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Preventing and tackling bullying - advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies

View profile for Mike Pemberton
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Preventing and tackling bullying - advice for headteachers, staff and governing bodies

The department of education has recently updated guidance on how schools should deal with bullying, in July 2017.

Bullying, is described by the guidance, as ‘behaviour by an individual or a group, repeated over time, which intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally’. In general, the guidance promotes a pro-active approach, where schools have strategies in place to help prevent bullying from occurring in the first place, alongside transparent policies that deal with incidents of bullying clearly and consistently. A full copy of the guidance can be found here, but we have provided a useful summary below.


Schools should approach the problem of bullying, first and foremost, with strategies to prevent it. An environment should be created where pupils are encouraged to respect one another and their teachers. This is most effective when teachers and older pupils lead by example.

Furthermore, if pupils, parents, and staff are all well versed in the bullying policies of the school, as well as how to report bullying, students will feel safer and more assured in how they tackle the problem. This is either as a victim, or a bystander, and possible perpetrators will be well aware of the consequences of their actions. A transparent system, supported by all parties involved, also gives teachers the confidence to take action.

A useful strategy that can be implemented is to discuss the causes of bullying. This can take place in lessons, events, projects, or assemblies. Explaining to students and having a conversation about race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, special education needs, disabilities, adoption, and the care system can all help to reduce perceived differences between students.


Successful policies state the school’s own definition of bullying, and communicate it clearly to pupils, parents and staff. Bullying must be dealt with swiftly to prevent it from escalating. This is achieved through early intervention, and recognising that low level disruption and offensive language can have a significant effect. Leaving such incidents unchallenged can lead to victims being reluctant to report other behaviour. Setting clear expectations early of what is, and what is not acceptable can prevent escalation of perpetrators’ behaviour. It must not just be left until a serious incident occurs.

Disciplinary measures must show that the behaviour is wrong. It must be applied fairly, consistently and reasonably. Teachers must also bear in mind the motivations behind the behaviour of the perpetrator. They may also have needs that require support arising from their circumstances.

Ofsted will not mark a school down for recording instances of bullying, but will award a school on how effectively they have tackled the issues.


Although immediate physical safety is, understandably, often the main concern of schools’ policies regarding bullying, the long-lasting effect of emotional bullying must be taken into serious consideration. Dismissing low level behaviour can have the effect of preventing future disclosure from a victim, as they may feel that no action will be taken.  

Even more so, when dealing with pupils with special educational needs or disabilities, who are particularly susceptible to bullying, staff must be aware that they may find it more difficult to report incidents, and special provisions must be made for this.

Excluding a victim is considered to be a wrong move, as a pupil must not be punished for being bullied, and this can make re-integration especially hard. Separate provision on site is a possible solution if necessary, and alternative provision at another school must be a last resort. However, the victim’s education must be put first, and if this is the best solution to prevent disruption, it must be considered.


If a pupil is being bullied in school, it is very likely they are also being bullied outside of school. In the Education and Inspections Act 2006, under sections 90 and 91, it is stated that it is ‘reasonable for the school to regulate pupils’ behaviour in those circumstances’ where instances of bullying have occurred outside of school premises. These incidents must be investigated and acted upon if reported by a pupil.

In order to tackle cyber-bullying, teachers have the ability to seize mobile phones. If the teacher has reason to believe the pupil has breached school discipline, they can look at the data on the phone with the permission of the head teacher. They may also delete harmful material, unless this is evidence relating to an offence, which must be passed on to the police.

What the law says

The Education and Inspections Act 2006, and the Education (Independent School Standards) Regulations 2014, provide that all schools in England and Wales must have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying.

If a teacher has ‘reasonable cause to suspect a child is suffering or likely to suffer harm’, a bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection concern under The Child Act 1989. They should discuss with their safeguarding lead and report to social services if appropriate.

Any offences covered under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, as well as the Malicious Communications Act 1998, Communications Act 2003, and the Public Order Act 1986, should all be referred to the police for assistance.

The Malicious Communications Act 1998 refers to any message which is intended to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. This is particularly significant for any cyber-bullying.

The use of social media to cause distress is continuing to grow inversely to its popularity and benefits to society.

Stephensons' education law team are able to offer advice to parents and organisations providing education in this area. Please contact us on 01616 966 229.

By Collette Snape, casework support intern and Mike Pemberton, partner, in the education law team.