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17 Oct 2007 : Column 919

The Minister and others have also mentioned text bullying. Even a child’s bedroom is no longer a sanctuary. If a child suffered bullying at school or on the bus, they used to feel safe when they arrived home. Now, because of modern technology, they can receive a threatening message even when they are at home. I have met representatives of Orange, O2 and Vodafone to discuss what they are doing to find technical solutions to the problem. I hope that a solution can be found soon.

In the past, people might have been bullied because they were the school swot or there was something about their clothes or their appearance, but identity-related or prejudice-driven bullying—particularly on the grounds of race, sexuality or disability— is now a disturbing facet of the problem. When the Education and Skills Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence on the matter, we heard about all three aspects, including from Support Against Racist Incidents, which, although it is a national organisation, happens to be based in Bristol, West. The most awful report that has been sent to me in my present role or since I became a councillor in Bristol in 1993 was that from SARI showing the dreadful violence and prejudice expressed against citizens in Bristol and throughout the country. When the Committee took evidence from SARI, we heard that despite the fact that schools have a statutory duty to report incidents of racism—whether they are bullying or not—the organisation feels that racist bullying is under-reported.

The Committee also heard about homophobic bullying from Educational Action Challenging Homophobia—I am sure that it is a coincidence that the organisation is also based in Bristol, West—and Stonewall. Stonewall’s recent school report survey, which was based on interviews with 1,100 children and young people, showed that two thirds of those people had experienced bullying while they were at school and that three fifths of them had not reported it to the school or their parents. Why would that be the case? They might have thought that nothing would be done, or perhaps there was no school policy, but it probably happened because they were fearful of the consequences of confirming their sexual identity at a young age.

Homophobic bullying is different from other forms of bullying because while a person who is bullied because of such aspects as their race or religion will have a peer group to turn to, a person who is bullied because they are gay, or suspected to be gay even though they are not, will not usually have a peer group in the school to turn to. Additionally, they will probably not have had the important coming out conversation with their parents at that age. Stonewall’s report showed that half the people surveyed felt that they could not be themselves while they were at school. Homophobic bullying snatches away an integral part of a young person’s identity.

Hon. Members have mentioned the third form of identity-related bullying, which relates to special educational needs or disability. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) referred to the evidence that Mencap gave to those of us participating in the debate, which showed not only that 82 per cent. of people with a learning disability had experienced bullying, but that 60 per cent. had been
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physically hurt by the bullying—it was not just taunting. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who is not in the Chamber at the moment, mentioned autism. The bullying of children with autism is the cruellest form of bullying simply because the bullied child might not realise that they are a victim of bullying and might not have the communication skills to convey the fact that they are a victim to their teachers or parents.

I have said something about the problems and incidence of bullying in schools, but what about the solution? It is important that the profile of bullying is raised. In addition to our debate, we will have anti-bullying week between 19 and 23 November. During last year’s anti-bullying week, I recorded a clip, which was put on to YouTube—this is something positive to say about the site—about bullying and, especially, the importance of tackling homophobic bullying. The clip has had more than 4,300 viewings, and it is one of the most watched clips by any Member of Parliament. If hon. Members have not yet seen it, they can go and search for it after the debate.

Many mainstream charities, such as the NSPCC, are focusing specifically on bullying, while specific charities, such as Beatbullying and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, bring people together. Teachers’ unions, the Select Committee and, to be fair, the Government are taking the subject tremendously seriously.

A motion on bullying was passed at our party conference in Brighton—it was only about four weeks ago, but in light of recent events it seems a lifetime ago. We suggested that there should be a whole-school approach on tackling bullying and a policy for each type of bullying. We said that every school, without exception—the hon. Member for Buckingham mentioned faith schools earlier—should adopt a practice and policy on the different types of bullying. Stonewall is giving the Department support in preparing a pack on homophobic bullying and I think that that is about to be released. Can the Minister confirm that it will go to every single school and that he will ensure that every single school implements the policy?

We call for every school to ensure that there is a member of the senior management team and a member of the governing body who are responsible for making sure that people adhere to the bullying policy. Our most important recommendation is that there be professional counselling for victims of bullying. The NSPCC suggests that it should be independent, but I do not have a specific view on that. Perhaps the counselling could be done by the school’s pastoral staff. I visited the NSPCC team in Bristol who provide independent counselling support for children who have been bullied in the city’s schools. I was tremendously impressed by the team’s work, but I was shocked by some of the incidents with which they have had to contend.

