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17 Oct 2007 : Column 901

Bullying in Schools

4.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn.

I am pleased to open today’s debate on dealing with bullying in our schools. This is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate these issues since we announced our new package of measures to help schools tackle bullying, “Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools”, in September.

The safety and well-being of children and of the professionals who work with them is a top priority for the Government, as I know it is for Members in all parts of the House. Our commitment is reflected in the new public service agreement to improve children and young people’s safety, of which bullying is one of the four underpinning indicators. This indicator is measured using the Ofsted “Tell Us” survey, which talks to children and young people about their experiences of bullying.

The starting-point of our policy on bullying is that every child has the right to a good education as well as the right to feel safe and secure as they learn. That is not just our concern as the Government; it is the concern of parents, teachers and young people themselves. Schools should be safe places for children and young people. They should be communities founded on tolerance, understanding and mutual respect and they should be places where it is safe to learn and also safe to teach. Those are the principles that are fundamental to improving attendance and developing young people as healthy and happy individuals, while ultimately raising academic standards as well. In contrast, those affected by bullying can suffer not just in the most obvious way, but in their studies, so where bullying does occur, schools must deal with it quickly and decisively.

The new measures that we have introduced are designed to help parents, pupils and teachers to tackle bullying on three fronts. It is important to have robust anti-bullying policies in schools. “Safe to Learn”, the guidance to which I referred earlier, gives school staff practical advice and effective strategies and approaches to prevent and challenge bullying. It also offers information for schools working together with parents to support those who have suffered from bullying, engaging the whole school community in the fight against it. In addition to the new guidance, we have developed targeted support for particular schools through the national strategies, while regional advisers are sharing good practice and helping schools to improve their anti-bullying policies.

Through our partnership with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which we also fund, we provide further support to schools through regional co-ordinators who can provide advice to local authorities and schools. With the support of the main teacher unions and professional associations, we have issued the anti-bullying charter to help schools draw up effective policies and evaluate procedures.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): When the Select Committee on Education and Skills looked into bullying, we discovered that when bullying
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takes place in schools, it is quite difficult to know how bad the situation really is without a national system of registration. I thought that Ofsted’s report this week was rather complacent about bullying and did not pay much attention to it. Given that we pointed out that difficulty to the Department, are the Government having any second thoughts about it?

Kevin Brennan: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the important work that his Select Committee does on the issue of bullying and education more widely. As he is aware, our view is that it would be wrong to overburden schools with statutory requirements on reporting, but we expect them to collect and record information about bullying incidents, which we believe is best used on a local basis. There are some technical difficulties in achieving absolute consistency in the recording of bullying, but a toolkit is available from the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which should help schools follow best practice in the recording of these incidents.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Is it not true that bullying is one of the most under-reported problems in schools? Whether or not there is a consistent way of measuring it across the country is always less important than establishing an environment in which pupils who are victims of bullying feel able to report it to someone so that proper action can be taken.

Kevin Brennan: Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is far more important to embed an anti-bullying culture in our schools that will make children and young people confident that systems are in place so that when bullying is reported, appropriate action will follow. The updated guidance—I shall talk about its new additional parts later—provides the right sort of framework to create that sort of culture. Speaking as a former teacher, albeit many years ago, I am aware that there was occasionally in the past a culture within schools that bullying was something that the school management should deny could possibly be happening in their institution. That is understandable because of their fears about the school’s reputation, but I think we have now moved on to acknowledge that bullying takes place in every institution, not just in schools. It is important for that acknowledgment to be acted on, which is what the guidance is all about.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Is not one of the problems the fact that bullies will almost habitually deny having done anything wrong, and it is often difficult to gather evidence to substantiate a claim? Parents will defend a child who they cannot believe could be guilty of bullying, and finding out exactly what has happened can be quite a complex process.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Lady is right—and, of course, bullying is not always physical. The position can be especially difficult when psychological bullying such as teasing is involved. A good policy in schools and the following of guidance will raise awareness, helping professionals to be more alert and spot signs of bullying in both those who are being bullied and those responsible for the bullying.

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Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): The Minister is making an interesting case, but is not bullying most prevalent in a culture of ill-discipline? Does he share my concern about the fact that, according to figures produced in the past year, more than 10 per cent. of children at no fewer than 1,587 schools have been excluded? Should the Minister not focus on that wider issue?

