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17 Oct 2007 : Column 913

It defined “academically effective” according to value-added scores, not the raw test results, so it was not simply reporting that schools in middle-class areas had good behaviour. It stated that children at primary schools that provide a high-quality academic education tend to behave better—that there is a link between academic achievement and good behaviour.

There is much merit in that argument. If a child is successfully learning how to read and do maths, if he or she is learning interesting facts about the history of our country, the geography of the world or science, they will be absorbed. If, on the other hand, a child is not taught properly and they are struggling, or the curriculum is dull, they will be frustrated and likely to lash out. From my visits to schools in the past few years, I know that those with a rigorous approach to teaching, and whose curriculum is demanding, knowledge-based and interesting, tend to have well behaved pupils.

Mr. Sheerman: I have not heard the words “independent sector” this afternoon, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, to this day, bullying is endemic in many independent schools—many famous public schools. Their curriculum is challenging and their prep schools presumably had lots of interesting lessons, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is still obvious evidence of bullying in the independent sector.

Mr. Gibb: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which was made earlier. Most schools—all schools—have bullying, and it is difficult for any school to claim that it has none, because they deal with individuals who interact with one another. However, from my observation of independent schools—and I have not visited as many as I have state schools—I think that they have the problem relatively under control and are keeping it to a bare minimum. It is a matter of degree. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman might be basing his assertion on 19th-century novels rather than on what is happening today. I go around such schools and see happy children learning, busy and actively involved in the activities of the school.

That is the key: if children are busy, with their minds stretched by rigorous academic work and their bodies exercised by good sport and other activities, they do not have time to engage in poor behaviour or bullying. I believe that in schools where there is genuine academic study, regardless of ability level, as well as the expectation and delivery of good discipline, there is a buzz that comes from the work. When boredom and malaise prevail, other distractions come to dominate. Mixed-ability teaching, in which children with a wide range of abilities are taught together, is a potent source of the disaffection and boredom that can lead to poor behaviour and thence to bullying.

The attitude in primary school that says that competitive sport is bad, and that there are no individual winners, only winning teams, is not just newspaper tattle. It is evident in thousands of primary schools in this country, and it inevitably renders sport less interesting, and therefore obesity—one of the problems that I highlighted—a threat.

Rather than continually having to tackle the symptoms of poor educational practice, we need to look at what the best performing schools do, and make sure that that
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best practice is spread throughout all our schools. Bullying is one of those symptoms: its pernicious and damaging nature means that we need the initiatives and policies of recent years to tackle the problem now. However, we should also look more carefully at the causes of bullying to ensure that it is not yet another result of a failed educational orthodoxy.

5.41 pm

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): A key group of young people who experience bullying at school has not been mentioned in the debate so far. I am referring to young carers: surveys suggest that seven out of 10 of them have been bullied, with eight out of 10 being called names, and five out of 10 being physically hit or abused.

I understand that that level of bullying is much higher than the average, which is that three children out of 10 are normally affected by name calling, with two out of 10 being victims of violence. Most distressing is the knowledge that the bullying of young carers is a regular occurrence: 45 per cent. of young carers say that they are bullied on most days, and 20 per cent. have missed school as a result of being bullied. Indeed, bullying may be responsible for the fact that young carers in our society remain hidden. Who would want to identify themselves as a young carer when to do so would put them in a group treated as different from other young people, and subsequently abused either physically or verbally?

As has been noted already, bullying is a serious issue for all children and young people, but to me it seems much worse that young people with caring responsibilities must bear the additional burden of being bullied by their peers. Part of the difficulty in dealing with that is the extent to which young carers are hidden. The 2001 census estimates that there may be 175,000 carers under 18 in the UK, but many agencies working with young carers believe that that may be an underestimate. We know that 3 million children in the UK have a family member with a disability, that a quarter of million young people live with a parent who is misusing class A drugs, and that at least 1 million are the children of alcoholic parents. Many of those home situations will lead to caring responsibilities for a child or young person.

Surveys of young carers have been carried out by Loughborough university’s young carers research project in 1995, 1997 and 2003. They show that, for children and young people aged from five to 18, caring tasks include some child care and domestic tasks. Nearly two in 10 young carers also perform intimate care tasks, such as helping with washing, dressing and toileting. More than eight out of 10 young carers surveyed were giving emotional support to the person cared for, providing supervision of that person’s emotional state and trying to cheer them up when they were depressed. The surveys found that young carers who are girls are almost twice as likely to carry out those intimate caring tasks, but that both boys and girls offer high levels of emotional support.

A young carer can start offering care at between five and 10 years old, and can continue to do so for many years. Over 60 per cent. of those surveyed were caring for between three and 10 years, 44 per cent. for three to five years, and 18 per cent. for between six and 10 years.
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High levels of caring can clearly have an adverse impact on a young person’s education. Just over eight out of 120 young carers care for up to 20 hours a week, while around one in 10 care for between 20 and 49 hours, and about seven per cent. care for more than 50 hours a week. However, caring for even 20 hours a week, or three hours a day, can have an adverse impact on a child or young person. Imagine that when we were young we had to give up as much as three hours a day to carry out the tasks I described earlier. Caring makes a difference to a child’s life—at home as well as at school. It affects the child’s ability to see friends and will limit their social or leisure activities, such as taking part in team games. At certain ages, it limits the amount of time available for homework or other school work.

Surveys carried out in 1995 and 1997 showed that a high proportion of young carers missed school as a result of their caring responsibilities. There was a gap between 1997 and the next survey in 2003, which interestingly showed that the figures had improved. What made the difference was the fact that young carers projects, of which there are about 200, have started to work with schools. That improvement between 1997 and 2003 is important.

None the less, despite the excellent work of young carers projects, 27 per cent. of all the young carers of secondary school age who were surveyed and 13 per cent. of those of primary school age still said that they experienced educational problems. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the figures are higher for young carers looking after someone who misuses drugs or alcohol. As many as four in 10 of such young carers were having educational difficulties. The figures could be higher, because 1 million children are living with parents who misuse alcohol.

Bullying of young carers happens for a number of reasons. According to the Princess Royal Trust for Carers, young carers report that they are taunted about the condition of the person they care for; if their parent suffers from a mental health problem, for instance, someone might say to the young carer, “Your mother’s a psycho”. Such bullying is similar to the prejudice-driven bullying to which the Minister and other Members have referred. In some ways, it is similar to the bullying of children with disabilities or other types of special educational need; the young carer becomes a proxy for the person for whom they are caring.

Bullying can occur simply because young carers are different; for example, they do not join in after-school activities. Another key aspect is that financial problems in families who live chaotic lives due to the misuse of drugs or alcohol mean that young carers cannot have the same clothes, games or computers as other young people. Being different—standing out in the crowd—is one of the reasons why children are bullied. As one young carer put it:

The Salford young carers project told me that children who are carers may also be different because they are not being properly looked after. They may be going to school in a dishevelled state, with dirty clothes or poor personal hygiene and that will make them stand out.

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The difficulty is that although many of those problems must be obvious to teachers and other adults at the school, young carers do not want to talk about them. Tony Watton, who manages a young carers project in Nottinghamshire, told me:

He said that it was a vicious circle and was one of the biggest issues dealt with by young carers projects such as his.

A young carers service in north Yorkshire found that 75 per cent. of young carers were not known as such by their teachers. In several surveys, young carers commented that they considered themselves stigmatised by both their teachers and their peers and felt that their schools could and should be more understanding of their situation. Few schools provide counsellors or mentors to support young carers, yet where there are mentors children find their support helpful.

I first encountered young carers and a young carers project in 1996 when I was vice-chair of Trafford social services. The mayor of Trafford picked the local young carers project as his fund-raising charity and a group of us visited it. I recall being astonished when I discovered that children as young as five could take on caring responsibilities for their parents or other family members, and that is still the case today.

I recently spoke at a conference on young carers that was run by the children’s services network of the Local Government Information Unit. The children’s services network had produced an excellent document on issues for young carers. It seemed to me, from speaking to people from local authorities and schools on the day, that there is knowledge of what constitutes good practice in support for young carers. Over recent years, young carers projects have developed guides for teachers and protocols for social services authorities. I believe that it is now time that we introduced legislation to underline the support that schools should be giving to young carers.

In April this year, I introduced the Carers (Identification and Support) Bill, the second part of which contained provisions that would improve support for young carers. The Bill would require schools and children’s services authorities to have in place a policy to support young carers. Further clauses state that local authorities must make sure when assessing needs for community care that adult support services ensure that there is an alternative to relying on the support of a child carer.

