Scotland - The World of School Bullying: Parents, Pupils and Teachers in the search for answers in different countries

"Could you watch your child bite or scratch herself? Could you do nothing if you found her rolled up in a ball under her quilt saying, 'Don't put me through it any more'? Could you watch as she becomes a prisoner in her own home because she is too afraid to go out, or watch her open her birthday presents through tears of fear and depression? Could you listen to her saying, 'Let me die, please let me die, then it will be all over'?".

Few people could fail to be moved by this. It was written by the parent of a girl called Sarah whose education and life were so disrupted by the experience of being bullied at school that she eventually needed psychiatric help. Her story, unlike others which have ended in tragedy, has a happy ending - two happy endings in fact. The first is a personal success. Although we will never know what Sarah might have achieved had she not been bullied, at 16 she has managed to complete her schooling with an excellent set of qualifications. Sarah was supported throughout by a mother and father who were determined to fight for the support that she needed when her teachers were unable or unwilling to provide it, but who were willing to work with her teachers when that was possible.

The second positive outcome of this story is simply that it is able to be told. Sarah’s parents took the decision that bullying needed to be discussed more openly. They provided advice to other parents whose children were victims, and they formed a pressure group which encouraged schools in their part of the country to adopt positive anti-bullying policies. They proved that a small group of determined parents can plant the seeds of significant change in schools, providing they are willing to applaud progress as well as to criticise failings.

Schools which have been successful in reducing levels of bullying have first acknowledged that a problem exists. They have then gone on to involve parents, pupils and teachers in the search for answers. Schools which have hit the headlines because of serious bullying incidents are often those where head teachers have claimed that there is no need for a review of their anti-bullying policies because they do not have a significant problem.

Bullying has a long history

A noise and steps are heard in the passage, the door opens, and in rush four or five great fifth form boys, headed by Flashman in his glory. Tom and East slept in the further corner of the room and were not seen at first.

'Gone to ground, eh?' roared Flashman; 'push 'em out boys! look under the beds:' and he pulled up the little white curtain of the one nearest to him. 'Who-o-op,' he roared, pulling away at the leg of a small boy, who held tight on to the leg of the bed, and sung out lustily for mercy.

Thus we are introduced to possibly the most famous bully in English fiction. It is Tom Brown's first day at public school and Flashman's gang are looking for victims to be tossed in a blanket. But Tom accepts his fate stoically. This does not suit Flashman because:-

What your real bully likes in tossing, is when the boys kick and struggle, or hold on to one side of the blanket, and so get pitched bodily on to the floor; it's no fun to him when no-one is hurt or frightened.

Flashman was the stereotypical school bully. His personality was a complex one; popular with his peer group, secretly a coward and impervious to the fear and hurt suffered by his young victims. Thomas Hughes created him in 1857. He appears in only a few chapters of the book. Eventually Tom and friends call Flashman’s bluff. He is fought, beaten, exposed as a coward, and finally expelled.

The validity of such fictional descriptions was confirmed by autobiographical accounts by such authors as Edward Ardizzone, Graham Greene, Rudyard Kipling, Laurie Lee and Sean O’Casey. If, then, there was so much knowledge about the nature and consequences of bullying why did it take more than a hundred years before a serious effort was made to find solutions? And why were the seeds of that effort sown in Scandinavia rather than in the British Isles, where the word was invented and the practices of bullying were institutionalised? The answers to both these questions are speculative and backward looking. How much better it is to examine and celebrate the recent, remarkable progress towards reducing levels of bullying which has been made in more than a score of countries spread across the globe.

1.1 The Search for Answers

The Scandinavians have provided a model which has enabled the process of developing strategies and resources to be telescoped into a comparatively short period in countries such as Scotland, England and Wales, Ireland, The Netherlands and Australia.

1.1.1 Norway

All of the teachers, educationalists and psychologists who have carried out research into bullying in their respective countries must acknowledge the pioneering role played by the Scandinavian countries. In 1987 I was one of two Scottish teachers who attended the European teachers' seminar on Bullying in Schools in Stavanger, Norway. This was indeed a seminal event. It highlighted the anti-bullying work which had been carried out in Norway and Sweden since 1969. It also provided research evidence to show that it was possible to reduce the level of bullying in school. This challenged a fairly widespread assumption (in Scotland and elsewhere) that bullying was an inevitable part of growing-up.

