Editorial: Our shameful bullying statistics

New Zealand children are more aware of bullying than ever but the prevalence of it remains unacceptably high.
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New Zealand children are more aware of bullying than ever but the prevalence of it remains unacceptably high.

OPINION: New Zealand loves to hear about the times when it, to use a terrible newsroom cliche, punches above its weight on the world stage. This week we learned that we are also world leaders at schoolyard bullying. We are bullying above our weight on the world stage.

Only plucky Latvia outbullies us, according to an OECD report which is part of a Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey. Pisa is better known for its regular lists of the best-performing academic nations. It turns out that Pisa also measures student wellbeing. And as the Ministry of Education has said, there is a connection between bullying and academic achievement. Both the victims and perpetrators of bullying are likely to have adverse outcomes. 

How bad is the problem? Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft called it "utterly unacceptable and deeply disturbing". More than a quarter (26 per cent) of New Zealand students said they had experienced at least one of six defined bullying behaviours a few times a month or more over the previous year. The OECD average is 19 per cent, but other countries reporting similar levels to us are Singapore (25 per cent), Australia (24 per cent), the UK (24 per cent) and Canada (20 per cent). The Netherlands was lowest at 9 per cent. 

It turns out that physical violence is a less common form of bullying than what might be considered psychological or emotional violence. "Other students made fun of me", "Other students left me out of things on purpose" and "other students spread nasty rumours about me" were the kinds of bullying reported most frequently. Threats, being hit or pushed, or having property destroyed, were less common. And while boys are bullied more, girls at secondary level are more likely to be targets of rumours and the sharing of "embarrassing information".

Unsurprisingly, bullying also has negative impacts on socialising and a student's sense of belonging at school. Almost half (48 per cent) of bullied students felt like an outsider compared to just 16 per cent of other students. They also developed lower expectations and were less likely to remain in education, although older students do often develop resilience, especially those with reliable parental support.

The Pisa report goes on to show that incidents of bullying can reverberate throughout other parts of a student's educational life, including schoolwork. Students who are bullied are more likely to feel anxious before a test, even if they have prepared for it. Average achievement in science was also measured by Pisa and again, bullied students seemed to perform worse until socio-economic factors were considered.

There are complicated and depressing connections between bullying and disadvantage. Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of advantaged students are bullied but nearly a third (30 per cent) of disadvantaged students are affected. Those numbers need further examination as does an even more striking detail. New Zealand is unusual in the OECD for strong links between perceptions of unfair and inconsistent behaviour by teachers and bullying by students. Students who feel humiliated by teachers will take it out on their more vulnerable peers, suggesting a wider culture or ecosystem of unfairness.

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 - Stuff

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