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Bullying: a zero-tolerance approach

DfE figures released this week to mark the start of Anti-bullying Week have been commended by Nicky Morgan as the result of stronger discipline in schools, although the figures displayed little change in the number of children complaining of frequent, sometimes even daily bullying.

According to the study, there are 30,000 fewer children enduring the despair and isolation associated with bullying. However, the figures have also chronicled the rise of cyberbullying, with more than 1 in 10 youngsters admitting that they have encountered online intimidation and abuse.[1]

The national survey of 16- to 25-year-olds also found that half of those bullied had reported experiencing mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, with some even disclosing instances of self-harm and suicidal thoughts (Richard Adams, para. 15-16).

A separate study carried out by the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the National Children’s Bureau found that teachers and GPs were concerned at the lack of training they had received to deal with the harrowing effects of bullying on children, with 7 in 10 teachers declaring that they felt “ill-equipped” to manage mental health problems stemming from bullying.[2]

The psychological trauma caused by bullying can last long into adulthood, colouring perceptions of conflicts, relationships and even emerging as symptoms of illness. More than 90 percent of GPs surveyed by the Royal College of General Practitioners declared that they had seen adults with symptoms that were associated with childhood bullying. (Richard Adams, para. 18)

Running the gauntlet

However, it’s not just pupils who experience bullying. A more insidious type of bullying is on the rise: the bullying of teachers. Shocking research released by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) found that teachers are increasingly becoming victims of cyberbullying – not by their pupils, but by their pupils’ parents.[3]

Rising numbers of teachers are forced to tolerate personal insults, sexual slurs and even threats to their safety. The NASUWT study found that parents are using Facebook as a platform to humiliate and intimidate teachers, by posting sexist, racist and homophobic comments about them. Some of the posts even falsely accuse staff members of being paedophiles. Teachers also disclosed in the survey that their appearance, competence and sexuality are frequently ridiculed online by parents. (Sarah Cassidy, para. 2).

60 percent of the 1,500 teachers who took part in the NASUWT survey reported that they had experienced cyberbullying on social media sites at the hands of pupils and parents, compared with just 21 percent in 2014. The increase appears to be the result of a surge in parents using social media to intimidate teachers, with 40 percent of teachers falling victim to online abuse from parents, compared to 27 percent last year.

Sticks and stones…

You may argue that teachers have always been subject to taunts and insults, and tolerating a few insults here and there is part of the job – it’s just words after all, isn’t it? Well no, not really. Over a third of teachers who were involved in the NASUWT survey, confided that they had been subjected to unsolicited photos and videos, which were posted online, and 15 percent of teachers had received threats from parents (Sarah Cassidy, para. 8).

It seems that many schools are reluctant to take action against the abuse, fearing further reprisals from parents and negative press which could tarnish the school’s reputation. One teacher’s response to the NASUWT survey was particularly revealing: “I asked the headteacher to put a note in the school newsletter as there has been more than one case of this, but she refused and told me that it is OK for parents to write horrible things about me on Facebook.” (Sarah Cassidy, para. 11)

Other teachers reported similar responses from schools about online abuse, with protection of the school’s reputation cited as the main reason for the lack of action. How does this approach protect the school’s reputation though? Could it not be argued that a school’s failure to tackle bullying – in any form – is a failure of the school’s anti-bullying policies and a slight against its reputation?

Workplace bullying

A harsh working climate and a ruthless regime of economic cuts have led to a rise in workplace bullying. Over the last year, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) reported receiving around 20,000 calls about bullying and harassment at work, with some callers even confiding that they had considered committing suicide. The Chair of ACAS, Sir Brendan Barber, said bullying is on the rise in the UK: “Managers sometimes dismiss accusations around bullying as simply personality or management-style clashes, whilst others may recognise the problem, but lack the confidence or skills to deal with it.”[4]

In a consultation paper seeking alternative solutions for tackling workplace bullying, ACAS found that bullying is more prevalent among certain groups. These include:

  • Public sector minority workers
  • Women in traditionally male-dominated occupations
  • Workers with disabilities or health problems
  • Lesbian, gay and transgender employees

The consultation paper also estimates that lost productivity through absenteeism and bullying-related stress costs the UK economy over £17 billion a year.[5] It also concludes that employers tend to lack the skills to tackle the issue of bullying, often opting to move staff around, rather than investigating and remedying the problems. (Brian Milligan, para. 9)

Shainaz Firfiray, Assistant Professor of Organisation and Human Resource Management at Warwick Business School said: “Although bullying takes place at all levels within the workplace, the most common perpetrators are managers.

“This type of bullying often arises due to an unequal balance of power, with managers attempting to control the behaviour of subordinates through coercive methods.” (Brian Milligan, para. 13-14)

Zero tolerance

So what can you do to tackle workplace bullying? Schools should take a zero-tolerance approach to any instances of bullying, which means that the abuse of staff, by colleagues, pupils or parents should be fiercely challenged. After all, if children see their teachers being humiliated, undermined and isolated, what hope will they have that their own experiences will be taken seriously and resolved?

ACAS, the NASUWT and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) are all in agreement that the majority of Anti-Bullying Policies in the workplace fall short in reducing the overall prevalence of bullying. They advise reviewing current policies and replacing them if they are not up to scratch. The NASUWT and the TUC also advocate the creation of a Zero-Tolerance Anti-Bullying Policy. (Sarah Cassidy, para. 20) (Brian Milligan, para. 11)

Useful materials:

MAT Harassment Policy[ID]=20642

Cyber Bullying: Advice for Headteachers and Staff[ID]=18522

Cyber Bullying Policy (available for primary and secondary schools)[ID]=18522

Transgender Policy[ID]=20589

[1] Richard Adams (2015) ‘Fewer school bullies but cyberbullying is on the increase’, para. 1-3 <> [Accessed: 16 November 2015]

[2] Sophie Scott (2015) ‘Anti-Bullying Week: Teachers “ill equipped” to deal with mental health issues’, para. 1 <> [Accessed: 16 November 2015]

[3] Sarah Cassidy (2015) ‘Teachers face a storm of bullying – by the children’s parents’, para. 1 <>

[4] Brian Milligan (2015) ‘Workplace bullying on the rise in the UK says ACAS’, <> [Accessed: 16 November 2015]

[5] ACAS (2015) Policy paper ‘Seeking better solutions: tackling bullying and ill-treatment in Britain’s workplaces’, p.2


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