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School environments can exacerbate trauma of bullying

Published: 10 January 2020 at 13:13

An anxious school pupil

Research finds class sizes and lack of support can be factors in self-exclusion

A variety of factors, including large class sizes, intimidating school environments, and time pressures on teachers are factors in children self-excluding from school, according to new research by Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

Interviews with secondary school children who have self-excluded from mainstream education found they did not get the support they needed, and found that school environments exacerbated the anxiety and trauma caused by bullying.

Researchers spoke to focus groups of young people attending Red Balloon Learner Centres – a charity that provides educational and therapeutic support to those who self-exclude because of severe bullying or other trauma.

The participants, who attend the charity’s centres across the East of England, told researchers it was a build-up of many factors that led to their gradual withdrawal from school life and consequently their self-exclusion from school.

Anxiety underpinned self-exclusion due to bullying, with young people saying they had felt anxious about issues like perceptions of their friends, the overall support structures in schools, and the size and number of pupils in schools.

One female participant said:

“It was just too much, because obviously you get big classes, and you get kids doing stuff with kids and teachers not listening, or just making you feel like you don’t want to go to a big school.”


Another said:

“Some schools, they’re nurturing, but mine they had ten-foot fences with police on site all the time.”


Some suggestions arising from the research included ensuring teachers are looking out for pupils withdrawing emotionally or showing changes in behaviour; promoting more awareness of the consequences of bullying among and between students; and providing supervised ‘quiet spaces’ in schools where bullied pupils can go to gather their thoughts.

Red Balloon's Centres are deliberately designed to be supportive learning environments, as Chief Executive Lena Milosevic explained:

“The children we support find school too intimidating and traumatic, so our Learner Centres feel more like family homes, creating an environment in which they can start to heal, re-engage with studying and learn how to socialise with their peers again; all at a pace which suits their individual needs”.


The research was published in the report entitled ‘Working with young people to understand bullying and self-exclusion from school’.

Around 93,000 11-15-year-olds are without school provision in England, citing bullying as the primary or secondary reason for their self-exclusion.

Lead author Dr Niamh O’Brien, of ARU, said:

“Non-attendance is a hidden phenomenon in the UK but it can result in social isolation, poor educational development and subsequently fewer opportunities later in life. It is a problem that needs to be addressed. 

“Unfortunately, many young people find that when they are being bullied, the school environment does not provide them with the support they need. Many told us they felt teachers were too busy to help, or that they were overwhelmed by the size of classes and scale of the institutions themselves. Many felt trapped and felt there was ‘nowhere to hide’.”