Bullying, Blame and Behaviour Management: what Educating Yorkshire can teach us

As I hoped I would in an earlier post on this blog, I am really enjoying Educating Yorkshire. The most recent episode caused a bit of debate on twitter, showing as it did the varying fortunes of Georgia and Jac-Henry after they were involved in a fight at the start of the episode. In case you haven’t seen it – which, of course, you should do! – here’s a brief summary.

Georgia accused Jac-Henry of calling her names. He alleged she said “if I’m a slag then what’s your mum?” which provoked him into attacking her. She may or may not have stamped on his head. In the subsequent investigation she denied the comment about his mother, so she was returned to lessons and he was excluded and referred for a course of anger management. Outside the head’s office, but on camera, she admitted that she had made the provoking comment. Outrage ensued. Poor Jac-Henry. Excluded again later in the year following another provoked fight, he responded to his friend Brandon’s sense of righteous injustice with the heart-rending comment: “I’m not being bullied; I’ve got an anger management problem.”

Jac-Henry and his friend and champion, Brandon (via Channel 4)

Jac-Henry and his friend and champion, Brandon (via Channel 4)

Many tweets were quick to condemn Jonny Mitchell for getting it wrong. The victim of bullying was excluded and blamed. The bully lied, was believed, and went straight back to lessons. But I don’t think it’s that simple. We’ve only seen an edited version of what the cameras were able to catch of the incident. The producers have spun a narrative out of it, casting the two youngsters in roles and stitching the fabric of the footage to fit. We don’t know much of their history, their background, or their circumstances, beyond what the producers shared to flesh out the representations they’ve chosen to construct.

My tweet on #educatingyorkshire featured in the 4Seven broadcast

My tweet on #educatingyorkshire featured in the 4Seven broadcast on 13th September

I applaud the bravery of Mr Mitchell and his staff for letting this episode be broadcast and showing just how complex and difficult the process of managing behaviour in a school can be. In any incident of this type, no matter what the TV producers want to construct, there is very rarely a clear-cut right and wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever known one student assault another for no reason whatsoever. It comes down to whether or not you can ever tolerate the use of violence to solve a problem in your establishment. In my book, that’s a non-negotiable. If you throw a punch, no matter what the provocation, you are going to be in trouble.  The “anger management” offered to Jac-Henry in the episode was, I thought, a helpful intervention to support that young man in managing his emotions without physical aggression. It was dreadful to hear him label himself in the later incident, and to see himself as guilty in a scenario where he was more victim than villain, but his humility and willingness to accept his sanction was laudable. 

Georgia: victim or villain? (photo via Radio Times)

Georgia: victim or villain? (photo via Radio Times)

As for Georgia, she too was excluded for her refusal to comply with the school’s rules, and her repeated transgressions resulted in the use of the “nuclear warhead” sanction of banning her from the prom (HT @Andyphillipday). Her confrontational attitude saw her branded “proper mental” by her admiring classmates, and “difficult, but charismatic” by Headteacher Jonny Mitchell. Her provocation certainly caused the fight and her behaviour towards her tutor was horrendous. But only one of her three siblings had made it to the end of secondary education successfully, and it struck me that Georgia was as much in need of support to control and change her behaviour as Jac-Henry.

Image via Channel 4

Image via Channel 4

In the first fight with Jac-Henry, Mr Mitchell believed Georgia’s story; the cameras proved he was wrong to do so. Whenever a senior member of staff is investigating and deciding on a serious behaviour incident such as a fight or an assault, in the absence of concrete evidence it’s going to come down to a balance of probabilities and who, in your experience, you believe to be telling the truth. This episode illustrated that all too well. It also showed that, when children misbehave, the school’s responsibility is not just to punish but to support and teach them how to behave better. This is not a simple, linear process. There isn’t a pack of photocopiable worksheets or one day course in a hotel that will achieve it, no matter what the marketing flyers in your in-tray tell you. It’s chipping away, modelling, providing constructive outlets, and constant, consistent reinforcement of the boundaries; it’s slow, frustrating, fraught with failure and setback; but it’s amongst the most important things that schools and teachers do. 

