Three out of five secondary pupils say that they have experienced bullying, despite the efforts that schools have made to get on top of the problem. Former headteacher Roger Smith looks at ways of dealing with the instigators

Bullying and the problems that lead to it seem to be everywhere. Recent American research suggests that up to 10% of pre-school children are suffering from problems of anxiety and aggression. It’s a major problem among adults, too. In November 2005, The TUC Health and Safety Executive: National Workplace Bullying Survey reported that two million people had been bullied at work in the past six months and 47% of British employees had witnessed bullying at work. Of the 34% of those bullied at work who made a formal complaint, just 5% said their actions resolved the problem and 27% said it made the situation worse. These figures are linked to another adult statistic – that by the age of 24, 60% of identified bullies have a criminal conviction.

So aggression and bullying extends far beyond the classroom. We know that schools can help change attitudes and can support victims and their parents, but they can’t do it on their own. One hopes that the Every Child Matters initiative will bring together parents, police, teachers, health workers and social services to help tackle the wider social implications of bullying. However, schools have to take the initiative by adopting a zero tolerance policy to who the bullies are and what they do.

Bullying and the whole-school attitude
Putting it simply, bullying is the systematic victimisation of another person. It is the illegitimate use of power to hurt someone and can include: name calling, teasing, racist taunting, taking money or possessions, stealing and threatening reprisals, damaging possessions, physical violence and rude, threatening and/or obscene gestures. It even extends to the use of text messages on mobile phones and to emails.

Every adult and pupil connected to the school needs to know that bullying is treated seriously. This is an admirable concept but it relies on both pupils and adults recognising what bullying is, telling someone that it is happening and knowing that something will be done about it. There has to be an ethos of ‘telling’ and an anti-bullying policy that invades every corner of the school and is part of the curriculum, the rewards and sanctions system, assemblies and the work of the school council. It has to be seen to be high profile, with posters, peer pressure and support systems, buddy schemes, assertiveness programmes, counselling and mediation schemes.

Parents of bullies must know what is happening and must expect to be told and called in for meetings. Similarly, the parents of victims must understand what is being done to help their child. No part of the school should ever be seen by staff as a no-go area and by pupils as their own territory. Break times and lunchtimes must be strictly supervised so that bullies and potential bullies recognise that their lives are being made difficult and that all teachers and adults have the skills and the determination to deal with them.

Who are the bullies?
Pupils who are likely to be bullies usually demonstrate assertive and aggressive attitudes over which they have little control. They often feel insecure, inadequate and humiliated and may have been bullied at home. They are often encouraged by parents to overreact violently, to bear grudges and to adopt a hard, menacing attitude and, because they lack empathy, they can’t imagine what their victim feels like and frequently rationalise that they somehow deserve to be bullied. These are severe problems and show how difficult it is, not only to prevent bullying in the first place, but to change the behaviour of those who are doing it.

Who are the victims?
There have to be victims or there wouldn’t be bullies and they are usually nervous or anxious pupils who may be new to the school, who are different in speech, appearance and background. Sometimes possible victims also demonstrate amusing and entertaining reactions such as tantrums or loss of control. Victims are by their very nature vulnerable and many go out of their way to avoid any contact with potential bullies. No one finds it easy to like a bully but it is possible to see how they will need their own kinds of support.

Quite often bullies and some of their victims are part of the same marginalised and friendless group. Some victims can change their role within their group of ‘friends’ from victim to bully depending on who they are interacting with. Parents of the ‘victim’ can make the situation more difficult by complaining about bullying and then failing to see their child’s role in the problem when under different circumstances and with different ‘friends’ they become tomorrow’s bully. This also makes it even more difficult for teachers who will have problems finding out the truth and, by implication, finding out who the actual bully is.

