On Schools, Bullies And Politicians


Some years ago, the primary school in Elizabeth Vale in South Australia had a major problem with bullying.

The underlying stresses facing both students and staff were not hard to find. ‘The Vale’ is at the heart of what has been described as Adelaide’s ‘rust belt’ where old industries go to die and unemployment and poverty are the norm.

In 1996 a new teacher arrived. Lisa Jane O’Connor had been working in curriculum development but had applied to come to the Vale because she was passionately committed to giving opportunities to children of the underclass and because she was impressed with the Principal at the time. Within a few years, O’Connor was herself appointed Principal of the school, a position she held until the end of 2005.

There is a difference between advising on curriculum and classroom teaching. The first problems she had to face were the bullying, the anger and the noise level. ‘Kids were yelling, staff were yelling, parents were yelling’, she says:

I went to the Principal on the first day and said ‘Holy Shit!’ No one’s got any power and they’re all trying to get it. It’s like being in a war zone. Nobody was listening. It was amazing and not because of the kids. I loved the kids to death.

One of the problems facing the school was the discontented staff. In common with the employment practices of most State Education Departments, some of the staff had not wanted to teach there but had been dumped unceremoniously with inadequate support in what can only be described as an ‘unfortunate learning environment’. O’Connor explains:

Even though they hated the place the staff acted as if it belonged to them and they therefore had the right to make every decision around its life. Whereas I believed that the school belongs to its community and all of us are just people who pass through.

O’Connor adopted the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s ‘Four Power’ model as she worked to give the school community (especially parents and children) power over information, resources, decision-making and their relationships.

According to O’Connor, the big break through came from the children:

We started to freak people out by saying that we’d set up a student team, a staff team and a family team, and that each of those teams would research the school from their own perspective. So students went away and talked to students about resources and information and decision making. We asked them to research ‘bullying’ and they came back and said, ‘We’ve found a definition of bullying we really like.’ When I asked them what it was, they said ‘Repeated use of power to coerce someone to do something.’ And then they looked at us and said: ‘That’s what school is!’ And we realised that if you’re going to stop bullying, you’ve got to first stop bullying by adults.


The resulting revolution in the approach to teaching and learning at the Vale meant that, for a brief time, the school became an international beacon for best practice in education. But bullies can operate even more effectively in bureaucracies than they do down dark allies and O’Connor’s position was not renewed at the end of 2005. The resulting political furore, led by the newly empowered school community, has led to a South Australian Parliamentary Inquiry. This Inquiry, established 21 June 2006, has yet to bring down its report.

Other schools have successfully adopted policies to reduce bullying and to create an inclusive school community. At about the same time that O’Connor was listening to her students at Elizabeth Vale, I began to hear of the new Principal of St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney.

The boys were puzzled. Traditionally, when boys hurt each other they were given detention, and resumed their battles where they couldn’t be caught. Phillip Heath, the new Principal, was making them hold hands, as though they were little children, until they resolved their differences. He did more than that. He rebuilt the interior of the school, replacing solid walls with glass as a part of new anti-bullying policies. ‘If we take it as a given that power will express itself psychologically, then we need sensible systems to express power in a safe way’, Heath says.

Make sure your environment is open. Very open. There were nooks and crannies everywhere [when Heath first came to the school]. There were hidden spaces. Locker rooms that were very dark and closed in. We just ripped the guts out of them, we ripped the whole school out. We’ve often been accused of creating an aquarium, not just a fish bowl. Glass everywhere, so that everything that’s going on in a room, beside a locker, even on the roof, can be seen. It’s simple, but a very critical thing.

But even more crucial is the nature of leadership. As Heath says, a Principal needs ‘to send out a lot of messages that say — you don’t express your power that way. And be very firm if [bullying]happens. You prosecute it. And you don’t have your teachers talk down to the kids, or get away with bullying either.’

This is the problem facing the Prime Minister in his bludgeoning campaign against school bullies.

As a national leader, he spearheads a culture where bullying by Government, especially in Parliament, has become the norm. How on earth can Howard rant at education authorities on the need to become caring and sharing by requiring them to detail all accounts of bullying, when he has Peter Costello as his Deputy and Tony Abbott as leader of Government Business in the House? How can he order schools to provide a nurturing environment when he gives a limp tap on the wrist to that arch playground bully, Bill Heffernan?

If the Prime Minister genuinely wants to stop bullying in schools he will have to start by modifying his own behaviour and that of his subordinates. Then people might be prepared to listen to him.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.