This briefing paper discusses the prevalence of bullying amongst pupils in schools across the UK, and policies to prevent and tackle bullying in English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish schools.

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There is no legal definition of bullying, but the Department for Education (DfE) defines bullying as behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that is intended to hurt or harm another individual or group, either physically or emotionally. Bullying is often aimed at certain groups, for example because of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The rapid proliferation of new technologies has provided a new medium for bullying, in the form of cyberbulling through social media, gaming, and text messages.

In terms of prevalence of bullying in English secondary schools, the OECD/TALIS Teachers and School Leaders 2018 survey of 250,000 teachers in 48 industrialised countries found that in 2018:

  • 29.0% of English secondary school heads received reports of physical and non-physical bullying amongst students (OECD average 14.0%)
  • 13.9% reported that a student or parent/guardian had reported hurtful postings on the internet about students (OECD average 2.5%)
  • 27.1% reported that a student or parent/guardian had reported unwanted electronic contact amongst students (OECD average 3.4%)

(Source: TALIS 2018 Tables, Chapter 3, Tables 42 and 45).

Policy in England

All schools are required to have a behaviour policy with measures to prevent all forms of bullying. The DfE has issued guidance to schools, parents and school staff on how to tackle bullying and the legal powers and obligations of schools.

The Education Act 2011 amended the Education and Inspections Act 2006 to provide that an electronic device, such as a mobile phone, can be seized by a staff member to investigate whether an act of bullying has taken place. The guidance states that parental consent is not required to search through a young person’s mobile phone.

Since 2016, the UK Government has funded four charities to combat and prevent different forms of bullying, including cyber-bullying (Source: HC Deb, Anti-bullying week, 15 November 2018, c 190WH). The Government Equalities Office has also run programmes to prevent and tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying (Source: Government Equalities Office, ‘Help us continue to tackle LGBT bullying in schools’).

Online Safety

The Conservative Party in its 2019 Manifesto committed to “help teachers tackle bullying, including homophobic bullying” and to “legislate to make the UK the safest place in the world to be online-protecting children from online abuse and harms” (Conservative Party Manifesto 2019, pp13, 20). The December 2019 Queen’s Speech committed to legislate on the April 2019 Online Harms White Paper, including bringing in a new duty of care on internet companies towards their users (Gov.uk, The Queen’s Speech 2019, p58).

Policy in Scotland

The Scottish Government published Respect for all: national approach to anti-bullying for Scotland’s children and young people in 2017, emphasising that the focus in schools should be on prevention and addressing the root causes of prejudice. All individual schools and local authorities are expected by the Scottish Government to develop policies to reflect the guidance. Respectme, Scotland’s anti-bullying service, funded by the Scottish Government since its launch in March 2007, provides a guide to drafting a school’s anti-bullying policy.

Policy in Wales

Rights, Respect, Equality was published as statutory anti-bullying guidance by the Welsh Government in November 2019. The statutory guidance expects a school’s anti-bullying policy to clearly set out how it will address bullying, and for these measures to be communicated to all learners, school staff and parents/carers. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives headteachers powers to determine measures that regulate the conduct of learners outside school, including when using transport and communicating on mobile phones. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 provides for the Travel Behaviour Code to be enforced.

Policy in Northern Ireland

The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, as amended, requires grant-aided schools in Northern Ireland to publish policies designed to promote good behaviour and to prevent all forms of bullying. School policy should take account of any guidance issued by the Northern Ireland Department for Education and, in the case of Catholic maintained schools, the Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS). The Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 expanded the responsibilities of schools to include an obligation to prevent bulling amongst pupils when travelling to and from school, and to take measures to prevent bullying involving a registered pupil at the school which involves the use of electronic communications. In January 2020, the Northern Ireland Executive announced the implementation of the Act was to be temporarily paused (AQW 437/17-22, 22 January 2020)

  • Commons Research Briefing CBP-8812
  • Authors: Nerys Roberts, Philip Loft, Robert Long
  • Topics: Schools

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