Bullying is endemic in Britain’s schools. More than two in five (43 per cent) of young people were bullied last year, almost half of whom experienced bullying at least once a week.
For some children, the impact is so severe that they stay away from school altogether. It is estimated that over 16,000 children between the ages of 11 and 15 are absent from state schools for this reason.
Bullying causes emotional distress, low self-esteem, anxiety, flashbacks, self-harm and suicide. Almost a third of depression experienced by young adults in the UK is linked to bullying in their teenage years. The psychological consequences can manifest themselves 40 years after the event.
Children who are regularly bullied are more than three times more likely to play truant than those who are not. Absenteeism compounds the damage, affecting social skills and exacerbating psychological trauma, which in turn make it hard to return to school.
It is little surprise, therefore, that bullied children are significantly more likely to have no educational qualifications than their non-bullied counterparts.
Schools are failing to grip this problem. This stems from a tendency to focus on performance outcomes. By operating more as organisations than communities, some schools relinquish the tools needed to identify, understand and nullify bullying when it takes place.
In addition, a punitive complaints culture encourages defensiveness and undermines open and productive collaboration between schools and parents.
This produces perverse incentives for schools to demonstrate absence of negligence rather than identify the causes of alleged bullying, and weakens confidence in complaints procedures. Meanwhile, the fact that parents who permit their children to self-exclude may be liable to fines or prosecution further compounds suspicion between families and schools.
Children who self-exclude from school need an effective system to help them deal with the trauma they have suffered, but thoses suffering from mental health issues commonly lack swift access to the support they need, and often only receive this once their conditions have become critical.
Yet bullying needs to be seen as a collective failing of an educational community, rather than a problem with individuals.
The government could help schools to build community ethos by highlighting examples of good practice in its guidance on bullying, and teacher training should include specific modules on the educational advantages of inclusive approaches.
The government could also improve the relationship between schools and parents when dealing with allegations of bullying. More visible anti-bullying policies, assuming they are well devised, would reassure parents that schools are equipped to deal with it.
The government should also appoint local mediators to manage complaints about alleged mishandling of bullying, and parents who legitimately allow bullied children to stay away from school should never face fines or prosecution.
To improve accountability, the government should introduce a duty for governors to ensure that schools adhere to their anti-bullying policies. It should also introduce a duty for schools to record incidents of bullying; this would include the motivation for bullying, as far as this is discernible, and the action schools have taken to address it.
If children do self-exclude as a result of bullying they need support to encourage them back in. Children who find themselves in this position face considerable barriers, and it is reasonable to argue that they have special educational needs. This should be reflected in the law.
What is more, the financial incentives for schools to resolve bullying are too weak, as there are few opportunity costs for inaction. The age-weighted pupil unit of the government’s funding formula should be linked to attendance, so that after three months of non-attendance, and in the absence of reasonable attempts to support a return, the money passports to another school.
There is nothing inevitable about bullied children dropping out of school. With assertive action and strong resolve, we can end the avoidable suffering of thousands of the UK’s most vulnerable children for good.
James Scales is a researcher at the Centre for Social Justice.
This article originally appeared in The Times Red Box.