We can also tackle bullying through the curriculum. Citizenship education has been mentioned already, but there is an important role for school councils, too. Every time that I visit a Bristol school, I ask to meet the school council, and I always ask its members what they, as children, are doing to ensure input in developing anti-bullying policies. The Minister mentioned social and emotional aspects of learning, but I do not think that he mentioned personal, social and health education. If it was compulsory in every school—at the moment,
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implementing that curriculum is voluntary—every child would understand the diverse nature of 21st-century bullying, and that would contribute to a reduction in bullying. The issue is not really money; it is just a matter of political will, and of schools showing a real commitment to tackling the problem.

So far, the debate has been consensual, but I was disappointed to hear what was said in Prime Minister’s Question Time, the weekly circus that we all have to witness. Our party is quite used to the Prime Minister or the Chancellor deriding Liberal Democrat spending commitments, but I was surprised today when the Prime Minister included our policy on bullying in those that he derided. I hope that he will repair the damage that he has done by giving the impression that ensuring consensus and treating bullying seriously is not an objective. In the past year, the only specific spending commitment that we have made on bullying is through our support for Beatbullying’s “4QuidAKid” campaign. The charity has estimated that it would cost £4 per child to put in place a specific programme of anti-bullying work in every school in the country. When the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he pledged that his Government would bridge the funding gap per pupil between independent and state schools. That gap is many thousands of pounds; surely he can find £4 to implement an anti-bullying policy.

Bullying is an emotionally crushing experience for tens of thousands of pupils. It undermines their attainment and leads to truancy, and the legacy can often remain with someone later in life. All schools should be safe places for learning. I think that today’s debate will give the victims of bullying some hope that their plight is being taken seriously.

6.8 pm

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams). He referred to the Prime Minister’s comments, but perhaps he takes them too seriously. I fear that they were a cheap jibe in view of this week’s events, but I think that the hon. Gentleman made his point well. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who made a passionate and authoritative speech that focused on her work of raising the issue of carers, for which she should be commended.

There is a great deal of consensus among Members on both sides of the House on the issue. I hope that we will not be involved in any partisan point-scoring this afternoon, because we all want the same things. There are parts of the Government’s policy with which we Opposition Members certainly agree. We agree with the guidance given under the auspices of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 on removing knives and other offensive weapons from schoolchildren who bring them to schools. We generally support “Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools”, the new guidelines launched by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families last month. However, there is the wider context of social change and the breakdown of deference, the culture of respect for other people in schools, and authority generally. How children feel about their lives, their families, their future
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and their environment was shown in sharp relief by the UNICEF report of February 2007, which regrettably showed that the UK’s children are among the unhappiest in the developed world.

This is an important debate and I regret that more Members are not present to listen and to contribute to it, but speculating on the reasons for that may be above my pay grade.

In 2005, 32,000 children contacted ChildLine to report that they had been bullied, and 70 per cent. of those had been bullied at school. As the House probably knows, 81,000 children received fixed-period exclusions and 1,780 received permanent exclusions in the education year 2004-05 for assaults on other pupils. Similar figures were recorded for verbal abuse and threatening behaviour. That is a significant badge of shame for our school system.

Regrettably, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the Chairman of the Select Committee, is no longer in his place. Reference was made to the Committee’s very good report of March 2007, which reached a number of key conclusions on bullying. The report made it clear that the Committee was concerned that

and that there was

The report identified the fact that children who had been the victims of bullying at school were, bizarrely, often excluded on the grounds of health and safety, instead of the root cause of bullying being dealt with by the school authorities, as it should have been.

The key issue in the report was the lack of demonstrably reliable data about the prevalence and types of bullying. The hon. Member for Bristol, West made the pertinent point that bullying should not be treated as a catch-all concept. There are different types of bullying. For instance, a Muslim girl might be bullied because of the way she dresses, because she wears a scarf, or because she has to leave school early on a Friday for Friday prayers. Equally, an evangelical Christian who reads the Bible in school, because that is what they have been taught and that is their family background, might be bullied. Religious bullying is not a single phenomenon. We need to deal with bullying at the lowest possible level and in a professional manner, through school management and through counselling.

The Select Committee found that

and expressed concern that

The problem of bullying must be seen in the context of school discipline. If I may be partisan for just 30 seconds, school discipline was a major plank of the 2005 Conservative general election manifesto, and it was rubbished by some senior Ministers, who claimed that that was not at the top of the agenda for electors. I am glad to see that the Government have taken on board our arguments and are developing policies based on our 2005 manifesto. We knew then that it was indeed a major issue. My hon. Friend the Member for
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Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) pointed out the link between discipline, standards and a reduction in bullying. The corollary is that poor discipline results in more bullying.

