November 12th to 16th is Anti-Bullying Week run by the Anti-Bullying Alliance. In this blog, EPI’s Kristen Brown explores the field of bullying research and reviews international evidence on approaches to tackling bullying in schools.


Key findings:


  • While there are no official statistics on the prevalence of bullying in England, research suggests that at least two in five young people have experienced bullying in some form in the previous year, including cyber-bullying. 
  • Bullying has deeply negative and long-lasting consequences for those who experience it, including mental and physical health difficulties, lower attainment and lower income in adulthood. Young people who bully others are also more likely to have mental health difficulties.
  • Different social groups experience bullying differently, with girls, ethnic minority pupils, those with special educational needs and disabilities, and LGBTQ pupils more likely to face discriminatory bullying. The role played by this type of bullying in perpetuating inequities in outcomes for these groups, including lower adult earnings and poorer health, warrants further research.
  • The government requires all state-funded schools to include anti-bullying measures in their behaviour policies, and all schools must comply with anti-discrimination law. In 2017, the Government Equalities Office launched an initiative to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools through group support programmes and teacher training.
  • Some approaches to tackling bullying are better evidenced than others. Interventions that create empathy and understanding of harm caused appear to be more effective than punitive action. Existing research suggests that resources should be focused on anti-bias and bystander intervention training, peer support programmes, and restorative justice approaches rather than zero tolerance policies.


Prevalence and trends


Research on bullying began in the 1970s, prompted by a number of communities that lost victimised pupils to suicide. The early research identified unique social factors at the root of bullying, most notably the power imbalance between the perpetrator and victim, which can be exploited through physical, verbal and non-verbal means, either directly or indirectly.[1] Since then, research has focused on understanding prevalence, identifying risk factors, and testing interventions. With the advent of technological developments, the battle against bullying grew to encompass the rising prevalence of cyberbullying.

The field of bullying research has been complicated by several issues. Many studies do not use the same measures across time and place, making systematic reviews and meta-analyses difficult. According to one review of studies conducted between 1990 and 2009, rates of school bullying are decreasing; however two-thirds of children in English schools feel that bullying is getting worse.[2] Evidence suggests that changing levels of in-school bullying are driving this, while bullying outside of school is actually increasing.1,2 It is possible that interventions tackling bullying have not addressed bullying outside of schools to the same extent as in-school bullying, and more cohesive research is needed to understand the role played by both.

There are currently no official statistics collected on the prevalence of bullying in England. Research findings indicate that more than half of young people have experienced some form of peer victimisation in their lives, with approximately two in five reporting some type of bullying, including cyber-bullying, in the previous year.[3],[4] 

However, experiences of bullying differ across social groups. Boys are more likely to be hit or threatened, while girls are more likely to suffer from indirect forms of bullying such as social isolation and rumour-spreading.[5] As a result, some staff find that bullying faced by girls is less visible and therefore more difficult to address.[6] Many girls also experience misogynistic bullying in school. According to a Women and Equalities Committee report published earlier this year, 29 per cent of 16- to 18-year-old girls experienced unwanted sexual touching in school, 59 per cent of 13- to 21-year-old girls said they faced some form of sexual harassment in the past year, and 71 per cent of 16- to 18-year-olds report hearing gendered insults on a regular basis.[7] In addition to the mental health consequences associated with bullying, victimisation in childhood is associated with lower accumulated wealth and higher health-related costs for women compared to men in adulthood.[8] This is of particular importance, considering the entrenched wage gap between men and women in the UK and internationally.[9]

Ethnic minority pupils may experience racist bullying or harassment. One meta-analysis found no significant differences in bullying experienced by majority and minority ethnic groups of pupils. However, when broken down by country, researchers found that this was not true in the UK, where ethnic minority pupils faced significantly more bullying than their majority group peers.[10] It is possible that variations in racist bullying across countries can be attributed to political climate. Research has found that a negative campus climate invites the harassment and victimisation of sexual minority youth.[11] Some preliminary research suggests that the election of Donald Trump was associated with an increase in racist bullying.[12] In a series of case studies, schools with clear procedures for responding to racist bullying and harassment increased attainment for ethnic minority pupils.[13] More research should investigate whether this is a causal association, as the implications for the attainment of ethnic minority pupils could be significant.

