In their helpful and informative report, a range of key issues was identified for the consideration of school governors. These included helping schools agree on, and promote, a shared definition of bullying, ensuring that schools have an effective anti-bullying policy in place and raising awareness and addressing new types of harassment such as cyber bullying. Other important issues highlighted in the guidelines were responding to serious incidents of violence in schools that necessitated outside involvement (eg with the police), as well as advising on how to manage media interest in a bullying incident.

This not only underlines the wide-ranging role of governors but the need for accessible and up-to-date information on bullying and violence taking place on school premises across the UK. A recent Insight report, Violence in Schools: what is really happening in the UK?, which was commissioned by the British Educational Research Association (BERA), included an analysis of bullying in its systematic review of research evidence.

Given the recent interest in the role of governors in addressing bullying in schools, it is worth looking at the report’s findings on the subject, including some of the promising ways in which schools can tackle this worrying issue.

Bullying: key points

  • About 50% of primary pupils and a quarter of secondary pupils say they have been bullied at school
  • Many children report that the bullying they suffer is transient and minor
  • Extreme and fatal cases of bullying are rare; nevertheless, about 16 young people commit suicide each year as a result of being bullied
  • The distinction between ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ can be misleading
  • Bullies often target specific groups of children

The extent of bullying

About half of primary pupils and a quarter of secondary pupils say they have been bullied at school at some time. Researchers Christine Oliver and Mano Candappa, from the Institute of Education in London, reported in 2003 that 51% of Year 5 pupils said they had been bullied during the previous term, compared with 28% of Year 8 pupils.

Subsequent surveys, such as that by Carol Hayden for the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies in 2008, concurred, reporting that a quarter of secondary pupils and half of primary pupils said they had been bullied in the previous term. Similarly, the 2008 youth survey by MORI of 4,700 11-16 year olds reported that 23% had been victims of bullying (25% of 11-14 year olds and 18% of 15-16 year olds). Just over a fifth (22%) worried about being bullied, although 36% were more concerned about being physically attacked.

Over the years in which MORI has been conducting the survey (2000 to 2009) both these fears have declined substantially. This decline is perhaps supported in findings by Ofsted (2007) that significantly higher proportions of 10-15 year olds worried about exams and friendships than about being bullied.

The nature of bullying
Verbal abuse is by far the most frequently reported form of bullying and, certainly, teachers say that they regularly witness pupils being verbally aggressive towards each other.

Extreme and fatal cases of school bullying however are very rare. An estimated 16 children in the UK kill themselves every year as a consequence of being bullied at school. Reports of such high-profile incidents suggest that the bullying was persistent and ongoing. Significantly these cases indicate that the bullying was not addressed effectively by the schools involved. This highlights the importance of having effective and proactive bullying strategies in place in schools – an issue also emphasised by the recent Anti-Bullying Alliance guidelines for governors. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that while bullying clearly affects large numbers of young people, they do say that the incidents are often transient and relatively minor.

Who are the bullies?
Identifying the typical characteristics of a bully is a difficult task and it is tempting to resort to stereotypical thinking. For example, not all bullies have been bullied themselves.

Some psychological studies highlight characteristics such as children’s low self-esteem as an issue, while other research suggests that bullies can also be popular classroom leaders. This suggests that the psychological profile of a bully is complex and multi-faceted. Distinguishing clearly between a ‘bully’ and a ‘victim’ can be misleading. For instance, some studies show children who have been bullied are more likely to bully. It is likely that these ‘aggressive victims’ may be more conflict prone and hostile in their dealings with other children and teachers.

Pupils who have been permanently excluded from school are more likely to report being both bully and bullied than other children. Studies indicate that children who have experienced certain kinds of disruption, particularly changing school, are more likely to become bullies. Similarly young people with a penchant for fighting and other ‘acting out’ behaviours are also at greater risk of becoming a bully.

Who is bullied?
We know quite a lot about the kinds of children and young people who are more likely to be bullied. Today we also have a more sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of what is termed ‘identity-based’ bullying.

Some pupils are especially vulnerable to victimisation, including those with additional support needs. In an extensive sample of primary and secondary children, more than a quarter of those being bullied were recipients of learning support. Other vulnerable groups include young refugees, looked-after children and those from minority ethnic and/or religious backgrounds, including gypsy/traveller children.

