with a D in the A level itself.
I did a degree at a college of higher education where coursework counted towards your final result and I did learn how to revise more effectively. But from then on, any test or examination I have done, has involved assessment on the job alongside high pressure tests. For me, that’s more real.
I have a daughter who is like me. I can now see myself reflected in the way she studies and I’m trying to help her be more effective than me. It pains me to think that she may, just may, be disadvantaged in 2018 if she goes on to do A levels. Will she, like me, fail to deliver because her opportunity will come and go within three hours?
What kind of message does this give our children?
Today I felt a flash of anger – as the issue of bullying came up in the news yet again. For us in the west, there’s a very sad news story about a young girl who died from hanging in Somerset.
Her parents have spoken at the inquest of bullying at school, being teased because of her weight, an eating disorder….the poor girl’s experiences now held up for public scrutiny. A terrible, terrible time for her parents. There’s that sense of needing, wanting to blame…but a verdict has yet to be reached, the inquest is still going on.
However, inquests are so important as they can throw up issues which enter the public domain for discussion and debate even if we should bear in mind the human costs involved. Bullying and its effect will surely be a theme with this story.
Today the head teacher of the school where this girl was a pupil gave evidence. I was not there at the inquest, so I’m taking information from the item I saw and heard on the local news bulletin. This head teacher apparently said that there was no bullying at school, the girls who were identified as teasing their fellow pupil about her weight, had denied it. The bulletin said it was simply a ‘clash of personalities’.
Is your child being bullied?
It’s this kind of tepid, ridiculous response which makes me seethe. It’s the kind of line I’ve heard more than once. It’s an adult casting his judgement on what a so-called ‘clash of personalities’ can do to a child. An adult has to understand that what he/she might see as ‘banter’ or ‘childish pranks’ or ‘pettiness’ , may be having a more profound effect on the victim of it. It’s no different than the dynamics of a workplace. Sometimes friendly banter from one person may be extremely offensive to someone else. How that person feels about that ‘friendly banter’ really matters.
While I don’t wish for one moment to suggest that my experiences are on a par with this terrible tragedy – it serves to highlight a point. Over the years, I’ve been the subject of ‘friendly banter’ and it’s been fine, I give as I much as I get. But on the odd occasion that friendly banter has crossed the line of what I think is acceptable. And that’s the key – WHAT I THINK IS ACCEPTABLE. So I have had to ensure that the person knows that a line has been crossed.
Transfer this experience to a child. To me, if a child feels bullied and gives off all the signs that they are feeling victimised – surely a head teacher cannot dismiss this as a ‘clash of personalities’ or ‘pettiness’. And claiming that there’s no bullying worries me – where’s the school which truly has no bullying? and which way does a child turn if he/she feels no one is listening and nothing is going to change. At best it’s something they’ll never forget, at worst – well…..
Another thing which bothers me is that if parents are continually fed lines like this, they interpret it as it’s their child which is the problem and will often move schools. Therefore it can be the case that it’s the victim who pays – and not the bully. I often wonder when this happens, if the bullies who got away with it have gone on in later life to display similar behaviour.
Let’s be frank about this. Schools need to get to grips with bullying and deal with it more intelligently. Don’t pretend it’s not a problem, or it’s two people clashing where one is as responsible as another. Look at each case critically and apportion blame where it lies. Children need justice too.
My stepdaughter is a few days away from finishing school, A levels completed. It’s a time that she, and many like her, have been waiting for – that moment when you are free and able to take charge of your own destiny.
Or is it? Looking back, I wonder just how much it’s ‘the world’s your oyster’ or is it really ‘I’m all at sea”? It’s easy to think what a wonderful time this is – but for those young people who don’t have a clear plan of where they are going, it’s a scary time.
Before you know it - she's 18.....
Suddenly you are an adult, almost overnight. You are expected to take a certain path – is it university? is it college? is it a job? Which way do you go? And how much time do you have to get there? Some young people are expected to immediately start earning in order to pay their way. But right now, it’s not that easy. Our young people communicate in a totally different way to us – so picking up the phone to push yourself, or going in to personally hand in a CV is something which scares them. E-mail is great, but it keeps those experiences, those rejections at arms’ length.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing – but today, it’s a hard, hard thing. This is especially true if you are not driven in any particular direction. Passion for a certain profession comes through so strongly and can be infectious but if you don’t know what you want to do – how can you be passionate?
For me, there was never any question of not going into higher education – even though no one else in my family had ever done it. Indeed my Gran thought I was mad to continue ‘studying at school’. For her it was all about getting a job, getting married and having children. That was a woman’s path and any woman who didn’t follow that path was slightly odd.
When I was 16, my father made me go out and get a Saturday job. He said I needed to earn my own money. I remember him putting pressure on me, I have no memory of finding said job or how that came about. But I worked in the Littlewoods store in Southgate, Bath in the small food hall. My monthly earnings came to about £23 – and I felt so rich.
When I finished school, I floundered horribly – I had a steady boyfriend who worked and didn’t get the whole education thing – students were a drain on taxpayers. No surprise we didn’t last the distance.
In fact I didn’t do well enough to get to university to study my beloved English literature, but I did get on to a course in a college of higher education. It was a wonderful period of my life and I’ve never regretted it. I worked every summer holiday so that I could pay off debts and save some cash. Somehow my life bounced along. I wanted to train to be a teacher. Little did I know that would not be the case.
As I look at my beautiful step-daughter and see her juggling her options, I understand how she feels and I haven’t got the heart to tell her that grand plans at her age generally go completely to pieces.
I haven’t got the heart to tell her that life is like that, you make a plan and something comes along to mix things up unexpectedly.
I suppose the lesson is that, the crossroads before her is the start of a scary adventure – one of many – and that’s okay.