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Bullying (Schools)

3.59 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I start by congratulating the Minister on his appointment. We have had many exchanges in different guises, so this makes a little change today. I am extremely pleased to have secured the debate, so that I can raise further issues relating to the tragic case involving one of my constituents and also by chance-this is very timely-raise further awareness of a recent report from Beatbullying.

The significance and impact of bullying are undeniable. Indeed, it was the most frequently raised issue in calls to ChildLine in 2008-09, with a total of 26,134 calls. I am sure that that remains the case. There were considerably more calls from girls than boys, and it has been pointed out to me that boys possibly wait until they are very desperate before seeking help. Interestingly, the latest research from Beatbullying suggested that there was a higher tendency towards suicide among young girls aged 10 to 14, with 65% of bullying-related suicides committed by girls. Beatbullying concluded that bullying accounted for up to 44% of child suicides and further estimated that the actual number over a nine-year period could be as high as 78 in the 10-to-14 age group. There are undoubtedly many more cases in the 16-to-19 age group.

In the report, Beatbullying notes that in every child suicide case related to bullying, school was cited as the main place of persecution. In four cases, cyber-bullying, in which bullying takes place online by e-mail and on social networking sites, was also named as a factor leading to a child taking their own life.

The Minister will be aware that Beatbullying is campaigning for greater openness about and research on the causes of child suicide, so that our society can better understand why children feel driven to take their own lives. We can reflect on the depth of the issue with the number of tragic suicides, but of course if we add in the acute misery caused by bullying but not resulting in suicide, we are looking at simply enormous numbers. How many people in this room can remember not being able to sleep at night as a child because of cruel verbal bullying? I certainly can.

Parentline Plus, which receives thousands of calls and e-mails from parents concerned that their child is being bullied, points out that not only can bullying be harmful to children in both the long and the short term, but parents whose child is being bullied often also find the situation very traumatic and difficult to manage.

We shall never eliminate bullying, but we can do better. I visit schools and see excellent work with peer mentoring and other schemes. I have been very impressed by the work of CyberMentors. I understand that since its launch in March 2009, more than 600,000 young people have used the site. There is a great deal of excellent work by the voluntary sector-I apologise for mentioning only a few organisations by name today-and I ask the Minister to do all that he can to protect the funding of effective anti-bullying schemes. Indeed, we need to aim to have such schemes in all schools and, of course, to protect funding for services such as ChildLine and Parentline.

Like many other people, I am heartened by the coalition's commitment to help schools to tackle bullying, especially homophobic bullying, but today I am hoping that the
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Minister will outline exactly what his plans are. Consistent recording by schools of instances of bullying is very important, but what action should follow on from that recording? Having policies in place is all-important, but what checks are there on their implementation? Should a specific governor have prime responsibility for this area? Is there a lead teacher, well trained in dealing with all aspects of bullying? What checks will there be on outstanding schools, which will not be inspected regularly in the future and could become academies? In the case of academies currently and in the future, who do parents complain to if they feel that the school is not responding to their concerns?

Often, we attribute the reasons for being bullied to some difference from others. Perhaps a child or young person has special educational needs. Autism comes immediately to mind. The behavioural characteristics and social naivety that accompany the autism spectrum disorders-for example, overly formal speech, unusual behaviour and obsessive interests-can make pupils with autism very vulnerable to bullying. Pupils with autism are particularly vulnerable to backhanded bullying, because they take friendship at face value and find it difficult to discern ulterior motives. It is the case that 40% of parents who have a child with autism say that their child has been bullied. The figure is even higher for children with Asperger's syndrome, rising to 59%.

I should like to refer to a few stories from the Parentline website.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): For children and young people with autism and related disorders, systematic bullying in schools can often lead to mental health disorder as well. The two conditions often run in a coterminous way. I wonder what the hon. Lady thinks about my view that schools, particularly mainstream schools, may need to develop more awareness of and more policies on autism and related conditions among students and pupils in their establishments.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention; I agree with his sentiments. This is a question of having a well trained work force all the way through. I become concerned when we talk about cutting the length of training courses, because we must allow more time for training in special educational needs across the board.

One parent said:

attention deficit hyperactivity disorder-

Another person said:

The girl is now in a terrible situation: does she stay away from school and have her parents risk prosecution, or is she sent to school for more unhappiness?

I have a case in my constituency in which the parents in the end removed their child from a secondary school
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because they lost all confidence in the school dealing with the bullying that the child, who had autism, was facing. In sheer desperation, many parents end up home educating because of the bullying that their children experience, so support for home educators, not legislation and regulation necessarily, is all-important.

I have received a representation from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which is calling on the Government to do more to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes after a survey revealed that a high proportion of children with diabetes are bullied. There is evidence that young carers are bullied. The list goes on and on with health conditions and disabilities, home situations and homophobic bullying. Homophobic bullying is worryingly prevalent. The issue affects all young people in every type of school. Just like other forms of bullying, it continues beyond the school gates on school transport and into young people's homes through cyber-bullying with mobile phones and the internet.

