Safeguarding Network

December 2023 - 11 minute read

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For many children and young people, the issue of bullying is seen as something that they should deal with themselves. They feel adults are not going to take them seriously and will most likely make things worse. However, we know that bullying has an enduring impact on children and young people right through to their adult life and should be taken as seriously as other allegations of abuse or neglect. 

The Ditch the Label Annual Bullying Survey (2020) of around 13,000 people aged 12-18 found that within the previous 12 months: 

  • 26% had witnessed bullying;  
  • 25% had been bullied; 
  • 3% had bullied. 

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Some groups of children and young people can be at greater risk of being bullied, such as young carers, children with additional needs, looked after children, refugees and children who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender.  

VotesForSchools asked its young voters to reflect on the policies and schemes in place to tackle bullying in schools. 65% of primary school voters said their school does enough to tackle bullying, while 70% of secondary school voters said theirs doesn’t. 

For bullying programmes to be successful they must involve the whole setting, including students, teachers, parents and the governance body. 

Bullying can cover a wide range of issues, and as identified on the government’s website, some forms are illegal (e.g., violence or assault, theft, repeated harassment and hate crimes) and should  be reported to the police

Definition of bullying

“Bullying is behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally. Bullying can take many forms (for instance, cyber-bullying via text messages, social media or gaming, which can include the use of images and video) and is often motivated by prejudice against particular groups, for example on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, special educational needs or disabilities, or because a child is adopted, in care or has caring responsibilities. It might be motivated by actual differences between children, or perceived differences.” 

Preventing and tackling bullying, DfE 

“I have had people doing it to me for no reasons. They have made WhatsApp groups about me. Purposely excluded me from all my friendship groups, spread rumours about me. Made me lose my friends.”  

Why are children bullied? 

The Ditch the Label survey says that the main reasons children and young people believe that they were bullied was because of their: 

  • appearance; 
  • interests/hobbies; 
  • high grades or low grades; 
  • mannerisms; 
  • wealth or poverty; 
  • family issues being made public; 
  • race/ethnicity; 
  • religious beliefs; 
  • disability; 
  • learning difficulties; 
  • gender/gender identity; 
  • sexuality. 

I have been cancelled out from my friend group because of how I dress and I was bullied all the way through primary school due to my intelligence and because I had no friends.

Why do children bully others? 

In most cases, those who bully others do so to gain a feeling of power, purpose and control over others. People may bully others due to: 

  • stress and trauma – they may have experienced a traumatic event like parental separation or a family bereavement; 
  • aggressive behaviours – sometimes people become aggressive, particularly males, when trying to deal with issues that affect them rather than talking about them with others; 
  • low self-esteem – to mask how they feel about themselves they focus on others; 
  • being bullied – in a cycle of negative behaviour, some bully others as a defence mechanism; 
  • a difficult home life – they may come from violent households or feel that those who should love them do not seem to care; 
  • poor education – without access to education, bullying, hate speech and violence can be seen as normal behaviours; 
  • poor relationships – those in unsecure relationships may be persuaded to bully others to feel accepted. 

Types of bullying

  • Physical bullying - hitting, kicking, tripping or the destruction of a person’s property. Physical bullying not only affects the bully and the victim, but also may have an impact on innocent bystanders. 
  • Verbal bullying - insults, teasing, name-calling, sexual harassment or prejudice based/discriminatory language, including threats. 
  • Covert bullying - attempted behind the victim’s back, often to damage the victim’s reputation, and can include creating rumours, mimicking and humiliation. This is the most frequently used form of bullying. 
  • Cyberbullying - can happen anywhere and at any time. It can occur through text messages or over the internet, making it difficult to control. This may include impersonating a victim, spreading gossip, sharing photos without consent, trolling, excluding the victim online and/or continually targeting someone in an online game. 
  • Alienation - encouragement of peers to alienate the victim and treating the victim like an outcast. This so-called “pack mentality’ is most frequently seen in secondary settings but can be evident at any age. 
  • Prejudice based/discriminatory bullying - any of the above types of bullying that is motivated by hostility to certain individuals or groups due to their disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or other perceived difference. 