In 2003, a third of black and Asian pupils reported being bullied in the previous term, as did 30% of pupils from other ethnic groups. More recently, two thirds of teachers questioned in a 2009 poll for Teachers TV said that racist bullying was a problem in their school. Also in 2009, the NASUWT teachers’ union highlighted a growth in the bullying of immigrant children from Eastern Europe. In addition, its report on prejudice-related bullying drew attention to the plight of overweight or obese children, saying that victimisation on the basis of body size is common.

Gay pupils are another at-risk group. In 2007, two-thirds of gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils in secondary schools said they had been bullied, a proportion that rose to 75% in faith schools, according to the gay rights group Stonewall. It also reported that homophobic language was routine, with more than 80% of gay pupils indicating that they heard it frequently. More than half of gay and lesbian pupils reported feeling uncomfortable and unable to be themselves at school. Similarly, the Northern Ireland Young Life and Times Survey in 2005 found that 67% of 16 year old boys who had been ‘same sex attracted’ at least once reported being bullied, compared to 24% of other 16 year olds.

Consequently, experiences of bullying appear to vary and depend on factors such as age, gender, sexuality and ethnicity. For example, research shows that more children report being bullied at primary school than at secondary school.

Cyber bullying – a growing problem for schools
The study of cyber bullying is a new and developing field. Cyber bullying can involve receiving abusive texts, video clips and emails. Most cyber bullying is conducted through mobile phones and text messaging so has the potential to reach a very large number of people.

Another important consideration is that it is much more difficult to identify the perpetrator of this kind of bullying. Studies suggest that incidents of cyber bullying are increasing among pupils in mainstream schools. Surveys have found that approximately 20% of young people, between the ages of 11 and 19 years say that they have experienced some form of cyber bullying. Recent MORI polls show that sending intimidating messages, either by voicemail or text, is fairly common among pupils in mainstream schools (22%) and known instances of ‘happy slapping’ were reported by 16% of young people.

A survey by Smith and colleagues, which included 533 secondary school students, found that cyber bullying increased with age – from 14% at age 11-12 to 23% at age 15-16, indicating particularly that incidents of cyber bullying increase over the teenage years. Their research also shows girls are more likely to be victims of cyber bullying than boys and the most common perpetrators were identified as other young people in the same year group.

Other studies have found that cyber bullying was common among primary pupils, with more than a third of 10 and 11 year olds saying they had received a message ‘trying to make you do something you did not want to do’. One in five had been sent a message with unwanted sexual suggestions, jokes or threats and 31% had received homophobic insults. Worryingly, more than 20% said that they had received a message from a stranger suggesting they meet up.

In 2009, Ian Rivers and Nathalie Noret reported on a survey that asked students to provide examples of offensive email and text messages that they had received. These included the following:

  • threat of physical violence: ‘I’m going to kick your head in’;
  • name calling (including homophobia): ‘Lesbian’; ‘u r gay’;
  • ending of platonic relationships: ‘You are a slag I’m never gonna speak to you again’;
  • threats to home/family: ‘I will get you and your family too’;
  • menacing chain messages: ‘Send this message to 10 of your friends. If you don’t you will pay!’

What can be done?
A great deal can be done to tackle bullying and prevent it happening in schools.

The vast majority of primary and secondary schools across the UK use a variety of approaches to address this issue. As suggested, an integrated, whole-school approach to bullying that is mutually understood and recognised by both teachers and pupils is known to be the most successful way to combat bullying and promote harmonious relationships in schools. Relatively new approaches, such as restorative practices, as well as deploying police officers in schools are known to help tackle conflict as well as enhance relationships in schools. A positive school ethos and constructive and supportive social relations across the school community are certainly essential ingredients of a violence-resilient school that effectively addresses conflict, including bullying.

What can be done about bullying?

  • Teachers and other school staff, including governors, need up-to-date, research-informed knowledge about young people, including information about patterns of victimisation in schools
  • Social skills are essential for children in order for them build positive relationships in school; as a result developing social skills should be embedded in all relevant school initiatives
  • Policies about behaviour and violence must draw on a wide range of knowledge from areas other than education, including the wider social sciences and health

Further information

Jane Brown is a Senior Research Fellow at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. She has undertaken research in the field of behaviour and violence in schools over many years and published widely in the area