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16 January 2012

I recently had supper with a chap as a sort of job interview. Nick is 6'5", handsome, witty, intelligent, thoughtful and kind. He makes for really easy company. He is equally a good listener as he is able to entertain with urbane bon mot. On the surface, Nick has everything going for him. He walks with a confidence and air of friendliness that make him attractive – people want to spend time with Nick. Having graduated from Oxford with a first class degree, the world is his oyster.

Or at least it should be.

Throughout the evening, I ask him about his life and what dreams he has for the future. I like him a lot. Several times during our meal I think to myself that I will be pleased to offer him the job.

But there are tell-tale signs. Signs I have witnessed many times in people that I have met over the years.

As we order, I ask Nick what sort of wine he would like with the meal. He tells me that he doesn't really drink alcohol, and I accept this and move the conversation on. But he subtly becomes submissive – his eye line lowers, his hands pull in to his body. Just tiny movements. And he tells me that he'll drink whatever I am drinking.

As it happens, we have some shared history. I'm always pleasantly surprised how often this happens when meeting complete strangers. His parents live in the same small town in Cambridgeshire as I do. We talk about some local restaurants, walks, bars, shops and characters. It turns out that he attended the fine public school that dominates our little town. How small the world is.

I ask him carefully about his career to date and his achievements. There are words that he uses, facial expressions, the crossing of his arms and other almost invisible giveaways that lead me to proposing that perhaps his weakness is a tendency to procrastinate. He agrees – and far more willingly than a man in a job interview should. He tells me that he finds it difficult to get motivated. But that he is very loyal, and accurate in his work. Precise, is the word he uses.

As each course is served, he waits for me to begin eating. As conversation flows, he continually gives way to any point I make.

I ask him to tell me about his best qualities and he struggles to talk.

And so I ask him: "were you badly bullied at school?"

We talk long in to the evening, retiring to the bar. Nick tells me about the constant mocking and abuse that he suffered at the hands of the boys at school. They would tease him for being so tall, they would berate his inability to play football well, they would sneer at his intellect.

At home, his father would constantly tell him that he wasn't doing good enough. And in Nick's mind nothing would ever be good enough.

Nick is 30 years old. And still he carries with him the scars of bullying. The procrastination, the lack of belief in his own opinions, the automatic submissive role that he will play in debate.

He has had a string of unsuccessful relationships. He has few friends and finds it difficult to feel close to anyone. Nick's career has been a patchwork of dead end jobs and time spent in academia, where he feels safer.

I have met far too many people like Nick.

I need to confess that I have never been bullied. I have no idea what it truly feels like to have suffered at the hand of a bully. And so, and this makes me feel ashamed, I struggle to empathise with those who have. There is an ingrained belief in our society that for bullying to occur there must also be a victim – that this person has some deficit, that they are equally to blame for the situation. I don't believe this to be true, but it has taken me many years to overcome that commonly held prejudice.

Nick is not a bad person. But for whatever reasons life had not equipped him in a way that would prevent him from being bullied. He was different; by age 14 he was already well over six feet tall. So there was a hook. There was something notable about him that could be commented on. And for whatever the reasons, be that his upbringing or other influence, Nick was not able to respond to the taunts with a shrug of the shoulder. He was not able to not feel hurt.

Thousands of adults carry the same burden as Nick, the same self-doubt or loathing, the same tendency towards procrastination, the same low aspirations.

On paper, Nick is a complete success of our education system. He carries with him in to the world the currency of 12 top grades at GCSE, 4 good A Levels and an honours degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

But what if we measured the success of our system in a different way? What if we traced individuals on their journey through life and considered their success? This success could be their ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way, their ability to form loving and lasting relationships, their motivation and aspirations. This success could be – come the end – whether or not they had a happy life. Of course these are difficult things to measure, but what if our schools were benchmarked against these in addition to their exam results? What would that mean for the way in which they operated?

Even at the cold, hard level of economic success – which it can be argued is a key function of the education system – it would be seen that those who carry the burden of being the victim do not contribute as much as their happy peers. The lack of drive and ambition, the procrastination so often a feature of the bullied, harm the economy.

Bullying debilitates its victims for many years, maybe a lifetime. It is utterly corrosive.

But it is also a hidden disease. Nick is beautiful and charming, as dashing and entertaining as a movie star. To the world around him he is the happiest of men. But to Nick, every single day of life is a struggle. Every day means convincing himself that there is a reason for going on. He knows he can't talk to anyone about how he feels, he is full of self-hate and pity.

You will know someone just like Nick. But of course, you probably won't know.

I do not believe that it is the role of schools to solve all of our society's ills, but it is a fact that schools have the ability to create a period of safety in young peoples' lives. It is also true that schools have the ability to create environments that ignore bullying and treat the bullied as invisible citizens.

The culture that schools create, the values that are espoused and how individual staff choose to act on bullying can make a huge difference.

Don't let it pass. Don't allow the Nick's of the world to be sentenced to a life of pain. Stamp it out. Now.

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