A survey of 25 schools in North Staffordshire showed that more than half of secondary pupils had suffered bullying and or had bullied others during the past year. An estimated 150 pupils in every secondary school are affected by taunting and tormenting, it says.
Researchers found that serious individual incidents had declined overall, but believe that current problems are due to widespread and persistent minor physical and verbal attacks.
"These have a wearing effect on victims, are condoned by bystanders and may pass unnoticed by staff. Intervention is hindered because there is a fine divide between 'telling' and 'grassing'; and between 'just joking' and 'bullying'," says the report.
Of the 4,700 11 to 16 year-olds, more than 17 per cent had "picked on" others but had not been victims; 10 per cent had been victims; and 14 per cent had been neither bully nor victim.
Seven per cent reported damage to their property, and verbal bullying affected a fifth. One boy told of other pupils breaking his pens and pencils. "When I started in year 8, I spent Pounds 11 on new pens - now I have hardly any. They say if you tell on them they will beat you up."
A girl said she had been bullied for the past three years. "They find something nasty to say or push me. They know I can't fight back, I haven't the strength to . . . I can't talk to my mum and dad, they don't listen and they are fed up of hearing me moan all the time . . . I can't talk to anyone . . the teachers just tell me to ignore them, but I can't."
Life outside school is also a misery for many: 61 per cent thought they were more likely to be hurt, and many feared becoming gang victims.
Schools should adopt an anti-bullying policy and an action plan which has credibility and is consistently applied by all staff, the report recommends. A school with a caring culture might be able to support pupils without a specific policy, it says.
Some schools fear that parents will be put off by public airing of the problem, however, especially where there is local competition for pupils.
One head said: "We don't want to give the public a false impression that we have major problems - bullying is something which occurs from time to time, but which we tackle without fuss, and we don't want to suggest that things are otherwise and give the wrong impression of the school."
Anti-bullying in Action, Department of Education, Keele University, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG, price Pounds 10.