Recognising the signs displayed by victims
If the ‘telling’ ethos of the school works, most incidents will be reported, but on some occasions it will be important to recognise the signs of victimisation. Many victims begin to perform poorly in school work and are unwilling to go to school or are frightened of walking to and from school. Bullying may mean that they have unexplained bruises or scratches or they arrive home with property or clothes dirty or damaged or are hungry because lunch has been stolen or damaged. They will want to be close to adults and secure parts of the building during breaks and have a poor appetite at home, cry themselves to sleep and have nightmares and be so frightened that they refuse to say what is wrong. Adults in school have to be able to link these patterns of behaviour to what is causing it.

Action against bullying
Don’t be shocked and immediately think of knee-jerk reactions and ways of initiating draconian punishments. Prompt action does need to be taken but also think carefully about long-term changes. Some immediate strategies will include:

  • Staying calm – reacting loudly and emotionally may increase the bully’s fun. Bullies can handle you being tough and angry.
  • Let the bully and the victim know that you are taking the incident seriously. In fact make it clear to the bully when and why you are being punitive.
  • It might be useful to try and develop some peer group pressure against the bully and their actions.
  • Reassure the victim and prevent them from blaming themselves or feeling inadequate or foolish. Offer them immediate advice and support and discuss what you are doing with their parents.
  • Consider offering some assertiveness training.
  • Try to encourage the bully to empathise and see the victim’s point of view. It is useful to involve their parents but remember, many bullies have parents who may feel that the behaviour you are so concerned about is relatively normal.
  • If the victim is in agreement, set up a bullying court where the victim, with friends in support, confronts the bully and states exactly what they have done and what effect it has had.

Once short-term action has been taken, find out what triggered the incident and whether there are more ‘quick fix’ actions that can be taken. For example, there may be issues related to how well the playgrounds or toilets are being supervised, teachers may be young and inexperienced and need more training, the number of lunchtime supervisors may need increasing or some pupils may need excluding.

Bullying certainly exists in schools but the fact that it is also a wider social problem makes it difficult to eradicate. It has a traumatic effect on its victims and, quite rightly, there is strong pressure for schools to take significant action against it.

Tackle it vigorously and show your determination to stamp it out. Create strategies and systems of control so that bullies are made to see that their behaviour will never be tolerated. Don’t ever let them think that they can get away with it.

ReferencesSmith, PK et al (1999) Nature of School Bullying: A Cross National Perspective. London, Routledge .

Katz, A et al (2000) Bullying in Britain: Testimonies from Teenagers. London, Flood-Page.

The experts say…
Between 15 and 25 children every year commit suicide because they are being bullied (many more than this attempt it because bullying has made them so unhappy).

More than a quarter of students get threats of violence whilst at school, and half of these threats have been carried out.

Attacks on boys accounts for 75% of these incidents.

Around 10% of children have missed school because of the violence.

Up to 40% of secondary school students feel that their teachers are unaware of the bullying that goes on.

About 17% of calls to ChildLine are about bullying. For five years running it has been the most common reason for people calling.

More 12 year olds call ChildLine about bullying than any other age group.

Help at hand
The Department for Education and Skills has published a voluntary charter for action on bullying, designed to show a school’s commitment to tackling the problem. The ideas contained in Bullying – Charter for Action summarise the findings in the Ofsted report on good practice and in the DfES pack Don’t suffer in silence.

It states: ‘We are working with staff, pupils and parents to create a school community where bullying is not tolerated’ and commits the school community to:

  • discussing, monitoring and reviewing its anti-bullying policy on a regular basis
  • supporting staff to identify and tackle bullying appropriately
  • ensuring that pupils are aware that all bullying concerns will be dealt with sensitively and effectively
  • reporting back quickly to parents/carers regarding their concerns on bullying
  • seeking to learn from anti-bullying good practice elsewhere and utilising the support of the LEA and relevant statutory/voluntary organisations when appropriate.
  • The document also contains helpful suggestions on how to improve the whole-school environment.

Bullying – Charter for Action can be ordered by ringing the DfES publications helpline on 08456 022 260 or emailing an order to [email protected] Ref: DFES-1889-2005