Anti-bullying interventions are big business. Over the past 20 years, I have been asked to review numerous classroom-based resources, videos, DVDs and programmes that have sought to reduce bullying in schools. Sometimes these were free of charge. Sometimes they were not. Prices ranged from a few pounds sterling to several hundred, if not thousands. Then there are the charitable organisations that provide support to schools and colleges, having spent years refining their resources. But how successful are these training events or resources in tackling bullying?
In 2011, the UK Department for Education published a review by Fran Thompson and Peter K.Smith of Goldsmiths, University of London, which considered the effectiveness of the myriad anti-bullying interventions now available to schools. In the same year, Maria Ttofiand David Farrington of the University of Cambridge published their meta-analysis of the results of various interventions. The Thompson-Smith review focused primarily on teachers' reports of the success of such interventions, while Ttofiand Farrington were interested in the reported reductions in the incidences of bullying and victimisation. Both found elements common to successful interventions, and discovered that some intervention styles were more appropriate for younger children, while others were more suited to older students.
So what really works? The starting point, according to both reports, is a long-term and intensive in-school commitment to challenge bullying. One-off remedies may relieve an acute problem but they are not usually effective in changing long-term culture. A whole-school commitment is needed that involves parents and governors, as well as staff and students.
Thompson and Smith suggest that programmes that embed anti-bullying work into the curriculum are also helpful. They recommend personal, social and health education or citizenship as relevant subjects in which to do this in secondary schools (for children aged 11-18), while in primary schools (ages 4-11) the behaviour skills programme Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning is seen as an effective platform. Teachers rated staff training and the modelling of positive relationships and communication strategies as highly effective. And both reports found that liaising with parents and carers on bullying issues was a useful and important way of involving them in school policy.
The school playground was identified as a key risk area for bullying and it was suggested that training for playground supervisors on how to spot, and stop, such tormenting was highly effective. Ttofiand Farrington found that sanctions such as having "serious talks" with bullies, sending them to the principal or keeping them in class during breaks or lunchtimes were effective - although the evidence supporting this was primarily drawn from the Olweus programme that originated in Norway in the 1970s and has been widely used across Europe and North America.
So what action can you take without calling in external professionals? According to the Thompson-Smith report, using assemblies to reinforce anti-bullying policies is pivotal. Teachers also reported that school councils were useful occasions for hearing student views, although at times their opinions were seen as challenging.
In primary schools, "circle" time has been rated highly effective in resolving conflict. In circle time, students and teacher sit together as a group and establish rules about respecting the person who is speaking. Circle time offers children the opportunity to understand all sides of a story - especially where there is conflict - and agree goals and targets. Ultimately, it is about students understanding others' points of view and finding a way forward. The teacher facilitates the process but does not direct it.
Teachers in primary schools also rated the training of lunchtime supervisors as very important. And improving the school grounds - by introducing climbing frames or activity areas, for example - was seen as useful, albeit costly. Having a strictly enforced good behaviour policy for the playground was rated highly, together with buddy schemes for younger children.
In secondary schools, discussions about bullying in the curriculum were found to be effective, as were practices that could resolve conflict between bully and victim and repair the harm, often through facilitated meetings. By comparison, peer-support schemes had only varying degrees of success. Peer-mediation, on the other hand, where trained students act as role models and counsellors, was apparently effective, although rarely used because of the costs associated with training and the time commitment for staff and students. Training to equip students who are bystanders with the skills to intervene in incidents of bullying was rarely offered, but was also rated least satisfactory.
Most interesting, perhaps, was the fact that neither report identified any particular "branded" intervention or programme as being more successful than any other. Thompson and Smith recommended that schools develop a toolkit of multiple strategies that they can use, recognising that what works for one school or student will not work for all. It seems that better results are achieved when anti-bullying ideas, events and resources - including curriculum resources - come from within the school community and are maintained by that community - although these clearly need to be supported by outside organisations to keep the momentum going.
So if you are approached by an external agency, tread carefully. It may offer exactly what you need, but ask for details of its evaluation processes - and success rates - before allowing it to impose its regime on staff, students and the wider school community. As a result of the published interventions reviewed by Ttofiand Farrington, bullying declined by an average of 20-23 per cent and victimisation by only 17-20 per cent.
In the end, teachers, governors, parents and students remain our most valuable resource in combating bullying. And it will be their combined and continued efforts that ensure bullying is constantly challenged in our schools.
Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University in England. He is the author of Homophobic Bullying: research and theoretical perspectives and co-editor of Bullying: experiences and discourses of sexuality and gender.
Thompson, F. and Smith, P.K. (2011) The Use and Effectiveness of Anti-Bullying Strategies in Schools (UK Department for Education).
Ttofi, M.M. and Farrington, D.P. (2011) "Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: a systematic and meta-analytic review", Journal of Experimental Criminology, 7: 27-56.