Flow of Ideas

When Bullies Roam the School

Glenn Rikowski, 3rd November 2007, London


Shortly before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister the National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPCC) published a report indicating the extent of bullying in schools in the UK. The study surveyed 609 boys and 554 girls in 23 schools during February – April 2007. The NSPCC study reported that:

“Some 42% of children have been kicked, punched or hit at school … [and] … just under 10% of pupils said that the attack involved a weapon or other object at school and 22% admitted they go to school worried that they might be subjected to a similar violent attack while there …” (Andalo, 2007, p.1).

Brown et al (2007) provided evidence which shows that bullying is particularly rife in the UK as compared with the Netherlands, Italy and Iceland [1]. However, a recent study (reported in Asthana, 2007; and Gill, 2007a) by Tim Gill [2] argues that the concept of ‘bullying’ has been inflated beyond its original meaning. Furthermore, Gill (2007a) has stated that what were once seen as mere squabbles are now sometimes viewed as ‘bullying’. Has the concept of ‘bullying’ in school life lost its meaning?

Bullying as a Problem for Schools

The general outlook on bullying in the press is that it is undesirable, is a growing problem and that the government, school inspectors, local education authorities (LEAs) and schools should do something about. Tragic and disturbing cases such as Nathan Jones (a 12-year old boy who was found hanged in the bathroom of his house in Romford) who was apparently bullied by pupils at the school he attended (Smith, 2005), seem increasingly common. The phenomenon known as “happy slapping”, where ‘pupils gang up on a victim, assault them and use their mobile telephones to video the attack’, is on the increase according to Shaw (2005). Celebrity agony aunts such as Mariella Frostrup have tackled the scourge of bullying in schools. Frostrup recently gave advice to a 25-year-old woman who claimed that being bullied by boys at school for being ‘geeky’ left her unable to have significant relationships with men, and that she could only relate to them when drunk (in Frostrup, 2007). Basically, Frostrup urges the ‘unattractive freak and misfit’ (a self-description) to get a grip, noting that:

“School is not just a citadel of learning, it’s a battlefield. As such it provides even better preparation for life than it advertises” (Ibid.).

For Frostrup, bullying in schools merely reflects the conflictual nature of social relationships in the wider society.

Certainly a number of education researchers (e.g. Coldron et al, 2002; and Munn, 1999) have noted that bullying is being taken seriously by schools in recent years. Duncan (2006) provides shocking evidence on the homophobic bullying in schools, where labelling someone as ‘gay’ becomes a general term of abuse ‘to denote boys who did not possess enough of the qualities that fitted the ideal male stereotype of the dominant peer group’ (p.1). Research by Colborn et al (2002) highlights the extent to which schoolchildren yearn for a school that is a ‘safe social, emotional and educational space’ (p.3).

Definitional excess?

However, the model of schools as havens of harmony and co-operation amongst pupils raises the question of the definition of bullying. Munn (1999) notes the lack of consensus regarding what constitutes ‘bullying’ in schools (p.117). She notes how it can take many forms – physical aggression, threats, intimidation, extortion, rejection, name calling and teasing (Ibid.) – but stresses that it must involve repetition, intentionality and unequal power relationships (Ibid.). Thus:

“In essence the behaviour has to take place more than once; the intention is to intimidate, threaten or exclude; and the bully or bullies are more powerful in terms of age, physique or numbers” (Ibid.).

Yet Gill (2007a) holds that the concept has been used way beyond Munn’s definition in the context of schools. He argues:

“Of course bullying is a problem, and it needs to be tackled effectively. But an essential part of this difficult job is distinguishing between bullying on the one hand and minor skirmishes and arguments among children on the other” (Ibid.).

For Gill, the ‘bullying industry’ – the army of researchers, consultants and media education pundits – have not taken enough care in making this distinction. Consequently, parents and teachers are wrapping up kids in ‘cotton wool’ and increasingly constraining their behaviour; which might not be good for their social and emotional development. Cristina Odone (2005) took this point up a couple of years ago, arguing that as teachers and parents are over-protective towards today’s children then their coping skills are not developed sufficiently. Thus:

“Our failure means teenagers are ill-equipped to cope with what lies ahead. The slightest bump, and they fall off track” (Ibid.). A recent study from the Royal Society for the Arts (reported in Bloom, 2007) demonstrated how children benefit from coping with hazards and reasonable risk, including disputes with other children. Gill (200b) argued that mild teasing helps children to become more resilient and able to face difficulties thrown up by modern life. Children should be left alone to sort out relationships unless there is a power imbalance that results in cruelty. Furedi (2001) meanwhile, stresses what he calls the ‘culture of emotionalism’ that surrounds such issues as bullying and stress.


Whilst Tim Gill has stressed that he does not argue that bullying is desirable (in Bloom, 2007), he does believe that levels of playground bullying have been exaggerated and that minor conflicts between children can make for stronger personalities. However, Gill does argue that where sustained victimisation of kids by others involving power imbalances occurs, then interventions – of teachers, parents and other professionals – is justified. The difficult bit is to be sure when and where the line has been crossed.

[1] Slide 5 of a PowerPoint presentation produced by Caroline Brown, Alicia Doyle, Kay Lilley and Sophia Peel on 30th October in the School of Education at the University of Northampton (as Brown et al, 2007).
[2] See Gill (2007b).

References Andalo, D. (2007) Survey shows bullying rife in schools, The Guardian, 21st May, at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/pupilbehaviour/story/0,,2084830,00.html

Asthana, A. (2007) Bullying is exaggerated, says childhood expert, The Observer, 28th October, pp.1-2.

Coldron, J., Coldwell, M., Logie, A., Povery, H. Radice, M. & Stephenson, K. (2002) “We just talk things through and then she helps me …”: Relationships of trust and mediation, Paper presented at the Annual Conference ofthe British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, 12-14 September, online at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00002412.htm

Bloom, A. (2007) Take risks, live longer, Times Educational Supplement, 2nd November, p.11.

Brown, C., Doyle, A., Lilley, K. & Peel, S. (2007) Why Children Should Start School at Four, PowerPoint presentation for EDU1012 - Introduction to Educational Settings and their Social Contexts, School of Education, University of Northampton, 30th October.

Duncan, N. (2006) Homophobia, misogyny and school bullying, Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September, at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/160301.htm

Frostrup, M. (2005) Dear Mariella: At 25, she can’t put the bullying endured in the playground behind her, The Observer Magazine, 8th May,p.45.

Furedi, F, (2001) Britain’s Therapeutic Culture, The Wall Street Journal Europe, 28th April, p.8.

Gill, T. (2007a) Cotton wool revolution, The Guardian, 30th October, p.30.

Gill, T. (2007b) No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-averse Society, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Munn, P. (1999) The ‘Darker’ Side of Pupil-Culture: Discipline and Bullying in Schools, in: J. Prosser (ed.) School Culture, London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Odone, C. (2005) ‘We have created a culture that fails to teach our children about coping’, The Observer, 27th February, p.25.

Shaw, M (2005) Bullies film fights by phone, Times Educational Supplement, 21st January, p.3.

Smith, L. (2005) Schoolboy ‘hanged himself after bullying’, The Guardian, 16th April, p.6.

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