Is there a type of child vulnerable to being bullied? Susan Young analyses a new survey of school intimidation
Bullying makes more than one-third of 12-year-old girls afraid to go to school, according to authoritative new research.
More than one-quarter of boys in the same age group report being afraid to go to school because of bullying, with the problem at its worst in the first two years of secondary education.
For boys, the fear appears to decrease year by year but girls remain intimidated until their final year in compulsory education. Then the percentage of girls admitting fear of bullies drops dramatically from 29 to 17, compared with 15 per cent of boys.
These figures are for pupils who are sometimes, often or very often afraid to go to school because of bullying.
Researchers believe the figures could be an understatement of the actual level of the problem, since the questionnaires are completed in school by pupils. Therefore, absentees - perhaps through fear of bullying or health problems caused by such fears - are not included.
Another factor is that fear of bullying is unlikely to be behaviour which children will exaggerate. Moreover, none of the areas where the survey was done corresponds to any known "trouble spots" where personal safety is a major issue.
John Balding, director of the schools health education unit at Exeter University, which carried out the research, said: "What we actually did was ask if children were ever afraid to go to school because of bullying. If we had been more specific about what we meant by bullying behaviour - perhaps including teachers in that - numbers might have been much higher."
The report said it was not possible to recommend action from the findings, but could provide a picture to spark discussion. "It goes slightly against the grain for us to offer advice to the reader, but we can perhaps suggest that rather than ask, 'Is this report right?', the more appropriate question is: 'What is the situation locally, and what are we doing about it?'" Mr Balding believes that significant variations in the levels of bullying reported in different schools, and even between the sexes in the same school, means that the problem can be tackled effectively.
For instance, out of 60 schools, there were 12 where 20-25 per cent of boys were afraid of being bullied, compared with five for girls. On the other hand, only two schools had 35-40 per cent of boys afraid of bullying, compared with 17 for the girls.
The research was done with more than 11,000 children across all five year groups in 65 schools - the vast majority of which were co-educational comprehensives - in Cornwall, Cumbria, Devon, Essex, North-west Lancashire, West Midlands and Tees, although much of the Bully Off data comes from a sample of around 5,000 children in Year 8.
Although the Exeter team has been issuing its health-related behaviour questionnaire since the late 1970s, it is the first time that questions on bullying have been included.
The questionnaires are primarily intended to be used by health authorities and individual schools to find out about health-related behaviour of pupils, such as smoking and drinking, so that they can be tackled locally. Pupils' answers remain confidential, as do the identities of individual schools.
Bully Off is available from the schools health education unit, University of Exeter, Pounds 10.