Families tell of problems when child is being bullied

Bullying is a universal problem, but support from schools in France is not up to standard, according to parents of English children in the French system

A new initiative and hotline to deal with bullying has been introduced in France.

The Non au Harcèlement campaign is a bid by the Education Ministry to offer a more structured way of tackling a growing problem, including a dedicated telephone line (call 3020 [free]) for victims, perpetrators, parents and professionals.

As in all countries, bullies tend to target those who are ‘different.’ This means that, while being of a different nationality does not in itself lead to bullying, like any ‘difference’ it is something that is picked up on. Here, parents speak out about their children's experiences. All names have been changed.

Repeating a year led to isolation

Isobel and Robert Foster moved to France in 2013, with daughter Alison, then 11, and son Ian, then 6, in the hope of running a chambre d’hôtes and living a more relaxed, family-focused life.

However, Alison has struggled at school.

Isobel said: “When we arrived, we enrolled Alison in primaire, rather than putting her straight into the large collège (secondary school), as we felt ‘redoubling’ the year would give her the chance to learn French and settle in with less pressure.

“In hindsight, however, this meant Alison found herself isolated among children who were both mentally and physically younger.

“The bullying began quite subtly. At first the girls would not include her and would just leave her alone in the playground.

“Later they began to pull her hair, call her names – she was even kicked in the stomach. Sadly, the names were all ‘racist’ as they referred to her British nationality.

“The stress of the attacks worsened Alison’s pre-existing health problems, and as a result she missed school and began to fall behind with her studies.”

Robert said support from staff at the school was mixed: “Her form tutor took it very seriously and spoke to the class. However, as it continued, we complained to the director. To our horror, he seemed to blame Alison, who he claimed had isolated herself.

“In the end, we took Alison out and began schooling her at home – I couldn’t watch her health deteriorate.

“In contrast, Ian, now eight, is happy at school and although he did have an issue with a volunteer teacher, swift action was taken and the problem was sorted out.

“Having had experience of the British education system, I have to say that although bullying is, sadly, a universal problem, I think there is more of a uniform approach to the problem in the UK,” Isobel said.

Our son was bullied by another English child

Anna and Phil Levers moved to France in 2006 with son Matthew, then three.

Anna said: “When we arrived and enrolled Matthew in the local maternelle, he thrived, despite being the only English child.”

However, things changed in 2011 when another English boy, Simon, arrived at the school. Anna and Phil had been friends with the family when Matthew and Simon were in maternelle but Simon moved school. When he later joined the primary he was in the year above Matthew but, as it is a small school they were in the same class.

Anna said: “Shortly afterwards, I noticed a change in Matthew’s personality. He started to say he didn’t want to go to school – but I couldn’t find out why.”

Despite the school discovering he was being bullied no one told Anna and Phil. “The first we knew any bullying was occurring was when Simon’s mum phoned to apologise for her son’s actions.

“I found to my horror that an assistant teacher had seen my son being dragged around the back of the toilet block where Simon, together with a couple of other boys, had started hitting him.

“Matthew confessed it had been going on for a while – I was horrified. Although Matthew is a big boy, he’s not aggressive. He’s very gentle and loving and couldn’t bring himself to hit Simon back.

“Eventually, Simon went to collège, and I hoped the problem would end for good. But unfortunately, his younger brother, who up until that point had been a friend of Matthew’s, took over – once jabbing his knee with a pen until it bled.

“Matthew is due to go to collège next year, but we are sending him to a school in a neighbouring department so he doesn’t have to be at school with Simon again.

“Although Matthew is really happy about this, we’re upset that he has to leave his friends behind in order to avoid a bully.

“The school has tried to help, but unfortunately, as Simon and Eric are English they can say things to Matthew without being understood.”

My daughter has changed beyond recognition

Faye and Nick Browne moved to France in 2012 with daughter Niamh, then 11, and asked her teachers in the UK for advice on their concerns that she might struggle with such a move at her age. Faye said: “They assured us that as Niamh was a bright child she would have no problems.”

“Although we’d contacted the collège before we moved, they provided no support for Niamh when she joined. It was terrifying for her, she didn’t know what to do, or where to go.

“Sometimes, when I drove her to school, she used to shake. It was awful.

“Unfortunately, soon after moving, Nick was diagnosed with cancer, our attention shifted to fighting the disease, meaning that, in hindsight, perhaps we weren’t there to support Niamh as much as we would have liked.

“Eventually, she picked up the language, but by then had become disaffected. Soon, children started to pick on her, calling her names. Unfortunately, the school weren’t very supportive, despite the fact I contacted them, explaining our situation and asking for help.

“I feel quite angry at her teachers in the UK, as – looking back – I can see 11 was the wrong age to move Niamh to France. She is now neither English nor French: she feels she won’t fit in wherever she goes.”

“Of course, all the trauma Niamh has been through has changed her. She has gone from being a lovely little girl to a difficult teenager and suffers anxiety and panic attacks to boot.

“I think she blames me for her situation, so our relationship is under a lot of strain.”

“We are just in the process of deciding which lycées she might go to at the moment. I really hope things will change for her and she will begin to regain her confidence.”

For information on the Non au Harcèlement campaign, see www.nonauharcelement.education.gouv.fr

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