Similar issues arise for LGBTQ pupils. About one half of primary school teachers report that their pupils experience homophobic, biphobic or transphobic (HBT) bullying; in secondary school, this problem becomes even worse, with nine out of ten teachers reporting that their pupils experience HBT bullying.[14] One fifth of LGBTQ students who progress to university experienced name calling, rumours and gossip about them due to their sexual orientation, with a small number reporting severe forms of HBT bullying including threats or intimidation and being physically attacked.[15] Almost all (91 per cent) students who experience these kinds of discriminatory bullying did not report them, for reasons that included not believing the university would take them seriously, not knowing how to make an official report, being too afraid to make an official report, and not thinking the incident was worth reporting.15 Not only does the lack of reporting indicate that perpetrators may be left unchallenged and continue to harass students, it also suggests that university records likely significantly underestimate the scope of the problem.

Additionally, pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) face increased risk of bullying, with some research showing that pupils with SEND were twice as likely to be bullied as non-SEND pupils with similar characteristics.[16] Pupils with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASC) are more likely to be bullied than the general population, and some evidence suggests that these pupils face a higher risk of bullying than other pupils with SEND.[17] Among pupils with ASC, being older, attending a mainstream (rather than special) school, having lower levels of educational support, and using public transport to travel to and from school increased the risk of being bullied further. [17] Research suggests that the way pupils are labelled or separated within schools may result in stigma or ‘othering’ which could increase bullying, as pupils with a statement have been found to be bullied more frequently than pupils with SEND without a statement.16

While the groups discussed here are not the only ones who face specific or disproportionate bullying, they have been most addressed by the literature. Some evidence has identified socioeconomic disadvantage as a predictor of bullying victimisation, though this association may be explained by other factors. [18],[19] Some research suggests that being a child carer is associated with being bullied.[20],[21],[22] Another study shows that children in care are often bullied, however due to a small sample size these results could not be compared meaningfully to the general population.[23] Further studies should clarify this preliminary research and identify other groups of pupils who face similar struggles, as well as exploring solutions for groups that we know are at increased risk of experiencing bullying.

Consequences of bullying


The literature consistently shows that being bullied is associated with increased social and emotional problems, as well as negative academic and career consequences in the long-term. These include low self-esteem, low attendance, mental ill-health and suicidal ideation.[24],[25] Bullying victimisation can be harmful to one’s physical health as well, with bullied children reporting more stomach aches, headaches, mouth sores and chest thumping.24 Some evidence suggests a circular relationship: the emotional distress caused by victimisation may impair behavioural and emotional regulation, lower self-esteem, and hinder social skills, increasing the likelihood of further victimisation.[26] Additionally, research has indicated that bullied children have lower educational qualifications, worse financial management and a lower income at age 50. [25] These negative impacts are particularly concerning given the pre-existing disparities between some of the groups disproportionately affected by bullying and the general population. It is possible that school bullying perpetuates these inequities.


Importantly, the perpetration of bullying is also associated with similar social, emotional, and long-term life consequences. Pupils who bully others are more likely to come from abusive homes than their peers, and have higher levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation [24], [27],[28] When excluded, these children are more likely to not complete their education, become involved in criminal behaviour, abuse drugs, and develop depression. [27]

Existing interventions and their effectiveness

In recent years, the Department for Education (DfE) has made some effort to address bullying. All state-funded schools are required to include anti-bullying measures in their discipline policy, which are checked by Ofsted inspections.[29] In 2017, the Government Equalities Office led a £3m initiative to reduce HBT bullying in schools by partnering with anti-discrimination and children’s charities, which deliver group support programmes and teacher training.[30] However, it is unclear if DfE’s impression that such interventions would be sufficient to ‘stamp out LGBT bullying’ will prove correct.30 As the Department continues to support pupils, it is necessary to examine the evidence on how bullying is best tackled.


Various types of training have been used to prevent bullying. The Early Intervention Foundation has found strong evidence that prevention programmes lead to positive bystander behaviour, lower acceptance of bullying and aggression, reductions in self-reported bullying and victimisation, and reductions in assisting or reinforcing the bully.[31] Other evidence shows that bystander training, though rarely used in the UK, has been considered moderately effective by the school staff who use it.[32] School staff have reported that more general programmes, such as Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) and Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), were helpful as well.32 This research suggests that the DfE’s work to combat HBT bullying through teacher training programmes which seek to help teachers discuss HBT bullying productively could be similarly effective. However, the research on PSHE, SEAL and bystander training relies on staff reports rather than the prevalence of bullying before and after the programmes. Additionally, these programmes are limited to HBT bullying.

