Previous Section Index Home Page

The council is very much involved in anti-bullying week, which begins on 12 November. Its children’s services department is sponsoring two key activities in Peterborough schools. In the primary sector it is sponsoring E-ngage, an interactive experience enabling children to explore situations and receive advice and guidance online from a team of experts. In the
17 Oct 2007 : Column 925
secondary sector there will be a dramatic workshop with the rather frightening name “Silent Screen”, involving a performance that children can take back to their schools, develop and adapt to local circumstances. The council is also working with the Cambridgeshire constabulary’s safer schools initiative.

I pay particular tribute to Jack Hunt school, which has a strong anti-bullying policy including a restorative approach project to ensure that children make amends for the bullying and know that bullying is wrong. I also congratulate Peterborough city council in general on its innovative approach to tackling all forms of bullying.

I echo what Members on both sides have said about children with special educational needs. The bullying of disabled children in particular is deplorable. As was said earlier, in January this year Ofsted published a report on SEN provision in further education. It stated that 18 of the 22 colleges that Ofsted had visited lacked expertise in assessing students’ capabilities, which in turn made it difficult to measure their progress. Although learners’ achievements on accredited programmes were found to be good, they did not always meet students' stated needs.

There is a wider context. Dare I say that the issues have been looked at in great detail by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)? There are some practical issues that we need to grasp in dealing with bullying. We need to end the right of appeal panels to overrule expulsions. That is a vital first step. We want to see an end to the panels second-guessing head teachers’ decisions to exclude pupils.

We must have enforceability of home school contracts. Many schools already have those contracts, which set out in black and white what is expected of the school, the child and the parent, but they must be enforceable and they must be seen as a requirement for admission and a ground for exclusion. Teachers, and head teachers in particular, must have their authority and autonomy restored as a corollary of professional respect.

We must also protect teachers from spurious allegations. That, too, will bolster their professional respect. That is an important message to send out to pupils and parents. Controversial as it has been, we must look again at the inexorable rise in the number of special schools that are closing. We have all seen this happen over the years: when disabled children or children with special educational needs are put into mainstream schools, some will cope but many will not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton has said, one child being driven to suicide or to think about suicide is one too many.

It has been excellent to have an opportunity to talk about these issues, which are extremely important. We have had a constructive debate. There is consensus across the House on dealing with the issue. We welcome the initiatives that the Government have undertaken, including last month's statement. We will support the Government where they are right, as we did on the Education and Inspections Bill, and we will hold them to account where they are wrong. I hope that there will be other occasions when we can discuss these vital issues.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 926
6.27 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Before I add my brief remarks to this consensual debate, I would like to endorse the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) to young carers. My local police have an awards ceremony once a year for young achievers in the borough, and young carers always feature prominently. Over the years, I have been surprised by how many very young children take on quite extensive responsibilities of caring for dependent parents and for siblings, too. I have never received notification of a bullying case involving a child carer, but the hon. Lady has made me aware of the possibility, so I will be looking to ensure that none of the young carers in my constituency is suffering in that way.

Bullying is a base negative human instinct which goes back to time immemorial. As I listened to the debate, I recalled how I was bullied by one child when I was in primary school. At the time I did not know why—I had no idea why that particular child had taken such a dislike to me, wanted to hit me and would waylay me on the way home from school. I was not a confrontational sort of child and used to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid that bullying. With hindsight, I see that that probably exacerbated the problem; I did not face it. Listening to the debate and all the various possible reasons why children are bullied, I think it was probably because I used to be first in the class—in those days, every child in the class was ranked. At home, I was expected to be first and if I was not I had to explain why. I can understand now how a child who was not first could have found that extremely irritating. After all these years, I forgive her.

I also experienced a brief instance of bullying fairly recently. It was perpetrated by an adult, but I am sure he was a bully when he was at school. I was coming down the stairs at West Ham tube station, and I was wearing high-heeled shoes and carrying two heavy bags. Having suffered a serious fall at that station a year or so ago, I am always very wary there, so I was using the handrail. Coming up the stairs, however, was a man wearing flat shoes and carrying nothing in his hands. He just stood and stared at me; then he said, “I’m no gentleman,” and would not budge. I had to teeter around him to get down the stairs. I think that for some people bullying is a personality thing: if they are bullies at school, it is likely that they will go on to become bullying adults. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we try to find ways of reducing bullying in schools.

Of course, nowadays there are far more opportunities for bullying and more imaginative ways of doing it—texting, blogging and via websites, for example. The principle, however, is the same age-old one: picking on somebody who is weaker or different in some way and attacking them either physically or psychologically for some sort of personal satisfaction.

