What is bullying? Daryl, one of a group of Year 12 students I was working with recently, gave what seemed to me a textbook-perfect definition: "It's when someone, on purpose, hurts someone else in some way through using their power over the other to get what they want." He added: "Of course, it's just part of life really, always has been and always will be. Everyone gets bullied some time."
Bullying may always have been part of life but its prevalence in schools has become an increasingly high-profile topic since the 1970s. It is recognised as seriously detrimental to children's wellbeing. It is a worldwide problem, although most of the literature comes from the industrialised world, according to Unicef's report on violence against children in schools and educational settings.
All the research, and my own experience as an educational psychologist, suggests that this is a matter that needs to be addressed by the whole school and should not be confined to dealing with problem cases. And the earlier it is done, the better.
Research by Eliza Ahmed tracked bullies and victims over the three-year transition period from primary to secon-dary school. Her study backed up earlier findings that, the earlier children acquired the status of bully and victim, the more likely it was to continue.
How should schools begin their anti-bullying initiative? The first task is to assess how much and what kind of a problem bullying is. This school-specific research has to include everyone: school managers, governors, staff, families and children.
By collecting information in a variety of ways - question-naires, interviews and group discussions - you can start to address the prevailing mindset and to identify the priorities for change. Group work is productive for adults and pupils. School staff are usually keen on the idea of groups for pupils because they see them as a way of developing social skills for needy individuals. But remember: bullying is an issue for all pupils so groups should be representative of the whole school population. If the group is composed solely of bullies or victims, it can easily be dismissed as only relevant to a minority.
Research has, however, supported the need for tailor-made interventions for entrenched and severe individual cases. There are no simple or easy answers - and schools cannot cure the problem on their own.
However, there are signs that things are already improving. According to Helen Cowie, a psychologist and director of the UK Observatory for the Promotion of Non-Violence, more schools are recognising the importance of preventive measures - such as peer support systems - which raise self-awareness and equip individuals with better approaches to their emotions and relationships.
Professor Cowie also states that there is no research yet showing a decline in bullying as a result of these measures. But, while hard evidence may be lacking, many professionals must be aware that a more questioning and reflective climate is developing and the anti-bullying work going on in schools and public institutions is making a difference.
Some people, often from a young age, become trapped in the cycle of bully and victim. The solution to breaking the cycle lies in creating a society in which the Government, schools, families and individuals communicate with each other and find ways of compromising rather than using power to get what they want, regardless of feelings
Bullying Today: A report by the Office of the Children's Commissioner, with recommendations and links to practitioner tools.
www.parliament.ukedskills: Education and Skills Committee report on bullying.
www.violencestudy.orgIMGpdf4._World_Report_on_Violence_against_Children.p df: The United Nations Secretary General's study on violence against children. Chapter 4, Violence against children in schools and educational settings.
Ahmed, E. (2006) Understanding bullying from a shame management perspective. Findings from a three-year follow-up study. Educational and Child Psychology Volume 23, No 2.pp 25-39.