Jon Doust’s Boy on a Wire finds a new audience in young adults
February 8, 2019
Fremantle Press author Jon Doust has already seen huge success with his novel Boy on a Wire, which garnered a longlisting for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Now he’s bringing this tale of bullying, mental health and coming of age to a different audience with a new YA edition of the book.
Boy on a Wire has already had such a great response from adult readers. Why did you feel it was important to bring it to a new, young adult, audience?
This time it's for the YA reader and its message will not be hidden from their view on the adult fiction shelf. The issues of bullying, mental health and religious confusion are probably even more acknowledged now than they were when the book first appeared and this makes a re-release for this particular audience timely and important, in my opinion.
Is your child less likely to be bullied in a private school?
Karyn Healy, The University of Queensland
The most recent Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia (HILDA) survey data revealed that twice as many parents of public school students reported their children had been bullied compared to private school parents.
Is it really the case that more bullying occurs in public schools? And should this affect a parent’s choice of school for their child?
Do these results reflect what’s happening?
HILDA tracked a sample of 13,000 households in New South Wales between 2001 and 2012. The data on schools comes from 2012 when participants were asked a range of educational questions.
Households with school-aged children were asked whether or not their child was bullied at school. A higher proportion of parents of children in state schools reported their child was bullied compared with private schools. The differences were greatest for high schools, with 22% of parents at state schools reporting their child was bullied, compared to 15% in Catholic and 11% in other private schools.
So is this information likely to be accurate? There is no reason to suggest the sample is not representative of the NSW population. However, given the question about bullying is based on one question only (with no definition of bullying apparent in the report), it would be useful to draw comparisons with other research.
There is actually very little research comparing bullying rates at private versus state schools. This is probably because schools are unlikely to agree to take part in research that makes direct comparisons between schools on such a sensitive topic.
There is, however, a similar population sample survey conducted by the US government. In this study, parents whose children attended state schools (29%) also reported higher rates of bullying than parents whose children attended private schools (22%). So does this mean an individual child is less likely to be bullied at a private school?
Parents want the best for their child and are attracted to schools that report good data for students on academic, behavioural and social outcomes. But whether your child will have the same experience as children who have gone before depends on whether the results reported are the result of what happens at the school or whether they are inherent to the sample of children who attend the school.
Misinterpretation of statistics
A team of New Zealand researchers conducted some interesting research on individual and school factors affecting students’ academic success at school and later success in tertiary education.
They found the success of a school can be judged by educational programs but not by the demographics of who attends the school. Given general school-leaving results reflect both demography and education programs, they are not a valid measure of a school’s educational quality.
Students’ academic achievement is influenced not only by the educational program a school offers – but by what the individual student brings to the school in terms of genetic capability, family support and prior learning.
Almost all state schools are required by law to accept all students in their catchment area. Private schools are not bound by this requirement. Private schools attract a selective population of students whose parents can afford the fees and who are conscientious enough to have enrolled their child many years in advance.
Most private schools also have enrolment applications that exceed their quota, so they can screen for academic ability and behaviour. These schools do not end up with a representative sample of students (and neither do the minority of state schools that have merit entry).
It is therefore a fallacy that we can deduce the relative benefit schools can provide for our child by simply comparing outcome data across schools.
More at-risk minorities in state schools
There is no research to my knowledge that examines the differences in effectiveness of private or state schools in preventing or addressing bullying. However, we do know that private schools start with different populations of students from state schools.
Not surprisingly, the HILDA report shows that family income and the proportion of parents holding university degrees are highest in non-Catholic private schools and lowest in state schools; state schools also have a higher proportion of single parents.
The greater diversity of students at state and private schools results in state schools educating more students at risk of being bullied. Several demographic factors on which state and private schools differ have been found to be relevant to the risk of a child being bullied. Children with a disability are much more likely to be victims of bullying and violence at school than other students, as are children enrolled in special education classes.
Parents’ educational level has also been found to discriminate bullied from non-bullied children. Children whose father is absent (likely to be more often the case in single-parent families) are also at greater risk of victimisation.
This suggests that the differences in victimisation between private and state schools may not be due to a higher level of victimisation across all state school students; rather they may reflect a higher proportion of a minority of children who are frequently victimised.
The 2015 Productivity Commission report also provides evidence that a much higher proportion of at-risk students attend state rather than private schools.
In 2013, 84% of Indigenous students and 76% of students with a disability attended state schools. Nationally in 2013, the proportion of students with disability was significantly higher in state schools (6.2%) than in private schools (3.6%).
Around 10% of children in Australia are bullied on a daily basis. For these frequently bullied children, victimisation tends to be chronic over time. It can continue even when children change schools, which includes crossing from primary to middle or secondary school contexts. In a study at the Parenting and Family Support Centre, where making a fresh start at a new school was part of an intervention for some of the children, there were at least as many successful transitions for children moving from private to state schools as for children moving from state to private schools. What was more important was the ability of the child to fit in and make friends at the new school.
So is a child less likely to be bullied at a private school?
Although more parents from state schools report their child is bullied than do parents from private schools, this could result from the higher proportion of at-risk students who attend state schools. Therefore we cannot conclude that an individual child will be less likely to be bullied if they attend a private school.
There is bullying at all schools. A number of factors impact a child’s risk of being targeted for bullying. These include school management, the child’s social and emotional skills, support from friends and the parenting they receive.
Children’s friendships at school are an important protective factor against bullying. So whether your child already has good friends or is likely to be able to make good friends at a school is an important factor in choosing a school for your child.
Supportive family relationships help protect children against the emotional consequences of bullying at school, so families should take lifestyle factors such as the financial burden of school fees and long travel times into account when choosing a school.
What should parents do if their child is bullied at school?
Having your child bullied at school is one of the
greatest fears of parents – and research shows this fear is well
founded. School bullying has been described as the single most important threat to the mental health of children and adolescents.
Well-controlled studies show that being bullied in primary school increases the risk of serious mental health problems into adolescence and ongoing depression leading well into adulthood.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
So when parents find out their child is being bullied, they are right
to be concerned. But what exactly should they do about it? Should they
tell the school, approach the parents of the other child, or just let
their child deal with it?
It can be difficult to weigh up the sometimes conflicting advice
given to parents. Parents desperately want to help their child, but if
they jump in too quickly to protect their child they can be labelled as over-protective or over-indulgent.
School authorities often recommend parents leave the school to handle
it. This is fine if the school is successful in stopping the bullying.
However, this is not always the case. Most school programs to address
bullying make only modest improvements, leaving some children to continue to be bullied.
This could be why we often hear of parents taking matters into their
own hands. This can lead to uncertain legal ground if parents reprimand
other children and to ugly arguments between parents. Clearly none of
these approaches is ideal.
New research on how parents can help their children
We now know that parenting specifically affects children’s risk of being bullied at school. A meta-analysis in 2013
concluded that warm, supportive parenting is a protective factor and
negative parenting is a risk factor for children being bullied at
Another large well-controlled study
from the UK showed that having warm supportive family relationships
also helps buffer children against the adverse emotional consequences of
being bullied. This means that when children feel supported by their
parents, they are less likely to attract bullying. They also have
someone to turn to at home when things are not going well at school,
which helps them cope.
Research has identified
two additional ways parents can make a positive difference to
children’s relationships with peers: parents can coach children in
social skills and they can actively support their children’s
Parents see children every day so are in an ideal position to help
children find ways to deal with peer problems. Parents can improve
children’s social skills, which can help children become better accepted
by peers, and support children’s friendships by organising play-dates
and other activities that help children develop close friendships with
children at school. Having good friends at school helps protect children against bullying.
at the University of Queensland called “Resilience Triple P” teaches
parents to support their child, support their child’s friendships, coach
their child in social and emotional skills, and communicate effectively
with the school and other adults.
A total of 111 families were randomly allocated to either receiving
the program or not, and monitored over nine months. Schools of both
intervention and control families were informed that parents had a
concern about bullying.
Compared with families in the control condition, children whose
families received Resilience Triple P showed greater reductions in
victimisation, distress and depression. Teachers reported children
became better accepted by peers. Children reported liking school more.
Resilience Triple P involves parents in helping children deal
effectively with peer problems. However, if the child’s efforts do not
work, or if the child is in danger, the parents step up as advocates for
How parents can help children cope
If your child talks to you about problems with other children at
school, this is good news. Very often children don’t tell anyone about
being bullied; they might feel ashamed or worried how their parents will
respond. It is important that when children approach parents with a
problem, parents stop and listen. If parents become emotional or
over-react, this may discourage children from confiding further.
If a child is not communicating, there are signs that indicate they
could be being bullied at school. These signs include trying to avoid
school or social situations, greater sensitivity and mood swings,
changes in eating and sleeping, and unexplained physical symptoms. If
children are demonstrating any of these patterns, parents could gently
ask children how things are going in various areas of their lives.
Whether or not a child is being bullied, it is important for parents
to support their children’s friendships, as an investment in children’s
ongoing mental health and well-being. This means making time for
children to catch up with friends and getting to know other parents as a
way of supporting your child’s relationships.
When children are upset by other children’s behaviour, parents can
provide a valuable sounding board. They can help children interpret
situations and decide what to do.
Very often problems can be solved if the child can stand up for
themselves calmly. Parents can help children practise how to do this.
Parents might also help children learn how to ignore minor issues,
strengthen friendships with kind children, resolve ongoing conflicts and
get help from a teacher when needed.
Approaching the school and other adults
If a child is unable to deal with a distressing issue by themselves,
it is important that the parent communicates for the child. If the child
is experiencing problems at school, parents should first contact the
child’s school. This would involve approaching the child’s teacher if
the issue is with another child in the class, or perhaps the school
management if the issue is broader.
It is important when approaching the school for parents to plan
carefully what they want to say. Schools can easily become defensive
about the issue of bullying. It is important parents stay calm and
explain exactly what happened and how their child was affected. The
parent can request help in improving the situation and then check how
this goes over time.
There are other adults who may be supervising children when bullying
occurs. Parents may need to have conversations with out-of-school-hours
care staff, sporting coaches, scout leaders and dance teachers.
The situation is a bit more sensitive if the problems occur when your
child is being supervised by friends or family members. The same
principles apply though – you need to calmly request the other adult’s
help without blaming them or putting their child down. Sometimes this
can start by acknowledging the children are having problems – and
suggesting you could work together to help them.
Generally it is a risky move to approach parents of another child at
school bullying your child, if you don’t already have a good
relationship with them. Your approach is unlikely to improve things and
may result in heated conflict. This may worsen the relationship between
the children, making it more difficult for the school to resolve the
What if nothing works?
Sometimes, despite parents’ best efforts to support their child and
seek help from the school, the bullying continues. Ongoing bullying
poses an unacceptable risk to any child.
If your child is experiencing ongoing distress from bullying, and the
school doesn’t address it despite your requests, consider other options
– including going to higher education authorities and reporting cases
of physical assault or cyber-bullying to police.
Parents should also consider whether another school might provide a
better option for their child, but it’s important to involve the child
in this decision.
IF Gabrielle would just stop buzzing around the house then her
mother could hold her in her arms forever and every muscle in her body
could relax and the universe could pause for eternity because it knows
Louise Upton's love for her daughter is a force far greater than
something as intangible and uncertain as a child's destiny.
This morning, Gabrielle can't wait to go to boarding school. She has
already neatly transferred into her diary all of the events of her first
semester at The Glennie School, a 105-year-old private Anglican
allgirls primary and secondary school 580km away in Toowoomba, in
south-east Queensland's lush Darling Downs, where Gabrielle will spend
the next five years of her life sharing accommodation with 170 other
boarders from towns and properties in western and northern Queensland
and northern NSW. The 832 students of Glennie represent almost a quarter
of the population of her home town.
Jon Doust was sent off at age 11, in 1961, to spend five years away from house and home.
He did all right, kept notes, wrote a book, but his mother told him just before she died: "I cried every day for five weeks after each one of you boys went back to school."
Betty Doust had four boys. That's a lot of crying.
Two weeks before she died she said to Jon: "I wasn't much of a mother, was I."
To read the full story in The Weekend Australian, click here.
And to read the follow up letters to the editor, click here.