An anti-bullying intervention trialled at 20 UK secondary schools resulted in a reduction in bullying incidents at school. The ‘Learning Together’ initiative was funded by the NIHR and designed to modify the school environment and provide social and emotional support.
The trial took place over three years and involved around 3,000 pupils who were 11 to 12 years old at the start of the study. A control group of schools which did not receive the intervention was monitored for comparison purposes.
Bullying incidents, teasing and rumour-spreading in the intervention group of schools were slightly lower. The intervention was delivered as a whole-school approach, but those who most needed it appeared to benefit most.
The intervention, which cost around £50 per pupil, was in the ‘very low cost’ category for school interventions according to the Educational Endowment Foundation guidance.
Why was this study needed?
Addressing aggressive behaviours among young people, including verbal, physical and online bullying, is a public health priority. These behaviours in secondary schools are associated with drug and alcohol abuse and poor educational attainment. Being bullied at school can also have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health that lasts into adulthood. Those that bully are also at increased risk as school bullying can lead to more serious violence later. The total cost of crime linked to behaviour in childhood has been estimated at £60 billion per year in England and Wales.
The 2009 Steer Review found significant variation in how schools address bullying, and use of evidence-based approaches was rare with most relying on traditional disciplinary methods.
There is increasing support for ‘whole-school’ approaches, aimed at modifying schools’ systems and changing the environment. This trial sought to test this kind of approach.
What did this study do?
This randomised controlled trial compared secondary schools in the south-east of England. Twenty schools were allocated to deliver ‘Learning Together’ over three years, while 20 similar schools continued with their usual practices.
Intervention group schools were given curriculum materials and a trained facilitator to help them form ‘action groups.’ Staff were trained in ‘restorative approaches’, which involved discussing relationships.
In March 2014, a questionnaire was completed by 94% of pupils. Follow-up surveys took place at two years and three years. Data was analysed for 3,087 pupils in the intervention group, and 2,873 in the control group.
Although there was variation in the extent to which schools implemented the programme, the sample size was large and the primary methods of data collection were strong meaning the results are probably reliable and relevant.
What did it find?
- Overall, bullying scores using the Gatehouse Bullying Scale (GBS range 0 to 3 with higher scores indicating worse bullying) were slightly lower among intervention schools than among control schools at three years (adjusted mean difference [aMD] -0.03, 95% confidence interval [CI] -0.06 to -0.001).
- There was no evidence of a difference in misbehaviour/delinquency according to the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (ESYCT) school misbehaviour scores (range 0 to 39 with higher scores indicating increased aggression) between the groups (aMD -0.13, 95% CI -0.43 to 0.18).
- At three years, pupils at intervention schools scored slightly better on the Pediatric Quality of Life Inventory (PedsQL, range 0 to 100; aMD 1.44, 95% CI 0.07 to 2.17) and the Short Warwick–Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (SWEMWBS, range 14 to 70; aMD 0.33, 95% CI 0.00 to 0.66).
- There was evidence that pupils in intervention schools also had lower scores for psychological difficulties, or emotional, conduct, hyperactivity and peer problems.
- Total education sector-related costs were about £116 per pupil in the control arm compared with £163 in the intervention arm over the first two facilitated years; a difference of about £47.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
By law, all state schools in England and Wales must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying by pupils. The school is able to decide what their policy is, and must then communicate it to all teachers, pupils and parents.
Schools must also act to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation within the school.
What are the implications?
These results support wider implementation of whole-school interventions such as ‘Learning Together’ that use restorative approaches and, importantly, drive systemic change to combat threats from bullying and aggression.
The small but welcome improvements in mental health measures in the secondary schools in the intervention group provide the first trial-based evidence to support these relatively low-cost approaches, so will be of interest to public health providers as well as headteachers.
Work on how the intervention is best delivered in practice will further inform any scaling-up of the approach more widely.
Citation and Funding
Bonell C, Allen E, Warren E et al. Modifying the secondary school environment to reduce bullying and aggression: the INCLUSIVE cluster RCT. Public Health Res. 2019;7(18).
The project was funded by the NIHR Public Health Research Programme (project number 12/153/60). Additional funding was provided by the Educational Endowment Foundation.
Department for Education. Bullying at school. London: Department for Education; undated (accessed 5 Feb 2020).
Department for Education. Preventing bullying. London: Department for Education; 2013 (updated July 2017).
The National Healthy Schools Programme. Anti-bullying guidance for schools. London: Department of Health and Department for Children, Schools and Families; 2008.
Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre