23rd April 2018
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Shetland Life: Editorial

Back to school

And so the ever-extending saga of the school-to-be goes on.

After finally making a decision to go ahead with building the new Anderson High School at the Knab three months ago, following years of delays and procrastination, councillors then immediately backtracked and decided that they hadn’t made a decision after all.

Parents, and residents in the vicinity of the proposed development, were apparently taken by surprise when planning permission was granted, but they leapt into impressive action, gathering around 2,000 signatures on two petitions, declaring the new school should not go ahead on the current site.

The alternative location – at lower Staney Hill – has long been the preferred option for many people as it will allow pupils to continue their schooling without any disruptions (other than those caused by the poor state of the current building of course). But councillors hoping for a clear answer from the recently-completed review into the project were instead faced with something slightly more ambiguous: a move to Staney Hill should mean a better school, the report concluded, but at a higher cost and with the possibility of further delays. For elected members already struggling with the realities of making difficult decisions, this ambiguity will not have been welcome. Few people will be confident that this week’s services committee meeting will truly mark the end of the swithering.

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To add to the council’s woes over the building itself, there has also been criticism recently over what has gone on inside the Anderson High School, with the public services ombudsman upholding a complaint about the authority’s procedures for dealing with bullying. The complaint was made by the family of a girl who left the school, and then the islands, after being bullied repeatedly.

While it is impossible, without being directly involved, to know for sure exactly what has gone on in this case, there is something sadly unsurprising about the story. When I attended the Anderson High School, not so very long ago, there certainly was a problem with bullying. Not in terms of its extent, which was probably no worse than any other school, but in terms of the response from staff.

Despite all the usual anti-bullying rhetoric, there was a distinct reluctance among some teachers to deal with real situations when they occurred. I have no doubt that these situations can be incredibly difficult to stop or to control satisfactorily, but for some the answer was simply to turn a blind eye.

Among a few members of staff there also remains, I suspect, the old-fashioned, macho belief that a bit of bullying never hurt anyone, or that it is some kind of rite of passage for youngsters. Or even that the victim may somehow be to blame for their own situation. That is a view that should have disappeared long ago, as the recurring tales of children taking their own lives after being bullied tragically proves.

The inevitable defence in situations like this is that all of the correct policies, strategies and other bureaucratic necessities are in place, and that if a few isolated cases slip through the net it is sad but unavoidable. But this is callous nonsense. I am quite sure that all of those policies and strategies are in place today at the high school; I am sure they were in place when I was at the school too. But if teachers themselves have the wrong attitude to bullying then those policies and strategies are utterly worthless.

It is not difficult to forgive bullies, in time. The unfortunate reality is that bullying will happen no matter what precautions exist; some kids are just like that. It is much more difficult, however, to forgive teachers who choose to ignore what is happening simply because it makes their own lives easier.

At least two of the teachers who did exactly that when I was bullied are still at the high school today. Perhaps their attitudes have changed in the intervening years; I certainly hope so. Occasionally I see these teachers, on the Street, or at some social occasion. Politeness requires me to say hello, or at least to ignore them. But there always remains a strong desire to tell them exactly how I feel about their negligence – to try and express just how much hurt can be caused by those who turn a blind eye. But these things never become easy to say.

Malachy Tallack