Kevin Brennan: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that discipline has always been in vogue with me, including when I used to be a classroom teacher. However, if we attempt to raise the bar further on discipline and it thus becomes more difficult to pass that bar, may I have the hon. Gentleman’s assurance that he will not revisit this issue and pretend that standards have slipped when in fact we are raising them?

Mr. Jackson: The Minister asks a pertinent question. Unfortunately, he is out of time with his accusations, as the partisan part of my speech is behind me and I am now moving into more consensual mode. As it happens, Conservative Members supported the Government on key areas of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. The media, of course, concentrated on the issue of academies. I must confess that I have an interest to declare, as England’s largest academy, the Thomas Deacon academy, is based in my constituency—and a very fine school it is, too. I shall refer to it again later.

We supported the Government on that Bill, which received Royal Assent at the end of last year. In particular, we supported clauses 80 and 81, which required schools to develop a behaviour policy; clauses 82 to 84 on the statutory power to discipline pupils; clauses 89 and 90 on parental contracts and orders; and clauses 95 and 97, which require parents to take responsibility for their children in the immediate period after their exclusion from school.

Poor discipline continues to be a major problem in all schools and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton made clear, it has the biggest impact on the education of the vast majority of well behaved children. Last year, 220,000 pupils were suspended from school more than once, which was up from 19,000 in the previous year. In some senses, we are seeing a crisis of school discipline. As I mentioned earlier, in 1,587 schools, more than 10 per cent. of pupils have been excluded; and in 192 schools, more than 30 per cent. have been excluded. That, to my mind, is a crisis of indiscipline. Truancy is also rising, as 3.7 million school days were lost in the spring term this year.

A report from earlier this month, commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, showed that it was not just the secondary sector that has problems, as one in four primary school children were shown to have been the victims of playground bullying. It often happens because children are bored and have nothing to do; they have recourse to bullying in the absence of any meaningful alternative focus at the time.

Members should cast their minds back a few months to the publication of a report in the quality newspapers about the absence of a playground in the Thomas Deacon academy in Peterborough. There was a minor outcry in my constituency at the fact that children had nowhere to play. However, when the facts and figures were examined, it emerged that there was a reason for not having a playground. I emphasise that we are talking about a playground—not playing fields or a theatre or activity rooms—and it was absent for a
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specific reason. The school wanted to build out the risk of children—often those from poor backgrounds in the east of my constituency—being bullied because of the way they spoke, how they looked, their parents’ backgrounds and so forth. The decision was based on best practice at other successful schools.

The other issue is that there is a philosophy and ethos of excellence in that school. I put aside partisan differences. I did not agree with much that the former Member for Sedgefield, Mr. Blair, did, but he did the right thing on academies. Of course he filched the policy from the Conservative party. The city technology colleges policy was pioneered by the last Conservative Government, and it was the right policy. It would be infantile for us to say anything other than that we support it now if it helps our children to succeed in a difficult world.

The Thomas Deacon academy took the brickbats and the flak in deciding not to have a playground because it wanted actively to tackle bullying. It opened on 7 September, and I hope and expect its methods to work.

One way in which to tackle bullying at primary school level is to deal with the physical environment. That approach has been pioneered by the national school grounds charity Learning through Landscapes, and includes the provision of friendship benches, buddies and active teacher role models who encourage stimulating play. The idea is to focus kids’ minds rather than just throwing them out into a playground for 20 minutes. They will be able to take part in physical activity, and a child who may feel isolated or may be prone to bullying can be looked after, cared for and mentored by an older child on a friendship bench. In some parts of the country, that approach has been proved to reduce the amount of bullying in primary schools.

However, as I said earlier, we must also focus on the children who do the bullying, and on their parents, because it is a difficult time for them. We must not focus only on the children who are bullied and on their parents and families, although of course that is vital as well. I echo the view of Parentline Plus that, although legal sanctions are important—and Conservative Members strongly support them—they must be accompanied by strong parental support. As the organisation said recently in remarks published in The Guardian,

That sense of isolation, shame and stigma can exacerbate an already difficult and traumatic situation.

I congratulate my local authority, Peterborough city council, on its initiatives to tackle bullying. It is rolling out one of them, BRAVE, in all the schools in Peterborough. BRAVE stands for “bold, resilient, assured, valued, empowered”, which is what the council wants local children to be. It will launch the initiative at a conference in Peterborough in January.

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