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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and on his excellent speech, to which I have listened intently. Does he agree that it would be in the industry's interest to address the problem urgently? It need not cost the Government anything and the cost to the industry would be minimal, but the gains—in improving the acceptability of mobile phone use in and around schools—would be immense.

Mr. Bailey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he makes the very point that I am about to develop.

I suspect that the airtime providers are more concerned about potential attempts to restrict the use of phones than they are about trying to come up with a solution to the problem, even though that could expand the use of phones in schools.

I fear that at some point there will be an event that will generate public demand for regulation. Already at least one speech has been made in the EU pressing for a directive on the issue. Regulation need not take place if the industry and the Government get together to experiment with a pilot project. It may be possible to develop a model that could be used by schools to achieve the twin objectives of curbing bullying and enhancing education.

Figures demonstrate that a pilot scheme for a year in a controlled area, with six secondary schools and their feeder primary schools, would cost about £1.5 million. I realise that that would be too much money for a local education authority, and I am sure that the Government have not factored it into their education budget, but for the industry as a whole it would be peanuts, and much less than future regulation might cost.
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The industry should not perceive such a scheme as a possible risk to its income. If a model could be developed for use in schools, with interactive lessons and a range of activities involving the use of mobile phones, it is likely that overall income would increase. Such a model pioneered and developed in this country could be exportable and commercially successful. The airtime providers need to think outside their current commercial box and work with the Government to develop such a scheme. Will the Government talk to the providers and others in the field of child protection about developing a model that could be piloted as a matter of urgency?

The industry will not move unless it has to. It is up to us, as a Government, to see that it does.

11.27 pm

The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) on securing the debate and thank him for raising an issue of such importance to children and young people and for the management of our schools. Even before this debate, he showed a keen interest in the issue. He has tabled parliamentary questions and last summer held a meeting with me.

We should be in no doubt that bullying has no place at all in our schools. It is an extremely hurtful and frightening experience for children and young people, making them feel trapped and scared to speak out. The lasting negative impact on their self-esteem, education and development must not be underestimated, as we know to tragic effect; on occasions, it has even been a factor in young people taking their own lives.

Bullying can take many forms, from ridicule to physical attacks, threats and social exclusion, but consistently at its core is the abuse of power to frighten and intimidate. Bullying limits a child's potential and prevents us from delivering our objective that every child matters. We need to ensure that our broader education systems deliver the outcomes of staying safe, enjoying and achieving.

Bullying should never be tolerated in our schools, no matter what its motivation, no matter how it occurs. Children have to know what is right and wrong, and must understand that there are consequences for crossing the line. That is why we have been clear, especially since 1997, in our approach to bullying. We have made it compulsory for schools to have policies to prevent and tackle bullying. Schools should be prepared to punish bullying, and need to have in place a range of sanctions to tackle all forms of poor behaviour, alongside strategies to help children understand the harm they have caused and to change their behaviour.

We have given an unprecedented profile to anti-bullying work in schools. We have stepped up our campaign to get every school in the country to consider how they respond to bullying and to sign up to our anti-bullying charter for action, thus reinforcing our expectation in the White Paper that every school in England will adopt it. We reissued the charter to all schools during last year's anti-bullying week, and if schools do not sign up, Ministers—and I suspect, even more importantly, parents and pupils—will want to
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know why those schools are not taking the necessary action to demonstrate their opposition to bullying and to tackle it.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) on raising what is a very important issue. I am becoming increasingly concerned about bullying in Wellingborough, but does the Minister agree that the schools are doing very well—I congratulate the Government on what they are doing—but that a lot of bullying goes on outside the school gates?

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman is right. Of course, it is important that action is taken to tackle the bullying that takes place in schools and, as I shall say later, to develop the sort of skills and attitudes in young people that are likely to tackle the bullying that takes place not only in schools, but beyond the school gates. Sometimes, it is necessary for schools to take extremely tough action against those who perpetrate bullying. That is why we have given schools the power, for example, to apply for court-imposed parenting orders to compel the parents of children who bully seriously to attend parenting classes or face fines of up to £1,000. Head teachers have the power permanently to exclude violent and persistently disruptive pupils, including those who bully, and we have made it clear that we would not normally expect an exclusions appeal panel to reinstate them in those circumstances.

We have developed a range of ways in which we can support anti-bullying activity in schools, including dedicated support under our national strategies, which have dedicated consultants in behaviour and attendance, and there is the work of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which we support. We have put more adults than ever into our schools to help children inside and outside the classroom. They include teachers, classroom assistants, learning mentors, Connexions personal advisers, behaviour and education support teams, even police officers, all of whom are available to help tackle bullying.

We have provided more than £600,000 in funding to the Anti-Bullying Alliance to enable that organisation of more than 65 leading anti-bullying charities and experts to provide schools and local authorities with expert help to tackle bullying. But of course, other children are often in the best position to tackle bullying, by supporting and standing by their friends. Last year, more than 1 million children signed up to our beat bullying campaign and wore a blue wristband to make a visible commitment to show that they are not prepared to tolerate bullying and that they will stand by their friends.

