BULLYING in Australian primary schools is in the worst category in the world, a new study of education standards has found.
In the Trends In International Mathematics And Science Study, which surveyed schools in about 40 countries, more than a quarter of Australian year 4 students said they had suffered bullying.
The results have alarmed child-health experts and education bodies, which have been running strict anti-bullying programs in schools over the past six years.
Australian primary school students suffer bullying at a rate of almost 50 per cent above the international average, putting Australia in the worst category for bullying. Of the 36 countries sampled in the survey of year 4 students, only Kuwait, Qatar, Taiwan and New Zealand fared worse than Australia.
The research, which showed Australia lagging behind its neighbours and even Kazakhstan in maths and science education, found more than a quarter of Australian year 4 students had been bullied in at least three ways in the month before they were tested.
The study was produced by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Students were asked whether they had experienced any of five antisocial behaviours in the past month: whether something of theirs had been stolen, whether they had been hurt by other students, whether they had been made to do things against their will, whether they had been teased and whether they had been excluded by others.
In Australia, where almost 460 schools took part in the study, 26percent of year 4 students had encountered at least three of the behaviours in the month in question.
Internationally, 42 per cent of primary students said they had experienced none of the behaviours. In Australia it was less than 33 per cent.
NSW Education Minister Verity Firth would not say whether she was surprised by the figures but said she had strengthened principals' powers to deal with bullying, increasing suspension periods to 20 days.
"NSW schools are safe places and bullying and stealing are not tolerated," a spokesman for the minister said.
"Every school is required to have an anti-bullying plan. As part of the new annual school reports, principals must now also detail for parents the actions they are taking to stamp out this intolerable behaviour."
The results alarmed the president of the Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations of NSW, Dianne Giblin, who called for strengthening of anti-bullying policies. "Those figures are of huge concern," she said.
"We have some very strong anti-bullying policies in place but schools need to ensure they implement these programs. They need to be reminded of them. The policy needs to be reiterated to students."
NSW Teachers Federation acting president Bob Lipscombe said anti-bullying policies in schools were working.
"There is a great deal of evidence to show that anti-bullying programs are effective," he said.
However, Stacey Waters, a research fellow at the Child Health Promotion Research Centre at Edith Cowan University in Perth, said there had been no significant change in the prevalence of bullying in Australia. It was the type of bullying that had changed.
"Eighty-three per cent of kids who are face-to-face bullied are also cyber bullied," she said.