What is my legal position?

Legally, bullying between children and young people is still seen as a “school” problem in England and Wales. Schools and Pupil Referral Units are the only organisations working with children that have to have an anti-bullying policy by law. It’s the head teacher’s responsibility to make sure that the policy is in place and that any report or incident of bullying is taken seriously and action taken to stop it and prevent further incidents. Youth groups and other organisations working with children and young people don’t have a legal obligation to have a policy.

Even schools only have a legal duty to deal with bullying that happens on school premises or in the area immediately surrounding the school. In theory, this is reasonable – school staff can’t supervise pupils at all times between school and home and when they are out in the community for obvious practical reasons. But many schools are guilty of not taking the problem of bullying that their pupils experience beyond the school gates seriously enough.

In November 2003, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) published its anti-bullying Charter, which goes some way towards ensuring that schools take a proactive approach to bullying which involves the whole school community. The Charter suggests that schools work with the wider community to deal with bullying that occurs outside school.

The Charter is not legally binding, but it is intended to represent a public pledge on the part of schools to tackle bullying effectively. All schools in England and Wales have received a copy of the Charter for signature by a pupil representative, the Chair of the Board of Governors and the head teacher and have been asked to send a signed copy to the DfES and the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

In addition, Ofsted (who already inspect schools on the incidence and handling of bullying) will be checking to see how well schools meet their commitments to tackle bullying under the Charter and whether they have responded to the recommendations that it makes. You can see a copy of the Charter on the internet by logging onto dfes.gov.uk/bullying.

Pupils who are being bullied outside school will be affected by the bullying in all areas of their life including at school, which makes it a school problem, regardless of the legal position. They will also be affected at youth clubs, at home and in every area of their life. Young people who are being bullied are often very distressed by the experience, even if they hide their distress or express it in unexpected ways (see the section How do I know if my child is being bullied?), and it is up to any responsible adult – teachers, youth workers and parents and carers alike – to respond to that distress and to help the young person stop the bullying and deal with how it has made them feel.

For this reason, schools and Pupil Referral Units should take it upon themselves to do more than they have to do under the law and link up with other organisations to take steps to tackle bullying experienced by their pupils in the local community as well as in school. And all youth clubs and other organisations working with children and young people should make sure that they have anti-bullying policies and schemes in place that are regularly monitored, as a matter of good practice.

The only way that schools, Pupil Referral Units, youth clubs and other groups and organisations working with children and young people in a local area can fulfil their duty of care with regard to bullying prevention (not to mention other issues affecting children’s welfare), is by having complementary anti-bullying policies and schemes and by communicating with each other.  It is also essential that these organisations talk to children and young people and parents and carers about bullying.

If you and/or your child are unhappy about the way that bullying is handled at your child’s school, PRU, youth club, etc, it is really important that you bring it up. If your concerns are about a particular incident involving your child you should discuss the incident with your child first and try to get their agreement to contact the organisation. Young people often have huge anxieties about their parents or carers making any contact with school staff, particularly if it involves making any sort of complaint and even more so where it concerns bullying. If you go behind your child’s back or against his/her wishes, you run the risk of losing your child’s trust and making him/her feel worse.

Most organisations working with children and young people are strongly committed to tackling bullying, and if you have concerns or criticisms about the way that they deal with this problem they want to hear them so that they can do better in future. It is a good idea to start by raising any concerns you may have with the member of staff who has most direct contact with your child (e.g. a form teacher). If this does not result in a satisfactory response, or if the organisation claims that it doing as much as it has to under the law, it is worth bringing up the fact that Ofsted are now auditing schools’ handling of bullying with reference to the DfES Charter; and the duties that all responsible adults have towards children and young people in their care under existing Child Protection and Human Rights laws.

Is bullying actually against the law?

Some types of bullying behaviour are very definitely against the law. Police will take them very seriously and offenders can be prosecuted. For example:

  • Theft of or damage to valuables (e.g. jewellery, personal stereos, mobile phones, designer clothing).
  • Serious physical or sexual assault.
  • Malicious or threatening phone calls, emails or text messages.
  • Harassment and defamation online.

If a child in your care or one of their friends is experiencing bullying of this kind, you should help them to keep the evidence (e.g. photographs of damaged property and injuries; copies of malicious emails or text/phone messages, along with the date and time they were received and the email address or phone number that they were sent from); and you should encourage and support them in reporting the incident to the police.

If a child or young person has been seriously physically assaulted or sexually assaulted, you should contact the police right away. Again, you should try to get the child’s agreement to do this. You want to support them, not work against them.

If you suspect or know that a child in your care is bullying other children and young people, you should let them know that bullying can be against the law and that the police may get involved and prosecute certain types of bullying behaviour because it has such a bad effect on the young people who are bullied.



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