The victims are chosen for all sorts of reasons, some of them inexplicable. The reason can be purely their physical appearance. I remember that, when I was a child, children with red hair were picked on. I do not know whether that persists—fashions change, and I think that nowadays red hair is admired. Back in those days, children might also be picked on and bullied because they were unusually tall or short, or fat or thin,
17 Oct 2007 : Column 927
or had a big nose. Clothing has been referred to: if a child wears clothes that are noticeably different from everybody else’s, that can be used as a reason for bullying. That is one of the benefits of school uniform. It makes everyone appear the same and eliminates at least one opportunity for bullying or picking on people—because they look different.

Other motives for bullying include jealousy of a child who is especially pretty or good looking, or the fact that the child belongs to a particular group—he or she is gay, or Jewish, or a Jehovah’s Witness. Children might also be bullied for being particularly clever; that is often a source of annoyance to other pupils. On the other hand, they might simply be non-confrontational and an easy target, or—a subject several Members have referred to—have a speech impediment or a physical difficulty or mobility problem. Children with an impediment who attend mainstream schools are sometimes subjected to bullying because of that.

I worked in a special school for many years. I concede that it was very small compared with mainstream schools, but bullying was virtually unknown. Students had a wide range of disabilities, including those relating to speech and mobility and those that are not visible, but there was a common thread: they all accepted each other’s disabilities without comment, disregarding them as much as possible and carrying on with life.

One Member referred to the discipline involved in staff members eating with pupils at lunchtime. That was one of the habits in that school: the staff always ate with the pupils. Some of them came from homes where they had not learned to use a knife and fork properly. They did not understand the sharing of food at a table, so it was served in terrines and they learned to make sure that there was enough for everybody. They learned many different types of interpersonal skills that are acquired through social eating, such as the benefits of discussion during a meal, and even of arguing about something without coming to blows, but enjoying differences of opinion. Those social skills are very important, and they all contribute to the elimination of bullying.

The interesting question is why do young people bully? Why do bullies do it? That is a complex subject, and there are a wide range of possible contributory reasons. They might be very unhappy themselves. The various causes of unhappiness are almost endless. They might have very low self-esteem, which could originate from low achievement in school. They might be bullied at home: some families have a whipping boy—one person in the family who is always found to be responsible for everything that goes wrong. They might witness other family members bullying in their homes, so it is a learned habit. Bullying might be the only way in which they can feel that they have any power or control over their own lives.

There is also the influence of video games. Most young people have access to computers, and from what I have seen, all video games are based on violence and attacking. My grandchildren watch them, as well. I think that the games are perfectly horrid, but they all seem to like them. However, some children could be influenced to the extent of wanting to carry out these acts of violence on other children at school.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 928

One very difficult thing for schools in dealing with bullying is finding witnesses. The essence of bullying, which is a very cowardly act, is that it is often done when nobody is looking. In fact, the bully usually makes sure that nobody is looking. Schools therefore receive the complaint from either the bullied child or their parents, and then have the extremely difficult problem of investigating and finding out exactly what happened before they can deal with it.

The schools in my borough, and particularly in my constituency, are extremely good and are of a very high standard; they all have bullying policies in place. I am a governor at two of them, so I know this from personal experience. They also have school councils, even the primary schools. I have been very impressed by the standard of debate and their good meeting habits. The children learn to listen to other people and are taught not always to force their own point of view, to give equal respect to others’ points of view, and to discuss possible ways of overcoming problems. School councils make a very good contribution to dealing with bullying, and they can come up with their own ideas. Children often have a very different perspective from adults and, using lateral thinking, may suggest another way to approach a particular case of bullying. There are peer mentoring schemes, even in the primary schools. I have been impressed by the level of common sense and good will in very young children in trying to work together to overcome problems.

Parents associations also play a very important role. The greater the level of parental involvement in the life of a school, the better the machinery of school works and the greater the opportunities to deal with bullying and any other problem that comes up in the life of the school.

We all get cases of bullying referred to us, and I want to refer to one in particular. Typically, we receive a letter from a constituent who is extremely worried about their child, who is being bullied at school. My first question in that situation is, “Have you discussed it with the school governors and with the head teacher?” Sometimes, they have not, and I will never step in and interfere in the life of the school until due process has been followed. In the case to which I want to refer, the school had a very difficult decision to make. Quite a difficult child from a difficult family background was undoubtedly bullying another child in a violent way. The bullied child’s parents wanted the bully to be excluded, but the school was concerned that, if the child was excluded, it would have no control over what was happening outside school—as we all know, the bullying process does not stop at the school gate. It is very difficult for schools to please everybody in these circumstances.

The school tried very hard to do the right thing, and the whole school got involved. When the bullied child was persuaded to come back, their peers made sure that they were always escorted during circulation time between lessons and were never left on their own. The school went to endless lengths to overcome the problem, but as I say, it is impossible to please everybody.