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6 thoughts on “Bullying, Blame and Behaviour Management: what Educating Yorkshire can teach us

  1. Love the show. Mitchell is brave, has basic values I am in complete agreement with but think his management of Georgia was weak! When she entered his office he made a joke about her not hitting him. For all he knew at that point she had been the main cause (which she was) and didn’t deserve the ‘banter’! I believe if you are in trouble and the teacher makes jokes the children see this as weakness and are more likely to carry on with bad behaviour.

  2. The distressing thing is more that Jac-Henry was clearly a good kid trying to get his head down and work. He was targeted by bullies because he was a hard worker. The way he responded to his punishment and the way his friends responded were the important clues.

    The problem is that Georgia’s disruptive behaviour and anti-intellectual bullying are far more damaging to the atmosphere and culture of the school than either of Jac-Henry’s punches.

    Sadly it looks like more disruptive pupils (Georgia and the boy from the previous week) are given hundreds of second chances, while less disruptive pupils get hit with a tonne of bricks. For Georgia and the like, the threat of exclusion is a debased currency, because they know they can push right to the limit. For Jac-Henry the head had to follow through on the punishment.

  3. As you say, Chris, dealing with disciplinary incidents, particularly when there’s some element of bullying involved, is complex and difficult. How many heads/senior leaders would be brave enough to have their decisions scrutinised and broadcast for the judgement of the general public – especially when, via the cameras, the public is privy to conversations/information that the staff dealing with those incidents don’t have? It’s easy to be critical. As a head/senior leader you just do your best and often, yes, consider the balance of probabilities, make a decision and move on. We won’t always get it right. This isn’t an exact science.

    I thought one of the interesting things about the episode was the fact that Jac-Henry could take responsibility for his actions/mistakes. He knew he was being punished for retaliating/lashing out, both with Georgia and later in the episode so, whatever the provocation, he had got it wrong and needed to – and did – accept that.

    Georgia didn’t seem to accept responsibility, even at the end when she said she ‘wished she could go back’ to Year 7. There was a sense that she knew this was something she should feel/say, but her tendency to believe she was being victimised (as her sisters had been before her) was strong. I wondered whether she (and her sisters) had been brought up to believe that. But she wasn’t evil -she was a fallible human being. Kids get it wrong – adults get it wrong. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, and giving them second (and even third, fourth, fifth where necessary) chances has to be better than never forgiving/starting again – as I think we learnt from Educating Essex too.

  4. For all the criticisms of these schools that appeared in both Essex and Yorkshire editions, I would have been quite proud to go to a school that takes bullying issues seriously. I was quite taken with the bullying episode in the Essex edition where one girl was being called names such as B****. When I was at school, a person claiming to be the school councellor told me being called this name wasn’t verbal abuse and when I asked if she was trying to say verbal abuse wasn’t bullying she agreed. I made a point of checking her reply by the way. Oh, and the Sixth form head organised that meeting. In this show, a staff member correctly informs the school girls it is indeed bullying.

    Also in the episode a school girl is receiving creepy text messages which suggest someone is watching her at home. We didn’t have bullying by texts back then but when a girl – who claimed she wasn’t a ‘bully’ made frigtening comments about standing outside my home and accurately described things, I couldn’t even go to senior members of staff with what I heard due to bullying from teachers who had been applying pressure to cover it up….this girl who wasn’t a bully (cough, cough), well her parents were friends of this teacher according to her, so I had no one telling me to go to the police. That girl now works for a rather large chain of supermarkets (which may make you feel blue), in seemingly quite a senior role.

    FYI that unprofessional Sixth Form Head, seventeen years later is now Head Teacher of that school.

    So please don’t be so harsh on these school for swearing and the like. Trust me – there are far more important issues to be concerned about.

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