Last reviewed 2 February 2016

Following the UK’s 12th annual Anti-Bullying Week, former Head Michael Evans reflects on the fact that bullying continues to be a serious problem in schools.

Introduction

Anti-Bullying Week has been held during the third week of November since 2004. Co-ordinated in England by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, the 2015 theme was Make a Noise about Bullying.

In theory, bullying in schools should be a thing of the past. When the Education and Inspections Act became law in 2006, s.89 introduced a statutory requirement for maintained schools to have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils and in 2010 new regulations introduced a similar requirement for independent schools and academies.

In spite of this, bullying continues to be endemic in schools with nearly 7 out of 10 young people saying that they were bullied at school and over half a million young people reportedly suffering abuse in schools every day.

A new survey has suggested that 44% of these young people have suffered mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and often these effects continue long after leaving school. Nearly half said that being bullied in school had seriously impacted their self-esteem and confidence, with almost 37% saying that bullying had made it very difficult for them to form personal relationships.

Ditch the label

A core member of the Anti-Bullying Alliance is the charity Ditch the Label. This is a growing charity that purposely refrains from using the word “bullying” in its title. A prime aim is to stress to young people that difference is something to be celebrated and that being different should not make them feel that they are victims.

Ditch the Label is also noted for its research projects and since 2013 it has published an annual report on bullying within the UK educational system. The 2015 report was conducted in 73 UK schools and colleges and involved 4800 members of the 13–20 age group.

Findings of the report

To pick out a few highlights in this detailed report; 43% of the young people who were questioned said they had been bullied, 44% at least once a week, 69% had seen someone else being bullied and, rather worryingly, 50% reported that they had bullied someone else.

Around 51% said that the bullying was due to their appearance, with the chief reasons being weight, body shape, clothing, facial features, hair colour and wearing glasses. Pupils at highest risk of being bullied were those with any form of disability, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pupils and those from low-income backgrounds.

The report also indicated that 74% of bullied pupils had been physically attacked, 17% had been sexually assaulted and 62% had been cyber-bullied.

As a consequence of being bullied, 29% of the sample reported that they had self-harmed, 27% had skipped classes, 14% had developed an eating disorder and 12% had run away from home.

About 55% managed to tell someone, usually a teacher, but less than half of them felt that this achieved any form of satisfactory result. Telling a friend or relative was usually a better option. The remainder told nobody. Nearly a third of them were too embarrassed, the same number felt that they would not be taken seriously and 26% felt that it would worsen the situation.

It happens anywhere

Bullying is no respecter of class or society and it can feature just as easily in an illustrious fee-paying school as in a challenging comprehensive. Unfortunately, it often does not become evident until the victim has been tipped over the edge to the point where urgent palliative treatment is required, but even then a number of schools refuse to acknowledge that they have a problem.

Training is obviously an important issue. The Anti-Bullying Alliance questioned 170 teachers across the UK and 70% felt that support for schools working with mental health issues among children was inadequate. Yet only a little over half said that they would value better training.

In yet another survey, the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) questioned 126 family doctors. Nearly all of them reported that they had seen adult patients with symptoms that clearly related to childhood bullying but 92% said that they had received no formal training, resources or information to help them support children and young people with symptoms that related to bullying.

A fact of life?

In the 21st century, it is astonishing to think that in some quarters bullying continues to be regarded as a fact of life and that it is something that a child must learn to cope with on the path towards adulthood.

Sarah Brennan, CEO of the charity Young Minds commented:; “We tend to think of bullying as a series of throwaway incidents in a child’s life, but surveys show how devastating and life-changing the experience of bullying can be. If it isn’t dealt with effectively, it can lead to years of pain and suffering that go long into adulthood.”

Lauren Seager-Smith, National Co-ordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance stresses that bullying is a public health issue. “It’s vital that we invest in support for children and families impacted by bullying,” she said. She highlighted the need for funding for training of teachers and health professionals, as well as for school counselling and child and adolescent mental health services.

Don’t suffer in silence

Ditch the Label highlights the 45% of young people who suffer in silence after being bullied, often because they are simply too embarrassed to tell anyone about their problems. The charity has developed strategic partnerships with key online communities such as Habbo Hotel, The Student Rooms and Twitter where young people can receive digital advice, support and training. The charity has also collaborated with celebrities to provide a platform where advice, stories and experiences can be shared for the benefit of those who are being bullied.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance now has around 36 local authorities (LAs) and 41 significant organisations among its core membership, yet clearly, in spite of all efforts to stamp it out, bullying continues to be a significant problem in our schools.

Has progress been made?

Perhaps progress has been made, but many of us will still be all too familiar with cases of bright young people, who after several years of seeming to have the world at their feet, are suddenly found to have been brought down into a world of depression, self-harm and potential suicide as a result of persistent bullying.

The importance of providing adequate resources to enable early identification of victims and ensure appropriate support and treatment, has rightly been highlighted, but unfortunately as well as being incredibly expensive, this only deals with the effect and not the cause.

The only real answer is to tackle the problem at its source and to stop the bullies from bullying in the first place, but that of course is by far the most difficult thing to achieve. Even in a school with a most robust anti-bullying policy, serious bullying can still be endemic, hidden below the surface. Initiatives such as Make a Noise about Bullying can obviously help to raise awareness of the problem. Speaking out against bullying and talking to someone if you are being bullied are always a step in the right direction.

Beating bullying will be a slow process, but the dream and hope must always be that one day we will live in a world where bullying has simply become unacceptable.