Skip to content

Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Informal education, school bullying and ‘public executions’: Young people’s experiences of the hierarchical nature of relationships in school

Ben Lohmeyer, Lecturer at Flinders University of South Australia

The reference to ‘public executions’ in the title of this blog post is a quote from a research participant who was describing his experience of what happens when someone is caught bullying in school. From their perspective, the strategy to prevent bullying is severe punishment and surveillance as a deterrent. This approach, hopefully, feels at odds with the contemporary image of schools and methods for creating safe learning spaces.

Yet, this description was not of a mainstream classroom but rather of an alternative educational space in South Australia (DfE, 2023) designed to offer more support for marginalised students. In this programme, teachers and youth workers work in partnership to create a more flexible learning environment. Perhaps this experience is a result of individual poor practice or could be justified as an outlier. However, for this project, I decided to take the young person at their word and draw inspiration from social theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu to investigate the social and systemic origins of violence and bullying in schools. In doing so, I wanted to consider the implications for youth workers and informal educators working in school systems and how these systems might work in opposition to their professional goals.

This project raised two questions:

  1. To what extent does the context of schools co-opt youth work practice into a dysfunctional authoritarian system?
  2. How might youth work practice (personal and structural) in schools be improved by a second paradigm understanding of bullying?

The sociology of education has a history of exploring how schools are imbued with hierarchical spaces and disciplinary relationships between students and teachers, as well as teachers and management (Fielding, 2000). This authoritarian context of schools has been described as preparing young people to accept ‘inequalities embedded in larger social structures’ (Pascoe, 2013, p. 95). Adults (teachers and youth workers) working in schools can become entangled in the ‘hierarchical, power-dominant management structure’ (Yoneyama & Naito, 2003, p. 318).

‘The “second paradigm” of school bullying provides a lens to examine bullying within the authoritarian context of schools and reconceptualise bullying as “institutionalised violence”.’

The ‘second paradigm’ (Schott & Søndergaard, 2014) of school bullying provides a lens to examine bullying within the authoritarian context of schools (Yoneyama & Naito, 2003) and reconceptualise bullying as ‘institutionalised violence’ (Yoneyama, 2015). Furthermore, spatiotemporal analysis of school bullying reveals new complexities within the production of ‘tyrannical spaces’ (Percy-Smith & Matthews, 2001) in schools both under and outside the adult gaze (Lohmeyer, 2022). Presenting at the BERA annual conference 2023 provided a forum to discuss with colleagues in the Youth Studies and Informal Education special interest group (SIG) opportunities for informal educators to resist becoming institutional representatives for the keeping of order, and to develop bullying interventions underpinned by principles of equality and democratic engagement (Jeffs & Smith, 2005). Together, drawing on the insights of the second paradigm and by listening deeply to young people, informal educators and youth workers can employ youth-centred sociological insights into the hierarchical nature of relationships in schools.

Presenting in the Youth Studies and Informal Education SIG was a unique opportunity to discuss and connect with scholars invested in tackling the uncomfortable side of educational institutions and the sometimes messy and professionally challenging experience of working in them. This kind of research isn’t about blaming individuals or even professions for poor practice but about examining the systems we (un)consciously create, then thinking about the implications for practice and young people, and seeking opportunities for change. More research is needed to support youth-centred and codesigned solutions to school bullying. When asked about the way forward for bullying, I usually respond with this question: Can we imagine what schools might look like if student wellbeing was an equal (or higher) priority with the curriculum?

Ben Lohmeyer received the BERA Annual Conference 2023 – Youth Studies and Informal Education SIG Best Presentation Award for the paper ‘Informal Education, school bullying and ‘public executions’: young people’s experiences of the hierarchical nature of relationships in school’.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2023). Flexibel learning options (FLO). Government of South Australia.

Fielding, S. (2000) Walk on the left! Children’s geographies and the primary school’. In S. Holloway and G. Valentine (Eds.), Children’s Geographies: Playing, living, learning (pp. 230–244). Routledge.

Jeffs, T. & Smith, M. K (2005). Informal education: Conversation, democracy and learning. Educational Heretics Press.

Lohmeyer, B. A. (2022). The institutionalised momentum of slow violence: Spatiotemporal contradictions in young people’s accounts of school bullying. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 44(2), 259–275.

Pascoe, C. J. (2013). Notes on a sociology of bullying: Young men’s homophobia as gender socialization. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, 0(1), 87–104.

Percy-Smith, B., & Matthews, H. (2001). Tyrannical spaces: Young people, bullying and urban neighbourhoods. Local Environment, 6(1), 49–63.

Schott R. M., & Søndergaard, D. M. (2014). School bullying: New theories in context. Cambridge University Press.

Yoneyama, S. (2015). Theorizing school bullying: Insights from Japan. Confero: Essays on Education, Philosophy and Politics, 3(2): 120–160.

Yoneyama, S. & Naito, A. (2003). Problems with the paradigm: The school as a factor in understanding bullying (with special reference to Japan). British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24(3), 315–330.