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that behaviour is very important. Every Ofsted report over the past 10 years has shown an improvement in the number of schools that are meeting either “very good” or “satisfactory” standards of behaviour. However, we want to go further. We want to raise the bar in terms of behaviour, as we have made clear in the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. I hope that if that results in a change in the statistics, the hon. Gentleman will support our action. We think that behavioural standards are as important as academic standards, because one feeds into the other.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): According to the evidence, 41 per cent. of gay children in schools are beaten up and no fewer than 17 per cent. of them receive death threats. Will the Minister tell us how the revised and strengthened guidance will promote action to counter that phenomenon, especially in the light of the growth of faith schools in which there is often a very strong and traditionalist ethos in regard to sexual practice? If that is not dealt with by good guidance, it could lead to a bullying and homophobia that most of us in the House would regard as abhorrent.

Kevin Brennan: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing record in the House on this subject. He and I collaborated in the most positive way on the Bill that became the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and his long-standing record includes having moved his own party in the same direction in relation to homophobic bullying and equal treatment of people with a gay orientation. I will deal with his intervention a little later in my speech.

More than three quarters of secondary schools and more than 50 per cent. of primary schools are already using the anti-bullying charter. Clear procedures, coupled with a strong message from heads and teachers that bullying will not be tolerated and that schools will apply disciplinary sanctions to perpetrators, is the key to instilling confidence in parents and pupils. The guidance and the charter are invaluable tools that will help heads and teachers to develop the approach that works best for their schools, in order to deal with the problems and challenges specific to them. The advice is now backed by strengthened legal powers to enable heads and teachers to tackle bullying.

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 has made absolutely clear that teachers who are in charge of pupils have the necessary legal backing to discipline pupils for bad behaviour, including bullying. The Act gives teachers clear legal backing for confiscation of items such as mobile phones from pupils when they are used to cause disruption or bully other pupils. Heads now have clear legal backing to regulate the conduct of pupils outside the school gates where appropriate, including applying sanctions on their return to school.
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Those powers are important and, taken together with the guidance, provide an effective framework to help to tackle any problems of bullying. However, as the world changes, so does the nature of bullying. Keeping up with the evolving problems that bullying presents and giving good advice to tackle specific forms of bullying is our next defence against the problem.

As you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, last year we produced our guidance on bullying around racism, religion and culture. We have added to that this year by producing new guidance to tackle homophobic bullying. I am pleased to say that it has received a very warm and wide welcome. We know from surveys that homophobic bullying is common, yet anti-gay remarks are rarely treated with the same seriousness as, for example, racist remarks in schools. It is important that all school staff know how to challenge homophobic remarks, including the use of the word “gay” as a term of abuse.

I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the approach that permitted the introduction of section 28 is now well and truly gone from our politics. I think that that is welcomed on both sides of the House.

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): The Minister mentioned the importance of language and the use of the word “gay” as a term of abuse to suggest that something is second-rate or derisory. What sort of message does he think the BBC sends out when it allows leading disc jockeys, who are listened to by a large number of young people, to use the word “gay” in a pejorative sense? The BBC says that that is acceptable because the BBC has to reflect 21st century use of language. That is the excuse that I got back from the then director-general of the BBC when I wrote to complain about it.

Kevin Brennan: I do not wish to refer to any particular individuals in responding to the hon. Gentleman but as he may be aware I have made it clear in public remarks on the matter that I regard that as highly unfortunate. It is my view that it is unacceptable for the word to be used in that way. It is particularly important for high-profile figures to remember that.

Where section 28 hampered teachers from using their professional judgment to discuss with students sensitive issues around sexual orientation, the new guidance on homophobic bullying, which has been developed in collaboration with Stonewall and Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and in broad consultation with all interested parties, including faith groups, gives teachers for the first time specific advice to help to challenge and to change homophobic attitudes, while supporting and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils, and their right to be themselves without being bullied.

The guidance provides schools with advice on how to use the curriculum to encourage a climate of respect to ensure that gay pupils and gay teachers are fully included as part of the school community and that those pupils also excel at their studies. Next year, we will go further by issuing new guidance for schools on how to prevent and to tackle bullying of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) also has that as one of his top priorities.

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Bullying is not new, but there are new forms of bullying, or rather new means to bully. As technology rapidly develops and is more easily accessible, bullies have made cyberspace their new playground. Cyberbullying is a particularly insidious and harmful form of bullying, as it reaches into people's homes and direct to their mobile phones. There are various surveys and estimates, but a recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families indicated that about a third of 12 to 15-year-olds report having experienced cyberbullying in some form.

Some incidents will be more serious than others. The use of the term “happy slapping” is as much a misnomer for what it represents as the term “joyriding”. There is nothing happy about being assaulted, but then for the assault to be recorded and shared with others is simply wrong. Cyberbullying can also take the form of abusive texts, e-mails and messages on social networking sites. Of course, it is not just pupils who are affected by cyberbullying. Teachers can be victims, too, with serious consequences for their motivation, job satisfaction, and classroom teaching.

Through the cyberbullying taskforce, we have now brought together the industry, education professionals and law enforcement agencies to take forward a programme of work to tackle cyberbullying. I am particularly pleased that the industry is starting to face up to this problem by participating in the work. Many of the companies in this industry started off as small unregulated operations with a culture averse to any so-called “censorship”, but they have to understand that as their businesses grow up, their culture must do so also. Those companies have a corporate social responsibility to the young people who use their services. It is essential that they understand that. That is why I am so pleased that many of them are participating in our cyberbullying taskforce.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): My hon. Friend has referred to instances of cyberbullying. As he knows, there are legal remedies against harassment under legislation that we introduced in the past 10 years, and they are often used by adults. Is it not now time for schools to consider further legal remedies that children and teachers might take?

Kevin Brennan: In our view, there is no need for any new offences to be created in relation to cyberbullying because the law is adequate. I absolutely support the right of schools to take legal action in such circumstances, where appropriate. As I have said, the companies who provide the services have a responsibility to ensure the removal of any offensive material that constitutes the bullying of pupils or teachers, even where it stops short of being illegal.

John Bercow: Sadly, the bullying of children with special educational needs is all too common, and it is extremely welcome that the Government intend to produce specific guidance on that. Regardless of whether one uses the word bullying or the more accurate term of “inadvertent unfairness”, there is a problem among some teaching staff. Because they have not received training in handling such children—those
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with speech, language and communication difficulties, for instance, or those on the autistic spectrum—they wrongly mistake as bad behaviour the actions of a child who simply does not understand what is expected of him or her. Help is needed in that regard as well.

Kevin Brennan: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; he and I have discussed that matter outside the confines of the Chamber. His point also provides another reason why it is wrong to exclude pupils from school without appeal: there will be occasions when the behaviour concerned is linked to a disability or condition that the pupil has, and that should be properly taken into account.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Minister’s comments on the engagement of the industry in addressing cyberbullying. However, does he not share my concern that instances of bullying are sometimes posted on websites that originate outside this country, and that there is therefore an international dimension that probably requires the involvement of not only his Department, but others as well, in trying to get an international agreement to deal with the issue?

Kevin Brennan: That is absolutely right. There is an issue to do with the first amendment of the American constitution; many of the websites concerned are hosted in the United States. We are governed by European law.

Let me also say this in response to my hon. Friend’s point: many of the companies that advertise on such websites would be horrified to learn that their brand was appearing next to the kind of content we are discussing. While we are doing all we can internationally to get appropriate regulation, we could also influence websites by pointing out to some of the major brands where their advertising is appearing, and what content it is appearing next to. That is one way in which we might apply pressure where we do not, strictly speaking, have jurisdiction.

We also commissioned Childnet International to produce our cyberbullying guidance, which provides schools with advice on safe and responsible use of the internet, on how to prevent cyberbullying in the first place, and on what action to take to get images or text taken down from websites. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) referred earlier to sometimes inadvertent bullying, and our new online campaign, called “Laugh at it and you’re part of it”, aims to make young people more aware of the fact that viewing offensive content, even if they have not generated it, sending messages and thereby passing such content on, and laughing at it makes them part of the bullying. That is a very important message to get out to young people who might otherwise think that such behaviour is harmless, and who do not associate it with real suffering on the part of an individual.

It is important that the “Safe to Learn” guidance, including the cyberbullying and homophobic bullying guidance, is put into practice. I have therefore asked the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the national strategies to work with local authorities and schools to ensure that the guidance is being embedded effectively, and we will be closely monitoring how it is used.

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