In some ways, we are talking about families, and we should recognise not only that such children are suffering at school, missing out on education and being bullied, but that someone from adult social services probably knows about their family and is working with them and has assessed their parents. Yet what is missing once those assessments are done, is that the social services authorities do not ask about the parenting responsibilities of those people. They should ask not just how can they manage in the family, but about their being parents. The Bill would finally require local authorities to have a joint protocol between adult and children’s services to ensure that they work collaboratively where an adult has become dependent for support on a young carer. Over the years that I have
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learned more about young carers, I have formed the view that we should say that young caring is not acceptable. We should not accept that young people should have their school lives and leisure time impacted on by caring. In the interim, however, we should take the steps outlined in the Bill.

On 10 July, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families said that, when he was preparing for his new brief, he was

He also said:

That is a very worthy aim for a new Secretary of State to espouse in one of his first comments on young carers. However, we are very far from that situation. There were some very knowledgeable people at the recent conference run by the children’s services network, but they are only a small group who understand such things.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not alone in his first reaction to discovering the existence of young carers. We have had debates in Westminster Hall on young carers, and hon. Members have expressed their emotions when they discover all the things that young children are doing. My right hon. Friend is not alone in hearing about those issues, and I hope that his briefing that day included the bullying of young carers that I have raised today.

I accept that young carers still remain largely hidden in our communities. It is a very good thing that, over the years, 200 young carers projects have developed. However, given the number of Members, there is probably not a project in most constituencies, so many hon. Members do not get to see their work. I pay special tribute to those projects for the work that they do, but I recognise that, in many parts of the country, there is no such project working with schools.

The other side of the equation is that, with about 30,000 schools across the UK, we cannot expect to map those 200 young carers projects on to those many thousands of schools, so that they can inform schools about young carers, develop awareness of young carers and take up the young carers support policy. Tomorrow, there is a debate on the third sector, the voluntary sector, and all those organisations are charities. Given their funding and support, we cannot leave all the implementation to them, although they may pioneer good policies. I believe that it is right for the Department for Children, Schools and Families to take on that work.

Carers rights day will be on Friday 7 December and that week the all-party parliamentary group is planning to hold an event in Parliament on young carers. We hope that we can bring in members of the national young carers forum, which has recently been formed, so that they can meet their MPs. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who now has responsibility for young carers, will be able to meet
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some of those young carers. I can relay some of the issues of bullying and the difficulties that they face in schools, but there is nothing better than listening to the young people themselves. The people who take on so much in their lives need to know that MPs and Ministers in the Government understand their issues and will do something about them. I shall write formally on behalf of the group to invite my hon. Friend to the event.

I also hope that the legislation to achieve the aims that I set out in my Bill can soon be introduced to assist young carers and to ensure that their schools recognise and support them more fully in the future. Even without legislation, there are things that the Department might consider and the Minister might take them forward. If we accept that this is very much a health issue and that we have an initiative on healthy schools, I suggest it would be a step forward to make the recognition of, and the taking of action to support, young carers one of the criteria necessary to become a healthy school.

I extend the invitation to meet young carers to Members on both sides. I hope that we can listen to those carers and make it clear that we recognise that they carry a big burden and that that burden includes bullying. We want to do something to alleviate that in future.

5.56 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I welcome the fact that the Government have called this debate. This topic receives far too little attention, and whenever we talk about education and the media report on educational matters the focus is usually on school performance, exam results, league tables and so on. We hear far too little about child welfare. Indeed, children often say that the biggest cause of stress for them in school is that they are tested so much. However, the second biggest reason for children feeling stress at school is bullying—either because they have been the victim of bullying or have witnessed it happening to other people.

Bullying undermines every single objective of “Every Child Matters” and, in particular, the aim of ensuring that children are safe and healthy in school and enjoy their time there. Despite what every head teacher will say when we visit them, bullying exists in every school. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children statistics have been referred to already and they show that in the most recent year for which figures are available 37,000 children rang ChildLine to ask for support. That is surely the tip of the iceberg.

The nature of bullying has changed fundamentally recently. The Minister mentioned the internet and if one searches on YouTube and puts in the key words “bullying” and “schools”, as I have done, one will come up with thousands of hits. Many clips are available on the internet. The misery of bullying was once confined to the school yard or the school bus, but it has been transformed into a spectacle that the entire world can witness. Some of the images on this and other sites are of such shocking violence that if they were of an adult on an adult, they would probably be the subject of criminal proceedings. The owners of the websites are far too complacent; surely they should take down the images at the earliest opportunity.

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