How to promote anti-bullying in schools


The ongoing battle against bullying

It is Anti-Bullying Week this year from 13 to 17 November 2023. While this serves well as a reminder and to emphasise the continual need to counter bullying, this is an ongoing journey which needs to be constantly sustained. If we make a comparison to physical health, it is of no use going to the gym every day for a week and then not going at all for the rest of the year. So it is with tackling bullying.

Understanding the broader context

It is unlikely that bullying exists in a vacuum, but links to other discriminatory behaviours. It can also help to look at bullying differently and to consider the constructive responses which replace it. So, the question becomes ‘how do we develop a positive approach to understanding and accepting diversity?’

Language and its impact

The starting point is with language and all of us, adults included, thinking about how we speak about or with other people. Is there bias, both conscious and unconscious, in our language? Almost certainly the answer is ‘yes’. But are we aware of what we are actually saying and crucially of the impact it may have on the listener? Do we model with colleagues the sort of language we want the pupils to use, or do we let slip to a colleague a potentially damaging remark, which we might describe as ‘banter’, but which to the subject of the remark or to someone who overheard it, could be negative and discriminatory?

Many, rightly, take the view that banter, defined as ‘playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks’, can never be positive. An example given in the dictionary is ‘the men bantered with the waitresses.’ Yesterday’s banter is potentially today’s sexual harassment, depending of course on what was said. So it is with pupils, who can be known to come up with, ‘it was only banter Miss’, as an excuse for exchanges with their peers. When speaking with pupils in school and asking about whether there is any bullying, they usually say, ‘yes, there is.’ In the past, they may have been more reticent. This does not indicate that the level of verbal bullying has increased, but that pupils may be more aware of inappropriate use of language. When asked what form the discriminatory language takes, pupils usually say it is homophobic or transphobic, gendered or racist. Some of this is a thoughtless remark, such as ‘that is gay’, but sometimes it is a deliberate and intentional ‘put down.’ Girls frequently say that boys do not respect them or their abilities, and currently most common are remarks made about the girls’ ability to play football.

Promoting differences and diversity in the curriculum

A second point is how the school responds to this by its actions and these are key to accepting difference and diversity. Many schools ensure that the promotion of these aspects is central to the taught PSHE curriculum and take every opportunity to also explore them across the curriculum in a wide range of subjects including English, in the texts that are chosen, in history, science, maths, technology and PE to name but a few. A curriculum audit to explore how difference and diversity are promoted in the subjects is helpful here, especially if continuous threads can be developed, rather than a focus just in Black History Month or for International Women’s Day. It is fine to celebrate these international events, but a more sustained approach is needed. How does all of this tie in with what is covered in assemblies? Are these inspirational and positive events, or are they more negative than this, with staff patrolling up and down sanctioning pupils for talking or fidgeting?

Schools can also help to engage pupils by developing key roles for them and by encouraging them to offer their own ideas for roles. These can include youth mental health first aiders, well-being warriors, play leaders, young sports leaders and befrienders all of whom can take an active role in challenging their peers and in providing constructive activities for break and lunch times. Some schools also challenge the girls’ football situation by ensuring there are times in the week when games areas are allocated for use solely by girls. Many schools run groups, designed to support LGBTQ+ pupils and their allies. These have to be considered carefully, as sometimes, unless the climate is right, pupils will not attend because of how they fear they might be treated consequently by their peers. It is also helpful to provide alternative activities and a safe haven for pupils who do not want to play busy games outside or who struggle to socialise and prefer to be in a smaller group of like-minded pupils. Loneliness on the playground and around the school is something that pupils may raise, especially if they are new to the school and sometimes new to the country. To counter this, pupils may suggest friendship groups to welcome and include new pupils. Some international new arrivals say how hard it is to fit in at first, because everything – language, culture, curriculum, staff and peers – are all so unfamiliar to them. Peer mentors can be very helpful here.

The importance of empathy

A third element is for pupils to understand why discriminatory behaviour is so hurtful, so the development of empathy is crucial. Finding out about real life examples can be effective, whether of peers, staff or visitors or through literature, history, film, media and television. Scenarios, discussion and role play are also helpful. The focus in the current PSHE curriculum on discussion and the ‘rules’ which accompany this, provides an excellent opportunity for pupils to consider and understand the emotions and experiences of others.

Activating pupil voice

Where some of these features are in place, then pupil voice can be active and honest. In undertaking pupil voice activities, it is sometimes effective to use other adults, such as governors, to meet with the pupils or to provide surveys. Pupils will often tell less familiar people things they do not say to the adults they see every day. So, the fourth element, when something has occurred despite the school’s best positive efforts, is about providing the right climate for disclosure of any incidents of discriminatory language, behaviour, or bullying. Sometimes, if the climate is not right, pupils will not tell anyone because of their fear of the repercussions, and because they do not want to be labelled as a ‘snitch.’

A restorative approach

The fifth element to be considered in this piece, is the adoption of restorative, rather than punitive, approaches. This should support both the victim and the bully and can provide an effective opportunity for pupils to express their feelings about the impact of the incident and for the perpetrator to start to understand why their behaviour has proved harmful. It can also start to build a bridge towards reconciliation, bringing about longer-term improvements and giving a clear message about expectations of future behaviour.

If these elements are in place, they should go some way to promoting a positive approach to anti-bullying. We may never eliminate bullying, but clear steps can be taken to reduce it and its impact.




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