Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 48-59)


10 MAY 2006

  Q48 Chairman: Can I welcome you, John D'Abbro and Deborah Duncan, to our proceedings. I know that you have heard some of the evidence we have just taken. We now want to drill down with the two of you, who have a particularly interesting professional experience of this problem. As with the last three witnesses, we gave them a chance for an introductory comment. We have your CV and your background, but is there anything you would like to say to start us off? Deborah, it is particularly nice to see someone from Yorkshire and who is not from Barnsley! John, it is very good to have you here too. Who would like to start? Deborah?

  Mrs Duncan: I will start. I think that you have seen my CV. I have been in post for just one year as a headteacher. Previously I was a deputy head in Bradford. So I am still getting a feel for the school; what policies they have; as you have just been talking about, what systems are in place; and having to make sure that the systems that are not in place are put right. In terms of bullying, in fact last week we had an anti-bullying week, where we reinforced all our policies with the students. So it is quite fresh in my mind and, when I answer your questions today, hopefully that will be reflected.

  Mr D'Abbro: In terms of the comments I can make, I cannot reflect on what happens in mainstream schools because I work in the segregated sector of special education; but in the particular field of special education where I work, which is with children with behaviour, emotional and social difficulties, we have a microcosm of society within there. I have to say from the beginning that I can only give you a perspective from special education, although I think it is germane to and has inroads into the mainstream schools as well.

  Q49  Chairman: Tell us a bit more about your special school. How did it come about? How big is it, and so on?

  Mr D'Abbro: It is a group known as the New Rush Hall Group and it consists of an all-age specialist school for children with behaviour, emotional and social difficulties; three pupil referral units; an adolescent psychiatric unit; a behaviour outreach support team; and we are currently in negotiation with our Children's Trust and LA, to pick up an early years provision. I am really, for want of a better word, an executive head. I still teach a bit. Although I am not sure the children would say that I teach very well, but I still do teach a little bit. I think that is important.

  Q50  Chairman: How many pupils?

  Mr D'Abbro: Right across the whole services, we work with about 400 children. Within the day school, that is funded for 72 children, all-age—so from as young as five up to 16.

  Q51  Chairman: And they all come from one local authority area?

  Mr D'Abbro: No. We are the London Borough of Redbridge, but we do take out-of-borough children.

  Q52  Chairman: The proportion of those, in and out?

  Mr D'Abbro: About 20%. There are issues there about other authorities referring children to that, taking up Redbridge places as it were. But I will not get into the politics of that today.

  Q53  Stephen Williams: How big was the problem in your particular school? Perhaps Deborah would be best placed to start off with this. I understand that you are new in post, but have you got the impression that bullying is a significant problem in your school?

  Mrs Duncan: I think that it is a problem in any school, and any head who denies that they have got bullying is deluding themselves. That is the first thing I would start with. Secondly, you have been talking about systems this morning and I have brought in a system called "positive discipline" this year, which has been working. As part of that, we record all bullying incidents. Before I came here today I got a print-off of all the bullying incidents that have happened in this last year. We have had 39 cases of recorded bullying since September and we have 1,055 children. What you might then say is that not all cases of bullying have been reported and recorded. These are all cases where we have actually punished the child as a result of someone being bullied; but often, as you know, there are cases of bullying where it is best just to discuss with the two parties; you talk it through with the children, and you do not actually punish them; so then it is not necessarily recorded. However, every time it is reported we are recording it on our system. Going back to the earlier discussion, I think that it would be good thing to have a formal requirement for schools to report the number of bullying incidents. We have to do it for racial incidents. I have a special form I have to fill in for racist ones, but not for homophobia or any other sorts of bullying. I do not see that that would be a burden on us particularly, because we are already doing it as a school.

  Q54  Stephen Williams: That was a remarkably candid response, particularly as the press are here and statistics on your bullying may well end up in your local paper.

  Mrs Duncan: I do not think that is a high number. I do not think that is a high number at all. What I do personally as the headteacher is, if there is an incident of bullying and it is not resolved . . . . If there is just one incident of bullying, often it can just be resolved by a punishment or a discussion. If it becomes a recurring incident, I always see the parents personally, because I take bullying very seriously. I am a parent and I think, "What would I feel like if it was happening to my child?". I always try to make myself think that, and then it makes you more sympathetic. So I always see the parents, and then we work out strategies how we are going to tackle it. Punishing it is not always the strategy, because it can make it worse.

  Q55  Stephen Williams: We heard in the earlier session that only 6% of schools have a specific acknowledgement or a policy to deal with homophobic bullying. Does your school? If it does, what is actually in that policy?

  Mrs Duncan: I have it here. When you were talking about homophobia, I did check and we do have the word "homophobia" in there. Racism, sexism, homophobia are given as examples of bullying. We review this bullying policy every year with the governors, and then we reintroduce it to the staff and children. For example, last week was our anti-bullying week. All the children when they come into school also get this booklet, which is called Blot it Out. It is our anti-bullying booklet, and they all get one in Year 7 when they come in. Then, once a year, we have a week when we focus on it for the week, just to remind them. This has activities which they do in their tutor periods, and in personal and social education, where they do little activities about role playing: "What if this happened? What would you do?". In it, it says very clearly across the front, "Horbury School is a telling school"—to encourage them to always tell. In terms of what I found when I got to Horbury, these policies were all in place. I just wanted to refresh all the students' and staff's memories about them. There is a danger that when the children come in Year 7 it is a big thing and you focus on it and then, as they move through to the older years, you do not discuss it any more; and then they are less likely to tell.

  Q56  Jeff Ennis: Continuing on the theme of keeping proper records, why is it do you think, Deborah, that many schools do not keep proper records at the present time? What is the reasoning behind it, do you think?

  Mrs Duncan: You could argue that it is because they do not have to do it mandatorily. Often, if you do not tell somebody to do something, require them to do something, they do not do it. Of course, schools are very busy places and we have all sorts of pressures on us to do a variety of other things. Just last term we had to fill in the self-evaluation form; we had to restructure the entire staffing of the school. It is just another thing to do. But if you already have proper systems in place, it is not a difficult thing to do. I think that they do not do it just because they are not required to do it.

  Q57  Jeff Ennis: It is not going to be a big step to require headteachers to do it, because there is already a procedure set down from the anti-racist issues.

  Mrs Duncan: It is good practice. If I were a parent going to look round a school and it was not doing that, then I would have questions to ask.

  Q58  Jeff Ennis: Do you think schools, and in particular senior management teams, ought to be more proactive in trying to detect incidents of bullying in school, rather than depending on the pupils to come forward to a particular teacher, to the headteacher, or whatever? Do we need to be more proactive?

  Mrs Duncan: You can be proactive in the sorts of things that you deliver, in the way that you educate children how to deal with it. Often, for me, when a child is being bullied, sometimes they are being bullied because of some of the actions they are taking. I have one child in particular in my school who very much tells tales on other children very openly, in front of them; so then she gets bullied. We have been working with her. I have a behaviour mentor who works for me, who is not a teacher; who is there, available, all day. Children tend to go to her, and she teaches them strategies how to avoid being bullied. That is a really obvious one, but sometimes you can teach children how to avoid that sort of thing. So she does work with them. When we know that somebody has been bullied, we work with them; but we do not actually go out looking for examples of bullying—not really. If it comes up, then we deal with it; but we try to educate to prevent. Preventative education is the best, I think.

  Q59  Jeff Ennis: I am wondering, from John's perspective, working with EBD children, et cetera, how many of your pupils would you say have been victims of bullying? Would it be higher than the normal school setting?

  Mr D'Abbro: Yes, and unfortunately many of them have been bullies. It is getting back to the point—understanding the reason why they are bullies. Can I just pick up something that Deborah said? All the things that Deborah said as good practice I would suggest are good practice in any school. What is good practice in a special school, an independent school—dare I say that?—a large secondary school, or a primary school, is good practice. There is one thing I would want to take away from that—and I was mindful, Chair, when you mentioned Australia, of the great Australian educator Bill Rogers' line—is that it is the certainty of the consequence that is more important than the severity. As a parent, what was really important for me when my children were growing up was that they knew that if I said X was X, then X was X, and it was not going to be A or B. It is the same in schools. If children know that if they do something wrong there will always be a consequence and it is always followed through, that will establish the ethos in a school around lots of things; but I would particularly say in relation to behaviour management. It is the point Michele made. Children will test boundaries. That is part of what being a child is about. You have to learn what is right and what is not right. That is where teachers, by being role models, must set examples and always challenge children when they get it wrong. I am not talking about hanging and flogging children; it is about saying, "That's the line, and if you step over that line there will be a consequence". I am not suggesting that children should be frightened, but they should be absolutely clear that there is a consequence for every action, because all of us have to take responsibility for our actions. I just wanted to endorse that bit. In the context of the children I work with—and I was thinking about this when you invited me to come—is there a correlation that looks at why children bully? I think it is about relationships. The most important thing in my world is the relationships I have with the people I love and care for, and hopefully they think the same way back. In my experience, in 25 years of working outside the mainstream, I think that it is a society-based problem, not a school-based problem. It is about children who are unable to make relationships. Because they are unable to make relationships, they use other forces, i.e. they are physically bigger; they are intellectually more able to intimidate people. They bully people so that they can feel good about themselves, by making other people feel bad about themselves. I have no evidence to back that up but I just have an instinct that, given how important I think relationships are in our culture, in our world, if you cannot make relationships then you have to use more covert ways of doing it. I think that may be something that causes people to become bullies. Equally, the other side of it is why do some people become victims? That is learned. As a parent, I think, "Have I got my bit wrong?" but—

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