Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO
Their names are Monica, Yamin, Jimmy, and Colette, just four of the millions of students across the world affected by bullying in school. In Zambia, Monica is bullied by her classmates for being pregnant, while in China, Yamin is bullied because she is seen to act like a boy. At a school in Mexico, Jimmy sees a boy bullied simply for being poor, and in France, some students tell Colette she is ugly so many times that eventually, she believes it.
Bullying affects students of all ages, in all countries and regions across the world. On the first International day against violence and bullying at school this 5 November, it’s high time to raise awareness on the extent of this scourge and how to tackle it. In recent research from UNESCO almost one in three students reported being bullied in the past month, making it the most prevalent form of violence in schools. One in ten students has been cyberbullied, and in the context of COVID-19, with many young people across the world spending increasing time online, it is expected that cyberbullying is on the rise.
Bullying, especially if left unaddressed, can have a devastating effect on learners. It can be a barrier to their learning and have serious consequences for their mental health.
Students who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like an outsider at school and more than twice as likely to miss school as those who are not frequently bullied. They have worse educational outcomes and are more likely to leave formal education after finishing secondary school. They are twice as likely to feel lonely, to be unable to sleep at night and to have contemplated suicide.
It’s high time people stop thinking that bullying at school is an inevitable rite of passage to adulthood, that it is relatively harmless, and that little can be done to stop it. There are ways in which schools can prevent and address bullying; ways to stop what happened to Monica, Yamin, Jimmy and Colette, happening to anyone else. Many school systems across the world have been able to reduce school violence over time. They do this because they know that creating safe, supportive and friendly environments where students can learn and fulfil their potential, benefits everyone.
But what does an effective approach look like? The Scientific Committee for the International Conference on school bullying, have released a set of recommendations to effectively prevent and manage all forms of bullying in schools.
The Committee, consisting of experts in the prevention of school bullying from across the world, recommend a holistic whole-education approach, based on the best available evidence, and building on years of good practice from around the world. This starts with strong leadership and robust policy frameworks. It involves establishing a safe, positive physical and emotional school environment in which student wellbeing is prioritized and diversity is respected. Teachers benefit from professional learning opportunities, helping them to both implement measures to foster a safe learning environment and respond appropriately to bullying when it happens.
Schools can actively teach students respectful behaviours, as well as reporting and help-seeking skills through curriculum-based approaches. This includes explicitly teaching about safe and responsible use of digital technology. Whole-school approaches should also reach into the local community, involving parents, broader community members and establishing links between the school and professional services, in case of a need for referral.
The new UNESCO International Day against Violence and Bullying at School is a timely and necessary opportunity for us to come together with the common purpose of ensuring schools are free from fear and violence. Whether we are education practitioners implementing a whole-education approach, teachers and families providing education and support, bystanders intervening or victims speaking up, we all have a role to play.
No student should live in fear of going to school. Rather, schools can and should be a place where all learners are accepted, welcomed and supported by their peers and teachers. Only then will our students be able to reach their full potential.