One small incident in the playground of a Swedish school in 1969 caught the attention of a passing doctor, Peter Paul Heinemann. A boy was being chased by a crowd of others. He ran past Heinemann, through a sand pit, and as he did so his shoe came off. But he did not stop to retrieve it. He kept on running. Heinemann picked up the shoe, a poignant symbol of the boy’s fear, and as he held it he began to remember things which had happened to him and to his childhood friends many years before. Subsequently Heinemann, who had a weekly spot on Swedish television, talked about the incident in a broadcast. He made a strong plea for public concern and action, but he had a difficulty in talking about what he had seen because there was no single word in the Swedish language to describe what we would have called bullying. He used the word mobbing, a term borrowed from the work of Konrad Lorenz who described the way that birds will attack a sick or weak individual.

Over the next decade a climate of concern developed in Norway and Sweden, fuelled by the effort of concerned individuals, media interest and academic research. This concern reached its peak in 1982 when two young boys in Northern Norway committed suicide. It was said that this was because of long-standing bullying.

In 1983 the Norwegian Government asked Professor Dan Olweus to lead a national campaign against bullying. This was a pioneering effort which has had a world-wide influence. In 1989 a 150 page book called Bullying - An International Perspective (Roland & Munthe) showed that interest in the topic had started to spread across Europe but that, outside Scandinavia, little organised work had been done beyond measuring and describing the problem.

A book published in 1999, The Nature of School Bullying - A Cross-National Perspective ( Ed. Smith et al), shows how, in the last ten years, growing concern about the level of bullying has acted as a catalyst for a world-wide reconsideration of the way in which schools care for their pupils.

1.1.2 Sweden

The Shared Concern Method has been developed by Anatol Pikas in Sweden. However, although it has been tried out in a number of countries, it remains controversial. Teachers do not usually have the time to implement it properly and parents usually disagree with Professor Pikas when he insists that they should not be informed about what is happening, let alone be involved. But some of the principles of this, and similar methods such as the No Blame Approach developed in England, are extremely useful. Children who have bullied others are confronted with the consequences of their actions and made to think about ways of putting things right.

Professor Dan Olweus has successfully encouraged the Swedish Parliament to enshrine in law the right of children not to bullied at school. He says that: is a fundamental democratic right for a child to feel safe in school and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation implied in bullying...and no parent should need to worry about such things happening to his or her child.

1.1.3 Finland

Schools in Finland have adopted many of the anti-bullying strategies developed in Norway and Sweden. A notable incident was a court case in 1995 when two 15 year olds were heavily fined for physically and mentally bullying a classmate. This reminds us that what happens in schools is not subject to normal laws. It is interesting to note that the Finnish court imposed much heavier fines for the psychological abuse than for the physical bullying.

1.1.4 Scotland

The starting point for Scottish action against bullying was a research project, sponsored by the Scottish Office (SO) which, with the help of the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE), I carried out in ten secondary schools in 1989. The pattern and incidence of bullying revealed was very similar to that found in Professor Olweus' very much bigger 1983 survey of Norwegian schools. For example, 6% of Scottish pupils said that they had been bullied recently, the same figure as for the 12-16 age group in Norway.

As a follow-up to the 1989 survey the SO commissioned SCRE to produce a pack which would assist schools in developing policies against bullying. This was published in 1992 with the title Action Against Bullying. It was distributed to all Scottish schools and subsequently to schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The success of the first pack produced a financial windfall which was used to finance the production of a second pack. It was published in September 1993 with the title Supporting Schools Against Bullying. It contains two booklets. The first is directed at head teachers. The second contains advice for families and is also available separately.

The publication of the report on the 1989 survey and of the first SCRE pack created a considerable amount of interest. After some discussions the SO agreed to fund a service which would be based at SCRE under the supervision of Pamela Munn, with me as the Scottish Anti-Bullying Development Officer. The Scottish Schools Anti-Bullying Initiative:

This initiative started in 1993 and was wound up in March 1995. During this period considerable progress was made by some schools and local authorities.

