Tackling bullying: Knowledge is power

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: iStock

Information, both about national trends and about what is happening in your own school, is a powerful and crucial weapon in the fight against bullying. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how schools are keeping on top of the problem

The safety and security of pupils is paramount in every school. Keeping children happy and free from harm – and free from the fear of harm – is vital for effective learning and concentration in the classroom, for good physical and emotional health, and an overall sense of wellbeing.

For many youngsters, school represents the only safe haven from what can be a turbulent and unhappy home life.

But when push comes to shove, how many teachers really know what their pupils, and their parents, feel about bullying – or the extent to which the problem may exist in their school?

However vigilant and aware teachers think they are to the problem themselves, pupils and parents cannot always be relied upon to reveal that incidents of bullying have occurred.

Children can be embarrassed or intimidated and may be living with the fear that there will be worse to come if they tell. Nor is bullying always visible, even to the most vigilant teacher – and in any event, bullies can be cunning in their methods.

Some schools have used tools, such as NFER’s School Surveys, to delve into the heart of a whole range of issues, including pupil behaviour, standards of teaching and communication, by presenting pupils and parents with questions on matters that directly concern and affect them.

What the answers to the surveys reveal, through careful analysis of the overall results by statisticians at NFER, can help heads and governors to understand the extent and nature of any problems and, in turn, to implement effective policies and guidelines to manage them.

The outcomes are shown compared to the rest of the schools in the sample, weighted to be nationally representative, so schools know where they sit alongside other schools.

Mark Trott, head of Ocklynge Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex, knows this only too well. The school runs questionnaires of its parents using NFER’s School Surveys every two years, safe in the knowledge that these are independently produced, ask the right questions and ultimately save staff a great deal of time in distribution, collection and analysis.

Ocklynge is the largest junior school in the country, so handling huge amounts of paper would be unwieldy and time-consuming, Mr Trott says. But by using the specially designed surveys he can send out a request in the school’s electronic newsletter to parents asking them to complete the questionnaires, and even add instructions on how to access them on their SmartPhones.

Mr Trott feels he knows his pupils and parents well, so he never really expects any surprises from the findings. But what has been particularly interesting, he says, were the comparisons between his school’s results and those from other schools that have completed the surveys.

“Previously I felt our results were quite good, but when I saw the comparisons I saw that others’ results were generally good too,” he said. “You can’t make false assumptions now, and I’ve got real data to compare with which is really helpful. In a way, it is reassuring to see how well the education system is working in this country.”

One of the responses to the survey provided a bigger surprise than others, however, and that was on the issue of bullying.

“One of the questions about bullying was a bit too high for my liking,” he said. “Even though it was the same as the national average, I felt we could still do something about it, so our School Council is now working on some recommendations.

“These surveys are only any good if you do something with the results to take the school forward. They have helped to shape our plans and we will certainly check progress against them.”

NFER’s School Surveys can provide useful information, in particular if facing an Ofsted inspection. As well as providing a Parent View preparation report, (which includes a question on bullying), the findings give heads and governors an opportunity to address any matters and to put appropriate measures in place to mitigate any parental and pupil concerns.

To create a national picture of the extent and types of bullying going on in our primary schools, NFER carried out an analysis of more than 35,000 responses to its School Surveys. On the question of whether pupils had been picked on or bullied at school, 30 per cent of respondents replied that they had, 53 per cent said no, and 16 per cent were unsure or didn’t respond.

Meanwhile, national results from the parent survey, which examined the issue of whether their child’s school’s approach to anti-bullying was effective, showed that 28 per cent strongly agreed that they were, 44 per cent agreed, and seven per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed.

This left a further 21 per cent who neither agreed nor disagreed, were not aware of the school’s policy, or did not feel able to answer the question.

But overall, the findings suggest that it is important for schools to know how parents feel about this issue before an inspection.

Some types of bullying are, of course, more prevalent than others, and have a greater negative impact on children’s emotional health and wellbeing, as highlighted in NFER’s 2011 report Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Being Left On My Own Is Worse: An analysis of reported bullying at school within NFER attitude surveys.

Pupils who had fallen prey to bullies were most likely, for example, to mention lies or rumours about them or their appearance as the main reason they believed they were being bullied.

Exclusion from a particular group could have a particularly devastating effect, and NFER analyses showed that this type of bullying could be more strongly associated with poor emotional wellbeing than other types, including physical or verbal abuse. This problem was particularly prevalent among girls, who used emotional rather than physical tactics. Knowing how to support a child when relationships between pupils break down can be an important aspect of a school’s anti-bullying policy.

For older girls, “unwanted sexual contact”, although relatively rare, was found to be the type of bullying most strongly associated with poor emotional wellbeing.

The most common type of bullying among all age groups was verbal abuse, and this was more strongly linked to poor emotional wellbeing than physical violence. Overall, however, boys were more likely to be bullied than girls.

In a recent analysis of the data, just over a third, 37 per cent, of primary children said they had been called “horrible names” or talked about by other children during the previous year and 42 per cent admitted to having been pushed or hit.

A similar proportion said they had felt excluded and left out of friendship groups, or had been stopped from joining in a game or activity, and 23 per cent had had their belongings stolen or broken by another child on purpose.

Caroline Fisher, of NFER, who works with researchers who analyse the surveys, said: “The surveys offer solutions to a range of issues that affect schools, and can create a useful means of communication between the school and pupils’ homes. The day-to-day bustle of a school can make relationships between staff and parents very transient but conducting surveys at intervals can help to keep that dialogue open.

“By offering these surveys, schools are telling parents and pupils that their views are important and that the school is prepared to act. In some cases we know they have provided a narrative for school improvement, or acted as a gauge to find out what parents think about a particular school policy change or implementation.

“To a newly arrived head who is still finding their feet, or trying to turn around a school in challenging circumstances, having some feedback can test the atmosphere in the school on a particular issue at any given time.

“While schools need to be mindful of reviewing their policies on bullying periodically, Anti-Bullying Week is a good time to revisit this issue and ensure that everything that can be done to tackle this potential problem is being done.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

Further information

  • More information about NFER School Surveys is available from www.nfer.ac.uk/ss8
  • The report Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Being Left On My Own Is Worse: An analysis of reported bullying at school within NFER attitude surveys can be accessed at www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/ASUR01
  • Further statistics on bullying related to SEN and disabilities are available online from charity the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Visit www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/research/key-statistics
  • A recent Research Insights article, In Pursuit of Happiness, published in Headteacher Update in January 2014, discusses emotional and school wellbeing. To read this and other Research Insights advisory articles, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/schools/htu.cfm

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