Schools that introduce anti-bullying strategies and punish bullies may be tackling the symptoms of the problem rather than the causes.
Gerald Walton, assistant professor of education at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, believes that talk of "safer schools" and "zero tolerance" is all bravado: such measures merely serve a public relations purpose to convince parents that something is being done to tackle violence in schools.
But these policies miss the point, says Dr Walton, who claims that focusing on individuals' bad behaviour does not address the wider problem of a violent and divisive society.
He contends that media hype surrounding extreme cases of bullying and violent crime in schools has created a climate of fear in which parents and teachers are eager to introduce zero-tolerance strategies. But, despite this, bullying continues to be a pervasive problem in schools. Dr Walton says this is because bullying is merely one way of expressing broader social patterns.
Society's ambivalence towards homosexuality, for example, is expressed in the playground. Similarly, public fear of immigrants is acted out through the bullying of pupils with unfamiliar accents or darker skin. "Children who are targeted for bullying are typically those who are perceived and treated by their peers as different," he said.
"Homophobic bullying is routine in schoolyards, and Muslim children, or those perceived to be Muslim, have increasingly become targets of bullying since 911.
"Bullying often reflects larger social and political battles, moral panics and collective anxieties, rather than only the difficult behaviour of a few students."
Dr Walton believes excluding bullies or encouraging victims to develop their assertiveness skills is flawed: that may be effective in reducing incidents of bullying, but suggests the solution can be found in individuals. It places the onus on pupils, who must change and adapt their own behaviour patterns. This, he says, tackles only the moment of bullying, but not the underlying cause. Until this changes, bullying will continue to be a problem.
"Focusing on immediate, discrete bullying moments conceals how such incidents are shaped and fuelled by difference stigma," Dr Walton said. "Not accounting for social difference, combined with a preoccupation with regulating behaviour ... are pervasive and continued failures in efforts to address bullying in schools."
Homophobia, in particular, is widespread in schools. Leaving comments such as "Your shirt is gay" unchallenged leaves all pupils - not just those who are gay or lesbian - vulnerable to attack.
So, instead of tackling bullying behaviour, schools should do more to address widespread social fears and anxieties around difference. This will cut down not only on bullying but also on those children who turn a blind eye when others are bullied.
Next week, Fintan O'Regan, a behaviour management consultant, will tell Special Needs North, a TES-sponsored conference in Manchester that it is vital schools address the role of bystanders in their anti-bullying policies.
Brenda Stafford, of the anti-bullying charity Kidscape, said schools must have anti-bullying strategies, even if they do not tackle the causes. "A lot of schools say they have zero tolerance," she said. "But they don't recognise certain types of bullying; then that definition becomes a barrier to action."
- 'Missing the point: bullying, ethical failure and social responsibility in schools' by Gerald Walton
BUDDIES SPREAD THE WORD ON COURTESY
Saying "Thank you" when someone opens a door for you is more effective in tackling bullying than punishment, says Marianne Taylor, an educational psychologist with Durham's anti-bullying service who oversees schemes in local schools.
"It's about teaching children how to behave towards each other and how to develop positive relationships.
"I don't think we'll get anywhere through dealing with individual cases of bullying," she said. "That reacts to the problem rather than dealing with it." She believes creating a tolerant atmosphere is the best way forward.
Schools should address issues such as homophobia and racism so that pupils do not see difference as a reason to mock. "It's about awareness-raising, and an attempt to develop empathy," she said. "Then children can understand how upsetting racist or homophobic language can be."
Several Durham schools run buddy schemes in which pupils look out for others. They help to pick up on the use of offensive language. "It's little things, like opening doors for each other and thanking each other," Ms Taylor said. "Once it's encouraged, it's part of children's lives."