Schools can do their best, and that is the essence of how we will resolve this problem—by everybody working together. The pupils, the governors, the parents association, individual parents, the teachers,
17 Oct 2007 : Column 929
the ancillary staff, dinner ladies on duty in the playground, the groundskeepers—everybody needs to work together. Unfortunately, the police are also sometimes involved. Bullying is not a problem that any one group can solve alone. Government, of course, have the role of legislating, but we need to work together to reduce bullying. That will be a long haul, because as quickly as we resolve one method of bullying, no doubt others will emerge.

6.40 pm

Kevin Brennan: I know that it is traditional on these occasions to say that we have had a good debate, but that is what we have had. All the contributions have been extremely useful, well informed, and helpful to me in my role as the Minister responsible not for bullying but for policy on bullying. It would be inappropriate for me to be responsible for bullying, as an ex-member of the Government Whips Office. This has also been a well behaved debate, and I congratulate everybody on that, given the issue that we are discussing.

I would like to reply to the debate by talking about the contributions initially. The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), who made a speech from the Conservative Front Bench, spoke about behaviour in our schools and, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), I hope he will join us in the mission to raise the bar on discipline in our schools. I think that he will do so, because I know that he is genuinely concerned about these issues and is sincere in his desire to improve standards in our schools. If we raise the bar and it is consequently difficult to get over it, I hope that he will be straightforward in his assessment of that—I am sure that he will be—and acknowledge improving standards where they are occurring. That is always a matter of concern, because it is so easy to take a headline figure and for it to be used in a way that is not entirely consistent with what is happening on the ground, although I know that he would never misrepresent anything. I am sure that he will be fair in that way.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned consistency and the importance of academic standards, in that a lack of quality teaching is potentially a root cause of bullying and has other impacts. Consistency is important in school discipline, as is fairness. Pupils respond well to an orderly, calm environment, as he described, and they also respond well to consistency and fairness. Some of the other contributions acknowledging the importance of involving the pupils themselves in helping to set and agree the standards, through school councils and other methods, was an important feature of the debate.

I mentioned the social and emotional aspects of learning. Although the hon. Gentleman did not refer to that in his speech, I hope that he will examine some of the research on it, because I understand that he did not initially welcome that specific programme. I sincerely invite him to take a look at it, because it is having an impact and I hope that he will feel able to welcome its further extension in coming years. I thank him for his contribution.

17 Oct 2007 : Column 930

We heard a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley), who spoke with a quiet eloquence and passion about young carers, and managed to range extensively on that subject while keeping perfectly in order in relation to today’s topic of bullying. She raised an interesting point about the particular vulnerability of young carers to be the potential victims of bullying. She also mentioned the 200 young carers projects that are in place around the country, and I would be interested to see some of the work that they are undertaking. She rightly pointed out that although 200 may sound like a lot, it does not represent one project in each constituency.

Barbara Keeley: There is a very good young carers project in Salford, and I wonder whether the Minister would like to take up the invitation to visit it. It is just about to extend its work into two high schools in my constituency, so it would be a good time to visit.

Kevin Brennan: My hon. Friend has been very generous with her invitations to me this afternoon, as I think that that is the second one. I shall certainly look at trying to achieve that, if I can. I will also undertake to do my best to come along in December to meet the young carers at the event that she is hosting in the House and I am sure that other hon. Members will also wish to take her up on that invitation.

My hon. Friend mentioned young carers and pointed out that it is another form of prejudice-driven bullying, but it is almost prejudice by proxy, in that many of the young carers have disabled parents or relatives, for whom they are helping to care. Her observation on that was astute. This week, I listened to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health describe on “Desert Island Discs” how he was brought up by his sister after his mother died when he was 12, and that struck me as an example of how young carers can have a major influence on people’s lives. His story is even more remarkable as a result of that background.

My hon. Friend also mentioned her Bill—the Carers (Identification and Support) Bill—and I commend her for the work that she has done on the issue. I will undertake to do my best to come along in December to meet the people from the young carers forum.

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams) spoke on behalf of the Liberal Democrats about cyberbullying and how we could do more to ensure that the sites were more responsible. In the forum that we have set up, the companies—including some of the large players in the market, and he mentioned one in particular—have indicated their willingness, and we have to hold them to it, to take down offensive material and to ban users who abuse the sites. We also need to approach the issue from the other side and try to educate young people, parents and teachers on how they can make an effective complaint. They can go to the companies and ask them to take down some of the material and identify and deal with the abusers. If appropriate, they can also ensure that the issue is reported to the police and, where necessary, charges are brought. We have a job to do on that issue, and the guidance that we have issued on cyberbullying is an important part of that.

Next Section Index Home Page