Bullying is a serious issue in New Zealand schools. The most recent available international comparative studies from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) make clear that we have one of the highest rates of bullying among Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) member countries. Experiencing bullying has a negative impact on student wellbeing and achievement at school and beyond. In recognition of this, the cross‑sector Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG) has published extensive guidelines and resources to support schools in their efforts to prevent and respond to bullying incidents. Additionally, schools implement a variety of programmes, from expansive whole‑school initiatives like the Ministry of Education’s Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) School‑Wide to more targeted, focused programmes on specific issues like cyberbullying.

ERO recognises the vision of a bullying‑free New Zealand is aspirational, and no approach is likely to be 100 percent effective. Therefore, in this evaluation we looked at the extent to which schools were effectively working towards an environment in which students feel safe and free from bullying. A companion report to this one, Bullying Prevention and Response: Student Voice focuses on ERO’s survey of students on their experience and understandings of bullying and effective bullying prevention and response.

ERO made judgments on the extent to which schools were implementing the kinds of policies and processes the Bullying Free NZ School Framework suggests support the effective prevention of, and response to, bullying. Of the secondary and composite schools ERO visited, around one‑third were working towards a bullying‑free environment to a great extent, a half were to some extent, and one in five to a limited extent. For primary schools, the picture was slightly better, with nearly two in five working to a great extent, just under 44 percent to some extent, and one in six to a limited extent.

While there were some challenges and weaknesses evident, particularly around schools’ internal evaluation and engagement with whānau, these findings suggest most schools have some degree of strength across most of the domains of the Bullying Free NZ School Framework. Despite this, bullying rates remain high. In ERO’s survey of students undertaken for this evaluation, 46 percent of primary‑age students and 31 percent of secondary‑age students reported having been bullied at their current school. 61 percent of primary‑age students and 58 percent of secondary‑age students reported having witnessed someone else being bullied at their current school. These findings align substantially with those of the international comparative studies mentioned above, and other New Zealand research from The University of Auckland’s Adolescent Health Research Group,  and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. The next iterations of TIMSS and PISA will provide further opportunities to benchmark New Zealand’s bullying rates against those of other OECD countries.

The persistently high rates of bullying suggest that, while consistency and coherence in schools’ approaches to bullying prevention and wellbeing are important, there is no silver bullet for bullying prevention. It is possible the elements of the Bullying Free NZ Framework where performance is weaker (use of data, support for student agency) are crucially important to successful prevention. It may also be that a focus on generic bullying prevention can only go so far, and further improvements can only come from more targeted actions focused on specific issues like racism and homophobia. Finally, many of the most salient drivers of bullying may be beyond schools’ direct control, related to parental attitudes, and broader societal issues.

ERO recommends school leaders use the Bullying Free NZ Framework and associated resources to:

  • make sure school staff and community have a shared understanding of what constitutes bullying behaviour, school policies are up to date, and bullying prevention and response processes are consistently evident in practice
  • strengthen data collection, analysis and evaluation of bullying prevention strategies, including the impact and effectiveness of any specific programmes implemented
  • provide opportunities for students to have input into the development of bullying prevention and response strategies, and empower student‑led initiatives and groups
  • involve parents and whānau more proactively in bullying prevention in addition to response.