Do anti-bullying policies build character?

Watch Helene in this Battle of Ideas debate with Professor Mike Boulton and Keith Sullivan.

Original introduction
In January, the Department for Education announced an awards scheme for schools that teach perseverance, resilience and grit. The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, declared: ‘As well as high academic standards, this means providing opportunities for all young people to develop the character and resilience they need to succeed in modern Britain.’ Yet this move comes in the context of a proliferation of anti-bullying policies, which seem to imply children are in need of constant protection from not only violent bullies, but from childish nastiness. Can children really develop character and resilience if they are to be protected from the unpleasant experiences that have traditionally been seen as rites of passage?

Over the past decade, there has been more than a six-fold increase in peer-reviewed research on bullying. Tellingly, this research reveals that definitions of bullying are broad-brush and include ‘teasing and name-calling’, ‘spreading rumours’ and ‘exclusion at playtime or from social events and networks’. It is claimed that ‘emotional bullying can be more damaging than physical’. More and more forms of bullying are being discovered and powers to intervene are on the rise. The Education Act of 2011 gives teachers stronger powers to tackle cyber-bullying by providing a specific power to search for and delete inappropriate images or files on electronic devices and mobile phones. Government now provides advice for spotting sexist, sexual, homophobic and transphobic bullying. There is even official advice on protecting teachers from being bullied by their pupils.

Is there a danger, as some sceptics argue, that ubiquitous anti-bullying initiatives make children fearful of interactions with their friends and contributes to a generation of ‘cotton wool’ kids? Are we actually denying children the ability to develop ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ by removing the informal ways in which children develop character through their ordinary interactions with each other? Indeed, are initiatives to teach character actually a sticking plaster to deal with the problems that have been created by anti-bullying policies?

More broadly, why have schools, policymakers, the media and academia become so preoccupied with bullying? Is it a necessary corrective to the way that life-diminishing incidents of bullying were ignored in the past, or a sign of excessive adult concern with normal childhood interaction? Indeed, what is ‘bullying’? Is it straightforward to distinguish everyday conflicts or disagreements from genuinely unacceptable bullying?