A new, government-sponsored Anti-Bullying Network, based at Moray House Institute of Education in Edinburgh, started in Spring 1999. It will use a variety of methods including conferences, the Internet and a telephone information line to spread good ideas to parents, pupils and teachers about how schools can reduce the level of bullying. Once the Network is established it, together with the anti-bullying advice line for youngsters provided by Childline Scotland, will provide the focus for a co-ordinated, government-sponsored approach to the problem.

The essence of action against bullying in Scotland has been to accept that a problem as complex as this demands the development of strategies which are suited to the different types of behaviour involved, and to the structures and traditions of different schools.

1.1.5 England and Wales

The response to bullying in England and Wales has, if anything, been even more diverse than that in Scotland. Individuals such as Val Besag, Michelle Elliot, Barbara Maines, George Robinson, Sonia Sharp, Peter Smith and Delwyn Tattum; and charities such as Childline, the Gulbenkian Foundation and Kidscape, have all played a major part in supporting the work carried out by schools and local authorities.

A central focus for activity was provided in 1991 when the Department for Education (DFE) sponsored an intervention study in 23 schools, which was carried out by Sheffield University. This showed that significant reductions in bullying were obtained in those schools which tackled the problem enthusiastically, and where as many people as possible were involved in policy development.

In 1994 the DFE produced a pack, Don’t Suffer in Silence, which was offered to all state schools in England and Wales. A significant development since then is the increasing adoption by schools of strategies which seek to involve pupils in solving bullying problems and disputes. These go under various titles, such as Buddies, Peer Mediation and Peer Counselling. It seems clear that these schemes show great promise and can provide significant benefits to the youngsters taking part. However, they are still at an early stage of development and some problems remain to be solved before they can be adopted more widely.

In England, as elsewhere, there have been a number of court cases involving bullying. Among the most important was a 1996 case in which a school in London was sued by a former pupil who complained that her teachers had not done enough to protect her from years of victimisation. The school did not accept liability, but paid the girl £30,000 in an out-of-court settlement. The threat of legal action from parents and pupils who have suffered because of bullying, together with the pressure of OFSTED school inspectors asking about schools’ anti-bullying policies, has ensured that the subject is now firmly on the educational agenda.

1.1.6 Ireland

In 1993 the Irish Department for Education issued guidelines for schools. These had been prepared by a group which included, along with government and parents’ representatives, two people who helped to create an interest in the topic through their research - Brendan Byrne and Mona O’Moore. The guidelines recommended that each school should have an anti-bullying policy and that the whole school community should be involved in developing such a policy.

Parents’ groups have played an important part. The Campaign Against Bullying was formed as long ago as 1983 and more recently the National Association for the Victims of Bullying was formed. The National Association of Parents and the National Parents Council have both produced literature giving advice to the parents of bullying victims.

The Irish police (the Garda) have worked closely with schools. Over 600 Gardai have received special training to help them co-operate with in schools in the development of preventative programmes. When the Gardai become involved in responding to a case, their priorities are to act in a discreet manner, and to find a way of stopping the bullying quickly.

The Anti-Bullying Centre is based in Trinity College, Dublin with Mona O’Moore in charge. It aims to carry out research, provide advice to teachers and parents, and to organise training and conferences.

1.1.7 The Netherlands

There have been a number of important research projects and interventions against bullying in this country. Four national organisations for parents (LOBO, NKO, Ouders & COO and VOO) have collaborated to produce a brochure entitled, How to Deal With Bullying at School. This contains a strategy for a parent initiated anti-bullying programme. It also contains a copy of The National Education Protocol Against Bullying - a document intended to be discussed and signed by all members of a school community including teachers, management, pupils, school boards and parent associations.

Information about this programme is available from: VOO, Postbus 10241, 1301 AE Almere, The Netherlands

1.1.8 Japan

"Ijime" is the Japanese word for bullying. Because of a number of well-reported cases of suicide it has become a major cause for concern in the country. Large scale research studies have found many similarities with the pattern of bullying in other parts of the world. Coping strategies are being developed which suit the distinctive culture of the country.

1.1.9 Australia

There are many Australian developments which could be listed but space permits just three:

  1. A book by Ken Rigby, Bullying in Schools and What to do About it, provides a comprehensive, accessible overview of anti-bullying strategies and a balanced discussion of their merits and problems. Professor Rigby, and his colleague, Phillip Slee have been responsible for initiating perhaps the most influential Australian research into the subject,
  2. The Peer Support programme was a response to the need to provide social education for pupils in Australian schools. There is no direct equivalent of our system of guidance teachers. Older pupils are given training and support to help them act as tutors to younger pupils. The aims of this programme go beyond reducing the level of bullying, but it has an important part to play in creating a co-operative, non-violent ethos in schools.
  3. The P.E.A.C.E. Pack, by Phillip Slee, is an attempt to produce a manual which covers all aspects of the development of a school/community anti-bullying policy. Reports suggest that its use may lead to reductions in levels of bullying of up to 50%.

2.1 International Programmes

International links between individuals have helped to promote an exchange of ideas which has greatly speeded the development of intervention strategies. International conferences and seminars for teachers and researchers in Norway, Ireland, England, Australia and Slovenia have played an important part in this process. Recently, a cross-national programme has been started, with the aim of producing a manual which will be used by teachers across Europe:

ILES - Improving the Learning Environment in Schools through effective anti-bullying and discipline strategies - This three year project, which started in February 1998, is part of the European Union’s "Comenius Action" programme for the in-service training of teachers. It involves a partnership between teachers’ unions in Ireland (ASTI), Scotland (EIS) and France (FEN). It aims to promote the creation of more productive learning environments in schools, and its immediate outcomes will be the production of a training manual and the provision of in-service training in the three countries involved. The six people who are writing the manual and preparing the training programme are all classroom teachers.

3.1 Conclusion: Prevention is Better than Cure

I feel it is my fault I get bullied. I get called a snob because of the way I talk so I try to change the way I speak. Instead of saying 'yes' I might say 'aye' or 'ken'. My bulliers find fault with everything I do. If I get an A in a test I get slagged. If I get a B in a test I get slagged. I can do nothing right. If I fail a test I get an even bigger slagging. I can't win. Please help.

School is obviously a negative experience for the fourteen year old pupil who wrote this. He has not been hit or kicked. Nobody is stealing from him. He is intelligent and lives in a 'nice area' and yet his sense of self-worth is being systematically destroyed. What message do children like this get about their school? At best, it may seem that adults are too busy to notice their distress. At worst, they may become alienated from an institution which seems to value their own feelings so lowly. If they are to be helped schools must embark on the process of developing, or refining, their anti-bullying policies.

The level of bullying in schools is unlikely to be significantly reduced if teachers and parents wait for incidents to happen before they respond. Research studies in a number of countries have shown that simple, pro-active strategies can reduce the level of bullying in a school by up to 50%. This leaves a huge amount of bullying which still has to be tackled, and the manner in which it is tackled will have a strong influence on the way that children act in the future.

Over the last few years schools across the world have tried out a range of strategies which they can apply in different situations. The old knee-jerk reaction, where punishment was seen as the only possible solution to bullying, has mostly gone. Few Scottish schools have removed the possibility of punishment entirely but many have tried out "no-blame" techniques, in appropriate circumstances, with a considerable degree of success.

Of course there are some very strong arguments in favour of retaining sanctions as a response to serious bullying incidents. Young people are entitled to learn that their actions may have consequences for themselves as well as for others. Punishment can act as a sign of community outrage. And schools are not outside the law of the land - some forms of bullying are crimes. But an adult who wishes to retain self-respect as well as the respect of young people can only apply punishment when an offence has been proven. While you are waiting for this proof to emerge the bullying continues, and the victim’s torment continues. Surely, the priority should be to bring the problem out into the open, and to intervene early and effectively? A school which is successful in this will develop an ethos in which bullying is less likely to happen and where all pupils are able to learn in an atmosphere which is free from fear.

Andrew Mellor

The World Wide Web

For more information about bullying visit the SCRE Website at -


Mellor, A. (1995) Which Way Now? A Progress Report on Action Against Bullying in Scottish Schools Edinburgh: SCRE

Roland, E. & Munthe, E. (1989) Bullying - An International Perspective: London: David Fulton Publishers

Scottish Council for Research in Education (1993) Supporting School Against Bullying. Edinburgh: SCR

Scottish Office Education Department (1994) Let’s Stop Bullying—Advice for Young People HMSO

Smith PK et al (1999) The Nature of School Bullying - A Cross-National Perspective London: Routledge