Creating an anti-bullying culture

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The key to preventing and dealing with bullying – and stopping the self-exclusion of victims – is having a strong school community. Steve Burnage looks at practical measures to achieve this...

Bullying is all too common in our schools. Prevalence rates vary depending on measurement criteria, but one 2015 survey found that 43 per cent of young people were bullied in the preceding 12 months, almost half of whom experienced bullying at least once a week (Ditch the Label, 2015).

For some children, the impact of this behaviour is so severe that they self-exclude (or are persistently absent) from school.

Research from NatCen and Red Balloon in 2011 estimated that more than 16,000 children between the ages of 11 and 15 are absent from state schools where bullying is the main reason for absence, a figure that rises to more than 77,000 where bullying is cited as one of a number of reasons for absence.

There is no legal definition of bullying. However, according to government guidance for schools, it should be understood as “...behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally” (Preventing and Tackling Bullying, DfE, July 2017).

There is also a strong link between bullying and absenteeism. Associating their school experiences with mental trauma, some bullied children develop “school-phobia” and fear that attending school will lead to further psychological damage.

However, there is nothing inevitable about children being bullied and self-excluding from schools. Many schools, and indeed some parents, lack the attitudinal approach and practical tools required to prevent bullying in the first place, and to stop this leading to self-exclusion if it does happen.

Many schools lack community ethos and this greatly complicates dealing with bullying because:

  • A punitive complaints culture does little to address bullying.
  • Overprotective parents contribute to unnecessary self-exclusion.
  • Some schools avoid making their anti-bullying policies visible.
  • The government’s guidance for schools on bullying lacks rigour.
  • The support system for bullied children who self-exclude is not fit-for-purpose.
  • Bullying undermines mental health but children find it hard to access support.
  • Bullied children find it hard to access suitable alternative education.

So, how we might prevent bullying and self-exclusion in the first place?

The simple answer is to aim to ensure that children are not bullied in the first place, and that when it does occur it is dealt with decisively so that it does not lead to self-exclusion. But how might schools do this?

Real communities

Schools should see themselves as communities, not organisations. To tackle bullying effectively, schools need to engender a real sense of community. Bullying needs to be seen as a collective failing of an educational community, rather than a problem with individuals.

There is no single pathway to building community spirit in schools, but headteachers could encourage students and teachers to participate in the process of setting learning outcomes. Students could be given a louder voice in deciding classroom management and finding ways of resolving conflict. Peer support schemes, such as “circle time”, could also be helpful.

Parental relationships

We must improve the relationship between schools and parents when dealing with allegations of bullying.

Making anti-bullying policies more visible and accessible to parents – assuming they are well devised – is likely to reassure parents that schools are equipped to deal with bullying if it occurs. Visible policies would also reduce the scope for misinterpretation about the measures that exist to tackle bullying.

Parents also need to feel assured that their complaints about alleged bullying are taken seriously.


Counter-intuitively, we should support parents who legitimately allow bullied children to self-exclude from schools.

Schools should reflect that persistent absence (or self-exclusion) as a result of bullying should not be treated in the same way as truancy. Accordingly, parents who know that their children face emotional trauma at school should not be punished for making reasonable attempts to safeguard their children’s wellbeing by allowing them to stay at home.

Equally important is supporting bullied children who self-exclude when they move back into mainstream education.

The ultimate goal for any school or college should be to deal with bullying at source so that bullied children never self-exclude. However, if children do self-exclude as a result of bullying, we need to provide them with effective support to help them recover from the trauma they have suffered, and to get back to learning and developing their full potential in school. So what might schools do?

Positive and proactive support

Reasonable measures might include, for instance, attempting to establish contact with parents of the child; offering the child assertiveness sessions, counselling opportunities, buddy systems or teacher-supervised rooms; and efforts to bring the parents of both the child and the bully together to devise ways of preventing further bullying.

Help pupils understand bullying

  • It sounds obvious, but tell pupils bullying is unacceptable. Make sure they know and understand the school policies. Could they help to draw up and take ownership of an anti-bullying/behaviour code?
  • Talk about what bullying is and how to stand up to it safely. Pupils who know what bullying is can better identify it and they can talk about bullying if it happens to them or others. Urge them to help pupils who are bullied by showing kindness or getting help.
  • Make sure pupils know how to get help. Encourage pupils to speak to a trusted adult if they are bullied or see others being bullied.
  • Talk about how to stand up to pupils who bully. Give tips like using humour or saying “stop” directly and confidently. Talk about what to do if those actions don’t work – like walking away.
  • Talk about strategies for staying safe, such as staying near adults or groups of other pupils.

Keep the lines of communication open

Talking about bullying directly is an important step in understanding how the issue might be affecting pupils. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but it is important to encourage pupils to answer them honestly. Assure pupils that they are not alone in addressing any problems that arise.

Encourage pupils to do what they love

Interests and hobbies can boost confidence, help pupils to make friends and therefore protect them from bullying behaviour. So encourage and facilitate pupils taking part in activities, interests and hobbies they like. These extra-curricular or lunch time activities give pupils a chance to have fun and meet others with the same interests. They can build confidence and friendships that help protect pupils from bullying.

Model how to treat others with kindness and respect

Pupils learn from adults’ actions. By treating others with kindness and respect, adults show the pupils in their lives that there is no place for bullying. Even if it seems like they are not paying attention, pupils are watching how adults manage stress and conflict, as well as how they treat their friends, colleagues, and families.


The impact of bullying on children is profound. Bullying can cause emotional distress, low self-esteem, anxiety, flashbacks, isolation, problems trusting individuals, self-harm and even suicide. Almost a third of depression experienced by young adults in the UK is linked to bullying in teenage years, according to research published in the British Medical Journal in 2015. And the psychological consequences of bullying can still manifest themselves almost 40 years after the event.

Schools which are proactive in dealing with bullying and supportive of pupils who are persistently absent (or self-exclude) are taking meaningful steps to tackle bullying, prevent persistent absence, and create strong school communities.

  • Steve Burnage has experience leading challenging secondary schools. He now works as a trainer, consultant and author. Visit and read his previous articles for SecEd at

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