Empathy training methods, such as the Persona Dolls Approach (PDA), have also demonstrated promise with regards to decreasing bullying. The PDA involves cloth dolls being introduced to classes of young children along with an identity, cultural background, gender and (dis)ability.[33] The teacher incorporates relatable experiences or feelings, and negative experiences related to bullying or bias, which the teacher and children work together to resolve. Teachers reported that using these dolls improved empathy and decreased bullying, however this measure could be vulnerable to self-report bias, and there has been little large scale, quantitative research conducted to test effectiveness.33 Additionally, teachers may unintentionally project stereotypes or biases into their characterisation of the dolls or their problem solving.


In addition to prevention methods, there are a number of well-evidenced responses to bullying.

Peer programmes, including peer mediation and peer support, are used to some extent in about 68 per cent of UK schools.32 According to the teachers surveyed in one study, peer mediation, which involves training pupils to intervene, was the most effective peer programme.32 Peer support can also be effective, with one study concluding that high levels of emotional support protected against the negative impact of bullying on attainment.[34] Another found a number of benefits of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in US schools. First, LGBTQ pupils in schools with GSAs were significantly less likely to drop out than those in schools without, even if they were not involved with the group. Furthermore, pupils in their school’s GSA were even less likely to drop out than their counterparts who did not join.11 Additionally, the average Grade Point Averages of pupils in schools with a GSA were higher. In schools with a GSA, fewer pupils reported feeling unsafe at school or missing school because of fear.11 These findings indicate that it may be helpful to develop similar support groups for pupils with other marginalised identities. Additionally, this suggests that DfE initiatives will improve the experiences of some pupils.

Some qualitative research has discussed the role of managed moves, the process by which a local authority, parents and governors cooperate to move a pupil to a different school, as a response to bullying. Managed moves are often considered an alternative to exclusions, though little is known about how they are implemented in practice, the extent to which they are fully cooperative, or their long-term impacts. One study found that bullying or social isolation and the breakdown of relationships with staff were the two most prominent reasons for managed moves.[35] Outcomes for children who move schools to escape bullying vary, according to the limited research, with some pupils experiencing a fresh start, improved peer and staff relationships, and decreased anger, and others feeling characterised as a ‘problem’ and finding the process stressful and slow.[36] More research should identify the prevalence of such arrangements as a response to bullying and investigate the factors which determine their impact on pupils.

School responses, however, must do more than just support the victims of bullying; they must address the behaviour of the perpetrators. Many schools do this through strict, clear school rules that establish punishments for a range of violations, often referred to as ‘zero-tolerance policies.’ While these policies originally targeted physically violent bullying, they have since expanded to include drugs, sexual harassment and verbal attacks.[37] Zero-tolerance policies are intended to send a message, which theoretically both punishes the perpetrator and makes an example of them, discouraging all pupils from engaging in similar behaviours.37 By this logic, these policies act as a prevention method as well as a response. Nine in ten schools in the UK report using direct sanctions with the purpose of sending a message.32

However, research on the effectiveness of such policies has been mixed. While some studies report that they are associated with significant decreases in average incidents of violence per day, others found little to no impact on violence or bullying, and some even found they leave schools worse off overall due to the negative consequences of punishments, which may lead to drug use and poor academic achievement.27,37,[38] Teachers reported that these approaches were moderately effective in reducing bullying, but not as effective as alternatives such as restorative justice policies.32 In fact, even though 92 per cent of schools report using such policies, only about half of local authorities recommend them.32 Some researchers suggest that zero-tolerance policies are not effective because they teach children not to bully out of fear of a punishment, rather than out of empathy for their peers. [27],[39],[40] As a result, bullies who face sanctions may turn to more covert methods, such as cyberbullying, as their punishment did not teach them not to bully but rather to not get caught.27