We have provided funding of £600,000 over the past three years to the ChildLine in partnership with schools programme, which works directly with schools to encourage and train young people to establish their own projects to help each other in schools—for example, with anti-bullying and peer-support schemes. In 2004–05, those involved visited 636 schools, working with more than 45,000 children and young people. However, I know from our meeting and the points that my hon. Friend has made tonight that one of his key concerns is the misuse of mobile phones for bullying.
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Of course, mobile phones can be put to positive use, but I shall focus to begin with on the misuse of mobile phones for bullying, which can be particularly unpleasant for those children and young people involved. There is often no let up in the abuse. Nowhere is safe if people are contactable at all hours by mobile phone. As my hon. Friend said, a very large majority of secondary school pupils now own a mobile phone. It is thus possible that the trend will develop and affect more of our children and young people. As my hon. Friend identified, an NCH survey in April 2005 found that 14 per cent. of 11 to 19-year-olds had experienced bullying by text message. I especially share his concern about the recent trend in happy slapping, which is when camera phones are used to record and transmit images of bullying, assault and other violence. Such activities often happen outside school, but nevertheless the images are shared and used to cause disruption in school.

The issues regarding the use of mobile phones in schools can be an especially difficult challenge for schools and their leaders to address. That was why after my hon. Friend raised the matter with me, I specifically asked the practitioners group on behaviour to examine it. The group, which was chaired by Sir Alan Steer of Seven Kings high school in Ilford, was composed of heads and teachers with a particular interest and experience in managing pupil behaviour. As my hon. Friend said, the group recognised that mobile phones are now a part of daily life. However, it also noted specific worries about the negative impact that mobile phones can have on school discipline and behaviour.

As my hon. Friend said, some schools have already banned mobile phones from their premises and that has been effective for a number of them. Other schools are reluctant to go down that route and, indeed, leaders argue that it would not be appropriate for some schools. Many schools have adopted the compromise of insisting that children keep their phones switched off and in their bags during lessons.

As my hon. Friend said, the practitioners group sensibly concluded that all schools need to consider the matter carefully and should be required to have a clear policy on the possession and use of mobile phones on the school site. I plan to discuss that recommendation with key partner organisations at the next meeting of the ministerial stakeholders group on behaviour and attendance, which I chair and which includes representatives from the main teachers' professional associations, Ofsted, local authorities and parent-governor groups.

My hon. Friend was also right to draw attention to the contribution that mobile phone companies can make to tackling the problem. I am pleased to report that the major mobile phone networks have been proactive in addressing some of the wider child protection issues around new mobile phone technology. They have become an active part of the Home Secretary's taskforce on child protection on the internet and recently developed a code of practice for the self-regulation of new forms of content to alleviate some of the concerns and dangers presented by developments in mobile phone technology. They have also been willing to take forward specific projects. For example, over the
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past year, Vodafone has been working with the National Family and Parenting Institute to provide information for parents on mobile phones and how to support their children if they are being bullied in such a way. I have no doubt that the industry will have listened carefully, as I did, to what my hon. Friend said about the possibility of looking for positive ways forward both to tackle the misuse of mobile phones and to consider where and how they might have a positive contribution to make in our schools.

There are several specific ideas for restricting the use of mobile phones in schools, although as I think that my hon. Friend realises, none of them offers a clear-cut answer. He referred to the device of cell blocking, which restricts the use of mobile phones in a specific area. While the technology prevents the circulation of photos that are taken by mobile phones in the school, it does not prevent photos of such incidents from being taken in the first place, especially if the incidents happen outside schools. Additionally, it does not prevent images from being circulated outside schools. When we examine the contribution that cell blocking can make, we must consider the use of phones by staff. In some schools, mobile phones are used to allow staff to communicate with one another—for example, to respond to discipline problems. Staff access to their own phones would therefore be affected if we blocked the use of mobile phones in schools. It is possible that blocking technologies could interfere with other wireless communication systems in schools.

I strongly believe that while mobile phone companies and school leaders should consider the positive and the negative aspects of the use of mobile phones in schools, the underlying problem of bullying and mobile phones does not stem from the rapidly changing technology. It provides the wherewithal for bullying, but we must address the underlying causes and take firm action if we are to provide a solution to bullying, whether perpetrated by mobile phone or in any other way. Children and young people who bully lack empathy with others and do not understand the impact of their actions. The social and emotional aspects of learning—SEAL—curriculum, which is available to all primary schools, is designed to enable children to develop those skills. A similar approach is now being piloted in secondary schools. As well as its general application to reducing bullying, the SEAL resource has a "Say no to bullying" theme, with ideas for explicit work to reduce bullying. Ofsted has already acknowledged the power of those resources to nip bad behaviour such as bullying in the bud.

Pupils need not only to understand the impact of their behaviour but the way in which harm can be multiplied if abuse and bullying is recorded and circulated. They need to know that using telecommunications equipment for a crime, whether to circulate pictures of an assault or an abusive text message, is a crime itself for which they could be charged. That approach was successfully adopted by a secondary school in south London that briefed all its pupils about the issue, and it has reduced the problem significantly.

In conclusion, I commend my hon. Friend on raising this important issue in the House and on recognising both the abuse of mobile phone technology and its
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benefits. School leaders are beginning to take the issue seriously and, through the ministerial steering group, I will look at what more we can do to support their consideration of the problem. The Government, teachers, governors and fellow pupils need to recognise that while even one child continues to suffer the pain and
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indignity of being bullied work remains work to be done, which is why we will continue to put in place hard-hitting measures which tackle bullying in our schools, however it is perpetrated.

Question put and agreed to.

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