The impact of bullying 

Of the eleven areas that the Ditch the Label report highlights as the impact of bullying, the four that scored the highest all related to the mental health and self-esteem of the victims. One third of the victims had had suicidal thoughts, and over a quarter had self-harmed. 

I get bullied constantly and usually because I’m judged for being transgender, how I look and my sexuality. It’s really difficult sometimes and feels like I can’t break free.

Body shaming 

How they feel about how they look is an important issue for most young people. Body shaming is primarily driven by media representations of an ideal appearance, but issues can be reinforced by peer groups.  

As with bullying in general, the impact on young people can be life-long and is damaging to their mental health and self-esteem but can also lead to eating disorders and body dysmorphia. As a result, many young people often withdraw and isolate themselves from others. 


Online bullying has unique features that can make it as significant, or even more significant, than traditional bullying and should be seen as ‘two sides of the same coin’. Find out more on our cyberbullying page


Bullying is prevalent across schools and colleges, and can have a devastating effect on individuals. It’s often a barrier to their learning and may have serious consequences for their mental health. Bullying which takes place at an education setting doesn’t only affect an individual during childhood but can have a lasting effect on their lives well into adulthood. We must remember that bullying also affects perpetrators and bystanders. 


  • 21% of children who had experienced bullying daily, truanted in the last 12 months–that’s 3 times the proportion of those who weren’t bullied. Girls are almost twice as likely to truant because of bullying than boys. (Anti-Bullying Alliance, 2021
  • 62% of children and young people say they had been bullied by a classmate. (Ditch the Label
  • 27% of children and young people have experienced a form of cyberbullying. (Ditch the Label, Annual Bullying Survey, 2020
  • 37% of pupils with SEND, reported being bullied based on other pupils’ attitudes or assumptions towards their SEND. (SEN Magazine, 2021
  • 42% of LGBT+ school pupils have been bullied. (Growing Up LGBT+, 2021

Spot the signs

  • unexplained injuries; 
  • distress/anxiety; 
  • broken or missing possessions or damaged uniform/clothing; 
  • changes in appearance, habits and/or behaviour; 
  • complaining of headaches and/or stomach aches, problems with eating; 
  • lateness/poor attendance; 
  • a sudden change in attainment or engagement in lessons. 

I knew they wouldn’t do nowt because this other lass, she were like me and she was getting picked on and she told the teachers and they didn’t do nowt.


What to do

Keeping Children Safe in Education says, “It is important that the school or college do everything they reasonably can to protect the victim from bullying and harassment as a result of any report they have made.” 

By effectively preventing and tackling bullying, schools can help to create safe, disciplined environments where pupils are able to learn and fulfil their potential. 

Reinforce that bullying is not acceptable through: 

  • observation; 
  • open and challenging discussions with your class; 
  • encouraging reporting. 

Take action 

  • Listen to and observe pupils; not only their words/symbols but their behaviour and appearance too. 
  • Tackle any witnessed bullying swiftly. 
  • Record your concerns. 
  • Follow your setting’s anti-bullying policies and procedures. 
  • Any likelihood of ‘significant harm’ or an offence being committed must be addressed through safeguarding procedures.  
  • Never ignore bullying. 
  • Keep taking action until you know children and young people are safe. 

Promote safeguarding

A whole school approach 

  • Ensure your values are front and centre, that all staff, children and young people, and their families know them and apply them. For example, in one primary school the values of “Look after yourself, look after each other and the place you’re in” featured in many discussions and was used in reflective work with children, and by teachers and parents when deciding how the school was run. Secondary settings may wish to expand and add to these values by discussing and modelling democracy, equality, respect, resilience, tolerance and understanding. 
  • Ensure you have strong, up to date and understandable policies around anti-bullying and behaviour with a clear definition that separates bullying from unkind behaviour or falling out. Include a system of sanctions, as well as an assessment of needs and appropriate support for both victims and perpetrators. 
  • All staff should be trained in the setting’s approach (from support staff to senior leaders) to model behaviour, identify concerns and take action. 