Furthermore, these policies are associated with negative outcomes for certain groups but not others. When rule violations result in immediate punishment, without an understanding of what may have caused it, pupils who struggle with emotional or behavioural regulation may be disproportionately affected. In the UK, children with SEND are six times more likely to be excluded from schools.[41] While these suspensions and exclusions may not have been the result of a misunderstood bullying incident, the underlying implication remains: setting specific punishments for certain behaviours (e.g. not making eye contact with a teacher, speaking out of turn or struggling to get along with peers) privileges pupils who conform more easily to expectations. Behaviour policies of this sort in the US have resulted in the disproportionate punishment of African-American pupils even after controlling for socioeconomic background.27,[42] In English schools, Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded than their White British peers, though the role of discipline policy is unclear.41 Further research should investigate the links between zero-tolerance policies, biased enforcement and racial inequality.

Another disciplinary method, often discussed in contrast to a zero-tolerance policy, is restorative justice – defined as ‘a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future.’[43] Some studies have found that perpetrators met with restorative justice were 14 per cent less likely to reoffend compared to those who faced a retributive approach.39 Though originally used in the criminal justice system, restorative justice has also been practiced in schools to tackle bullying as well as other forms of misbehaviour.32,39 In these cases, restorative justice focuses on helping the perpetrator recognise the harm done by their actions, while allowing those involved to take responsibility where due, understanding why the perpetrator committed the offence, repairing the relationship between the perpetrator, victim and community, and reintegrating everyone involved.39,[44] Restorative justice programmes have been effective in New Zealand and Australia, reducing truancy and exclusions as well as improving relationships with staff and parents.39 Additionally, data from UK schools shows that rates of success in stopping bullying were highest in schools with consistently restorative approaches (79 per cent) and lower in schools that were inconsistently restorative (64 per cent) or not restorative at all (58 per cent).32 By decreasing the rates of reoccurrence, perhaps because they work to improve the relationship between pupils, restorative justice policies function as both a prevention and response strategy for school bullying.

Restorative justice also addresses some of the shortcomings of zero tolerance policies. First, it focuses on establishing empathy for the victim, as opposed to adherence to a rule.27,39,40 Therefore, it may be more effective in reducing types of bullying that are difficult for school staff to observe, such as cyberbullying and relational bullying. Research also suggests that restorative justice makes the school system fairer, especially for pupils with SEND, by decreasing ineffective sanctions [39]. Additionally, restorative justice aims to reintegrate the perpetrator and victim once appropriate, which may curb the adverse long-term effects that both parties face. More research is necessary to test these hypotheses.

However, restorative justice has limitations as well. It may be more time consuming than other forms of punishment, since it often includes teacher training and mediation conferences [40]. Research on whether the time gained due to decreased bullying reoccurrence justifies this investment is necessary. Additionally, some argue that the anecdotal evidence on restorative justice characterises it in an unrealistic way, and that the reality, while still impactful, is more complicated [42].

Policy and research implications


The evidence suggests that further resources should focus on strategies such as anti-bias, anti-bullying, and bystander intervention training; peer support programmes; and restorative justice programmes rather than zero-tolerance policies, while continuing research on improving these methods. Many schools report that they used direct sanctions but would have liked to use restorative justice policies.32 Some argue that the role of Ofsted ratings in facilitating competition between schools to attract pupils incentivises low tolerance behaviour policies.[45] Concerns have been raised that it can be difficult to make time for restorative justice conferences and trainings, given teachers’ workloads.40 However, since research suggests that restorative justice is more effective in reducing bullying than quicker interventions such as zero-tolerance policies, investing in such methods is likely to decrease workload in the long term.

Future research and policy-making should take into account that bullying varies in nature and severity for different pupils, and it is important to acknowledge where certain characteristics, such as ethnic origin, gender, ability/disability and sexual orientation, may shape a child’s experience of bullying. Additionally, it is crucial to acknowledge the underlying emotional health problems that may lead pupils to victimise their peers. Furthermore, it is important to consider which schools have the most effective anti-bullying policies and how pupils are affected. In the US, restorative justice is less likely to be used in schools with higher proportions of African-American pupils.[46] Research should investigate whether access to the best evidenced anti-bullying measures varies by race or ethnicity, socioeconomic position or geography. In answering these questions, researchers and policymakers will support pupils in pursuing an education in a setting that helps them succeed and reach their potential in terms of academic achievement and well-being.




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