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NIHR Signal Whole-school programme can have a small effect on reducing bullying in secondary schools

Published on 5 February 2020

doi: 10.3310/signal-000873

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.

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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.

Bibliography

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.

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.

Bibliography

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.

Modifying the secondary school environment to reduce bullying and aggression: the INCLUSIVE cluster RCT

Published on 4 November 2019

Bonell C, Allen E, Warren E, McGowan J, Bevilacqua L, Jamal F et al.

Public Health Research Volume 7 Issue 18 , 2019

Background Bullying, aggression and violence among children and young people are some of the most consequential public mental health problems. Objectives The INCLUSIVE (initiating change locally in bullying and aggression through the school environment) trial evaluated the Learning Together intervention, which involved students in efforts to modify their school environment using restorative approaches and to develop social and emotional skills. We hypothesised that in schools receiving Learning Together there would be lower rates of self-reported bullying and perpetration of aggression and improved student biopsychosocial health at follow-up than in control schools. Design INCLUSIVE was a cluster randomised trial with integral economic and process evaluations. Setting Forty secondary schools in south-east England took part. Schools were randomly assigned to implement the Learning Together intervention over 3 years or to continue standard practice (controls). Participants A total of 6667 (93.6%) students participated at baseline and 5960 (83.3%) students participated at final follow-up. No schools withdrew from the study. Intervention Schools were provided with (1) a social and emotional curriculum, (2) all-staff training in restorative approaches, (3) an external facilitator to help convene an action group to revise rules and policies and to oversee intervention delivery and (4) information on local needs to inform decisions. Main outcome measures Self-reported experience of bullying victimisation (Gatehouse Bullying Scale) and perpetration of aggression (Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime school misbehaviour subscale) measured at 36 months. Intention-to-treat analysis using longitudinal mixed-effects models. Results Primary outcomes – Gatehouse Bullying Scale scores were significantly lower among intervention schools than among control schools at 36 months (adjusted mean difference –0.03, 95% confidence interval –0.06 to 0.00). There was no evidence of a difference in Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime scores. Secondary outcomes – students in intervention schools had higher quality of life (adjusted mean difference 1.44, 95% confidence interval 0.07 to 2.17) and psychological well-being scores (adjusted mean difference 0.33, 95% confidence interval 0.00 to 0.66), lower psychological total difficulties (Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire) score (adjusted mean difference –0.54, 95% confidence interval –0.83 to –0.25), and lower odds of having smoked (odds ratio 0.58, 95% confidence interval 0.43 to 0.80), drunk alcohol (odds ratio 0.72, 95% confidence interval 0.56 to 0.92), been offered or tried illicit drugs (odds ratio 0.51, 95% confidence interval 0.36 to 0.73) and been in contact with police in the previous 12 months (odds ratio 0.74, 95% confidence interval 0.56 to 0.97). The total numbers of reported serious adverse events were similar in each arm. There were no changes for staff outcomes. Process evaluation – fidelity was variable, with a reduction in year 3. Over half of the staff were aware that the school was taking steps to reduce bullying and aggression. Economic evaluation – mean (standard deviation) total education sector-related costs were £116 (£47) per pupil in the control arm compared with £163 (£69) in the intervention arm over the first two facilitated years, and £63 (£33) and £74 (£37) per pupil, respectively, in the final, unfacilitated, year. Overall, the intervention was associated with higher costs, but the mean gain in students’ health-related quality of life was slightly higher in the intervention arm. The incremental cost per quality-adjusted life year was £13,284 (95% confidence interval –£32,175 to £58,743) and £1875 (95% confidence interval –£12,945 to £16,695) at 2 and 3 years, respectively. Limitations Our trial was carried out in urban and periurban settings in the counties around London. The large number of secondary outcomes investigated necessitated multiple statistical testing. Fidelity of implementation of Learning Together was variable. Conclusions Learning Together is effective across a very broad range of key public health targets for adolescents. Future work Further studies are required to assess refined versions of this intervention in other settings.

GBS is a well-established tool used to measure the occurrence of bullying victimisation in schools. It focuses on different forms of abuse, including face-to-face and online incidents.

ESYTC is the school misbehaviour subscale used to assess broader forms of violence and misbehaviour at school.

Expert commentary

This is a very well-designed and executed study, which adds to international literature showing that whole-school-based interventions can significantly reduce levels of victimisation.

Noteworthy are the linked evaluation of restorative approaches and the thorough economic analyses that make the case for the benefits being worthwhile, weighed against the costs of intervention.

It is interesting that impact was greater for pupils high on bullying scores. This is a different finding from the KiVa project in Finland, which had the most impact on pupils with moderate to low bullying scores. Continuing fidelity to the program is a challenge, as in similar projects.

Peter K Smith, Emeritus Professor, Unit for School and Family Studies, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

The commentator declares no conflicting interests