Anti-bullying - the same old story?

20/11/2013  -  9.31

Dr Neil Duncan, Senior Lecturer in Special Needs and Inclusion Studies

This blog post is in relation to National Anti-Bullying Week, held this year between Monday 18 November - Friday 22 November.

Anti-bullying - the same old story?

Well, it’s national anti-bullying time again, an indication (if we needed one) that decades of research and intervention into bullying in schools has not really been a success. Bullying is an easy mark for everyone to be anti; after all, who is for bullying? The big question to be answered is ‘why bullying is so strongly associated with schools and schooling?’

It is so easy to blame nasty children for bullying. We all know how horrible some people can be, and those individuals need to be challenged and dealt with promptly and effectively. But it seems that no sooner has one ‘bully’ been dealt with than another takes his or her place. Perhaps we need to look more deeply into the context of bullying rather than the psychology of individual children. Does the system of schooling itself generate conditions in which bullying can thrive?

Certainly, schools would be horrified if they thought the blame for bullying was to be aimed at them instead of the folk-devils we know as bullies. Schools are already blamed for everything else wrong with society from unhealthy eating to youth crime. But what schools are forced to do, often against their natural inclination, might have some bearing on why those institutions are so closely tied to bullying behaviour. A quick search for academic papers on Google Scholar today returned the following hits: bullying + workplace =38,000;  bullying + prison =37,000;  bullying + sport =30,000; bullying +army =37,000. All pretty close. However, bullying + school =176,000.

Now, there are some possible reasons for this that might mean schools are not hotbeds of bullying in comparison to the other social institutions in the search, but the raw figures indicate that at least that is where we are most concerned about the problem.

Schools are unique in that they gather together, under compulsion backed by the law, masses of young people, and compress them within the building for long periods of their lives where they are in close quarters with their peers. They are unique in that they apply stringent control (though many would say not stringent enough!) to the appearance, behaviour and thoughts of their pupils. They then pursue rigorous performance testing under an ethos of competition, and the logic of competition is that it will create winners and losers.

All this seems perfectly natural for schools to do, but perhaps there are other ways of supporting young people to learn if only there was political will to do so. We all hope that the winners will be successful and have a happy life at school and beyond; but what about the losers? Does eleven years of knowing you are not really valued, that you are not the kind of person the system was designed for, have any effect on your attitude to others?

It might be that some of the nastiness in our schools is a product of that process. Of course that does not excuse aggression or violence to others, nor does it even explain all the bullying that takes place in schools or elsewhere, but neither does any other theory we have at present.

At least if we try to think outside the box about bullying in schools, we might get beyond the narrow focus on bullying being just about the odd nasty kid.

See my video ‘The Logic of Competition’ here: