Comment: Bullying should be considered a crime

By Anthony Smythe

Tackling bullying was highlighted as a priority in the coalition agreement in 2010. This commitment was quickly followed by revised anti-bullying guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) and a reformed Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) inspection framework, which aims to make schools accountable for the impact of their anti-bullying policies.

But bullying continues to cause long-term psychological damage to more and more children. Our own research found that 44% of suicides among 10 to 14 year-olds were explicitly linked to bullying. And with almost a half of pupils reporting that they have been picked on or bullied while at their current school, it’s clear that much more needs to be done if we want to see real change. The question is what do we do next?

Research from both Ofsted and DfE has concluded that bullying is evident across different settings in society and cannot be tackled in isolation by any one organisation or school. Even the best schools at tackling bullying experience tensions between the culture that they try to instil and maintain, and aspects of culture in the wider communities.

That is why we at BeatBullying (in partnership with The Sun’s Justice Campaigner Shy Keenan) are calling for a children’s anti-bullying bill, known as “Ayden’s Law”. The proposed bill will focus on the right of a child or young person to attend school, and live in a community free from bullying and harassment. It will increase community-based bullying prevention, and ensure that all sections of society – including government, local government, communities and schools have clear roles and responsibilities when it comes to tackling bullying.

Key reforms in the proposed bill include:

Providing better victim protection by making bullying and intimidation a criminal offence. 

Bullying is not a crime in the UK and the criminal justice system will currently only intervene when bullying behaviour escalates into serious forms of criminality such as harassment. We are calling for the introduction of a new offence which, on most occasions, will be sanctioned through the use of youth out of court disposals, such as cautions, apologies or compensation. In this way, bullying behaviour can be addressed at a much earlier stage and the escalation into serious criminality prevented. This means that only the most serious or repeat offenders would be referred to court for prosecution. Moreover, early intervention will mean victims no longer have to wait until they are at serious risk before the criminal justice system protects them from this harm.

Ensuring all social workers receive approved anti-bullying training.

Under the Children Act 1989, a bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection concern when there is ‘reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm’. Yet many social workers do not receive any training to assess and act on these referrals. Approved mandatory training will address this and also help social workers obtain the skills and confidence needed to help perpetrators address their behaviour.

Introducing a compulsory family intervention programme.

Parents play a vital role in addressing bullying. Yet for too long some parents have failed to support schools in addressing their child’s bullying behaviour, and this must be addressed if we are to make progress. This measure will make sure that all parents get support and guidance in order for them to act.

Introducing a statutory children and young people's annual anti-bullying strategy for the UK.

For too long government strategies to tackle bullying have focused on a single sector or issue. At times, this has prevented schools, organisations and agencies from working together. Bullying will only be addressed when there is a coordinated approach across all government departments. That is why we are asking for the prime minister to introduce a new statutory anti-bullying strategy for children, on which he will have to report progress to parliament each year. The strategy will set out:

1. Clear roles and responsibilities for government, local government, communities and schools.

2. Fully-costed measures that enable schools, local authorities and the voluntary and community sector. To take forward agreed actions.

3. Indicators to measure improvement.

Bullying poses one of the greatest safeguarding risks to our children and we need respond now. That is why we have proposed these measures and are now calling on the prime minister to meet with us to discuss how this proposed bill can be introduced.

Anthony Smythe is a director at BeatBullying, responsible for leading its bullying prevention work and campaigning to make bullying unacceptable. Prior to joining BeatBullying, Smythe was a senior policy advisor at the Department for Education. Please show your support by signing the petition for a children’s anti-bullying bill at Visit: or follow: @AydensLaw on Twitter. 

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.