Evidence Gaps Holding Back Progress on Bullying

Bullying is becoming increasingly prominent in the UK education agenda, spurred on by the recognition of the lasting psychological damage that peer maltreatment has on young people. The Department for Education has given financial backing to a number of different anti-bullying initiatives, but significant gaps still remain in the institutional understanding of which approaches really work in preventing its negative long-term effects. If progress is to be made, more work needs to be done to build on the existing evidence base and discover how to effectively measure the outcomes and impact of anti-bullying education programmes. And critically, if real progress is to be made, this must involve the cooperation of all children’s protection services.

In April, the Lancet Psychiatry Journal published a study looking at the effects of childhood bullying on mental health outcomes in later life. Using longitudinal studies from the UK and US, researchers interviewed children and parents about instances of maltreatment, including both overt (theft, threats, name-calling etc.) and relational (social exclusion, spreading rumours etc.) bullying behaviours.

The study’s finding that the institutional attitude towards bullying is considerably more lax than other areas of child maltreatment is concerning, particularly given the numbers of children reporting bullying. Last year, the NSPCC reported that 45,000 children had spoken about bullying to its Childline services, and that half of gay and lesbian students had experienced bullying of some form. The challenges of addressing bullying are becoming even more complex in the digital age, with incidences of Internet bullying rising by 87% between 2012 and 2013.

The negative effects of bullying on educational attainment have been well documented, but the Lancet study breaks new ground by providing evidence of the more serious long-term effects that these experiences could have on general wellbeing and adjustment in young people. The study reports, for example, a greater likelihood of anxiety, depression, self-harm or suicidality by children bullied by peers across both cohorts and speaks of an “imbalance” in public policy to address the issue across children’s agencies.

To avoid bullying being seen blithely as “part of normal childhood”, it is important that it receives prominent attention in educational policy. By law, all state and independent schools must now have a behaviour policy in place, which includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils, and the Department for Education has recently awarded substantial grants to a number of organizations involved with anti-bullying education in different guises. But less clear-cut are guidelines about how to educate children themselves to discourage bullying in schools – surely a key measure to ensuring anti-bullying measures extend beyond policy ambition and begin to make a difference in the playground.

One of the solutions to the detrimental effects of bullying might be to develop a pedagogical programme to teach social values such as empathy, kindness and acceptance of difference, however it is difficult to obtain a robust evidence base on which to design such a scheme. In psychological terms, explanations of why bullying behaviours occur is notoriously ambiguous. The link between bullying and a lack of empathetic feeling, for example, is by no means agreed upon. In such a landscape, how do the anti-bullying initiatives attempt to create educational projects that address the root causes of bullying and victimization, and how would the results of such initiatives be measured?

The programmes recently awarded funding by the DfE offer a range of possible approaches to tackling bullying from the ground-up, which are creative and diverse. Both the Diana Award’s Anti-Bullying Ambassador Programme and the National Children’s Bureau focus on boldly engaging teachers and students with the issue of bullying in schools through a series of hands-on projects – including story-writing, acting and LGBT sex-education programmes. The Kidscape Campaign for Children’s Safety runs workshops for parents and children teaching techniques to build self-confidence and practical ways of responding to bullying.

All of these organizations also report encouraging short-term results of their programmes. But what is lacking is a more in-depth understanding of which particular combination of educational techniques will have a wider and more long-term impact. Given the potentially devastating flow-on effects from bullying in later life, it is worth strengthening our evidence base to determine the specific types of anti-bullying coaching and education that are most effective in building confidence against bullying, and limiting the psychological impact of victim targeting and victimization in schools.  Doing so will necessitate the development of a thorough framework of measurement by the Department for Education, but which is likely to be of huge benefit to school children at one of the most vulnerable points of their socialisation and development.