Address prejudice and improve empathy and understanding through awareness-raising activities and education. What work does your setting do around resilience, problem solving, attachment approaches and emotional regulation? How is positive behaviour or attitude recognised and rewarded? Pupils should choose not to engage in bullying behaviour because they understand that is not the right thing to do, rather than just because they are told not to. Where are the places in and around your setting that bullying happens? What is being done to make these areas safer? 


Promote diversity and look for ways to help children and young people measure the difference they are making to inequality in the setting. Help young people develop goals for the setting, such as reducing measures of exclusion identified in student surveys, and individual goals such as making a difference for someone every day. Ensure there is celebration of difference and look for links to other cultures, settings and regions to ensure children and young people have the opportunity to experience the benefits of diversity. 

Consider the power of words and ensure ‘banter’, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, bi-phobic, racist, and other discriminatory language (e.g., about disability) is always challenged. In some settings such behaviour is routine (like saying “That’s gay” to indicate that something is negative) among children or young people. Work to help young people (and possibly some staff) understand why these kinds of comments, even though they may be in wide use, are still unacceptable and damaging. 

Anti-bullying environment 

Raise the profile throughout the year, not just in Anti-bullying Week. Posters, learner-friendly policies in every room, champions and mascots have all been used to good effect. Assemblies should cover anti-bullying themes regularly, and link to events through the year, such as Pride and Black History Month. The curriculum should engage with the topic of bullying, particularly in PSHE or ‘themed drop-down days’. 


All children should be able to understand their role in reducing bullying in the setting and be encouraged to think how an effective anti-bullying system might be put in place, developed and monitored. Many settings have ambassadors, champions, prefects, monitors and other roles where young people have had some training, are visible to other children, provide child-to-child support and a link to staff. Some settings have developed a more focused buddying system to provide direct child-to-child support. 

Rapid response 

An immediate reaction reduces the chances of escalation and parental involvement at a very early stage and gives children and young people confidence that bullying will be addressed and not tolerated. 

Consider the range of ways in which children can raise worries, including: 

  • bully boxes; 
  • an online reporting system (bullying@yoursetting.ac.uk or perhaps an icon on your setting’s computers and website); 
  • anonymous questionnaires; 
  • peer support; 
  • key staff champions; 
  • parent communication options. 

Remember to make sure that, whatever system you use, it is secure, and inclusive for all your pupils/students, regardless of whether they are fluent in English, can read or write well or use non-verbal communication, etc. 

Your setting’s policy should set out how you respond to situations (including when to follow safeguarding procedures and/or involve the police), and how you will learn from them. Some settings use restorative practices as an opportunity to develop and learn where appropriate. 

Find out more

There’s more on the challenges to developing effective anti-bullying practice and in depth case examples in Approaches to preventing and tackling bullying (DfE, 2018). 

FREE bullying poster

This downloadable resource raises the profile of safeguarding for your staff team. For use in staff rooms, on safeguarding boards or on the back of toilet doors the poster includes tips, a space for local contact details together with a link and QR Codes to this resource page.


DSL Training Materials

  • Bullying and Hate Crime Presentation

  • Bullying and Hate Crime Presenter Notes

  • Bullying Handout

  • Bullying Quiz

  • Bullying Quiz (Answers)

  • Bullying Scenario Early Years

  • Bullying Scenario Early Years - DSL Information

  • Bullying Scenario Primary

  • Bullying Scenario Primary - DSL Information

  • Bullying Scenario Secondary

  • Bullying Scenario Secondary - DSL Information

  • Bullying Scenario FE

  • Bullying Scenario FE - DSL Information

  • Bullying Scenario SEND

  • Bullying Scenario SEND - DSL Information

  • Bullying Scenario Care

  • Bullying Scenario Care - DSL Information


  • Cyberbullying

  • Bullying prevention tool

  • Education inspection framework

  • Together against school bullying

  • Focus on: Bullying

  • Advice for adults working with children

  • Teach about bullying

  • Approaches to preventing and tackling bullying: Case studies

  • Anti-bullying strategies for schools

  • Jake’s story: Being bullied

  • Preventing and tackling bullying

  • Coronation Street – Bethany is bullied at school

  • Draw My Life: Mo’s bullying story

  • Anti-racism and mental health in schools

  • Anti-social media

  • Addressing School Avoidance

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