Recent research by Stonewall with significant numbers of young people and teachers across the country concludes that homophobic bullying is almost endemic in Britain's schools. Almost two thirds of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying. Half of secondary school teachers who are aware of homophobic bullying say that it happens outside school premises. Secondary school teachers also say that homophobic bullying is the second most frequent form of bullying, and one in five say that pupils who experience it are subjected to cyber-bullying.

It is a complex subject, but we also have to look at the other side of the coin: the bullies, and the parents of bullying children. The parents of children who are being bullied often feel that too much attention is given to the bullies in schools, but, clearly, we have to tackle such behaviour. Why is it occurring?

As part of a programme of work to tackle bullying in schools in Stevenage, Parentline Plus works with the families of children who display the challenging behaviour of bullying. The project is enormously successful, and the organisation believes that part of the solution to bullying is providing parenting support to the families of children who bully, so that they can help their child change their behaviour.

The constituency case I wish to refer to involves a young man who was extremely good at sports, which was perhaps his difference. I must stress that the incident did not actually take place in my constituency-the parents have moved into my constituency. Ben, aged 11, committed suicide after being persistently bullied on a school bus taking pupils to and from school in a rural area. The bus driver joined in the verbal bullying.

Ben's parents now live in my constituency, and I have been supporting them as they pursue changes so that, hopefully, a case like Ben's will never arise again. They repeatedly raised the problems with the school, the local authority and the bus company before the dreadful tragedy occurred. Ben's father asked what other situation exists in which an adult who is expected to be responsible for 50 or more children receives no training and has nothing more than a Criminal Records Bureau check.

In rural areas, children can be on a school bus for periods of an hour or more. When schools take pupils on educational trips, they are required to carry out risk assessments, provide first-aid cover and ensure the
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appropriate ratio of adults of the appropriate sex to pupils. Local authorities are expected to provide transport for school children, and there is a great deal of difference in provision among the various authorities. There are excellent authorities, yet our experience with what happened to Ben shows that some local authorities expect the bare minimum from their transport providers.

Mr Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): The incident of bullying on a school bus that the hon. Lady describes is tragic, but, sadly, it is not an isolated one. I had a constituent whose son was the only child on the school bus who, because he was outside the catchment area, had to pay for the travel, so he always had to be last on to the bus. He was bullied as a result, and the parents had to withdraw him from the school. Does she agree that the role that the bus companies play in the strategy for dealing with bullying must be much more prominent when the local authority provides guidelines and contracts for how the bus companies go about their business?

Annette Brooke: I do agree with that, and I shall go on to elaborate on it.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families, as it then was, produced guidance in "Safety from Bullying on Journeys", which highlights good practice. One of the schools mentioned, Purbeck upper school, is in my constituency, so I shall mention it briefly. Over 67% of the students travel to school by bus-it is a rural area. The students themselves did a survey. They worked with absolutely everybody and held a consultation. The issue was taken seriously by the student parliament, which came up with a travel plan. It drew up a student bus conduct code, which is obviously very good practice.

Despite all the work that has gone on and the new guidance, my constituent Mr Vodden continues to be concerned with the bad practice. He asks why we do not name all the authorities with bad practice.

Earlier this year, I carried out a survey in conjunction with 4Children on local authorities and their policies. It is one year on from the publication of Government guidance on tackling bullying on journeys, yet our survey shows that the majority of local authorities still do not have a safer travel policy in place.

The guidance states:

The document goes on to state that the first key step is for relevant stakeholders to agree a safer travel policy.

However, the figures from the research say it all. Of the 67 local authorities that responded-quite a high number, for a long questionnaire-60% did not have a safer travel policy, and 52% did not have a safer travel team. Of those local authorities that did have a safer travel policy, only 50% said that it covered all forms of bullying, and only 38% said that it covered all forms of journey. The survey revealed what I had long suspected: paperwork and policies may well be in place but implementation of strong anti-bullying policies is not consistently happening, particularly for bullying beyond the school gates.

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It is so important that as a society we learn the lesson that bullying must be tackled at all levels, and that appropriate training must be given to everyone involved, including school bus drivers. The implementation of anti-bullying policies outside the school gates has been incredibly slow, with many local agencies still not working together as well as they could. We must drive up efforts to stamp out bullying outside as well as inside schools to protect children from a daily misery that can lead to the tragic outcomes with which I began.

For a start, directors of children's services, head teachers and governing bodies must have greater awareness of all the guidance that exists on bullying outside the school gates. I look forward to the Minister's responding to all my concerns about bullying, both in and out of school. I am sure that he will tell me that we will never eliminate bullying, but I hope he will agree that we can and should do much better on the issue.

4.16 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) for her kind comments. It is nice, after all these years, to call one another "honourable Friend". I congratulate her on securing this important debate.

Tackling poor behaviour both in and, as my hon. Friend pointed out in her compelling remarks, out of school is one of this Government's top priorities. I know that she has been a tireless advocate on this issue in her constituency and in championing the work of 4Children, Beatbullying-a charity I know very well-and others to improve pupils' behaviour in the wider community.

Our coalition agreement places a sharp focus on robust standards across the education system, the highest quality of teaching and high standards of discipline in the classroom. Poor behaviour is a real concern. Pupils cannot learn if they are late to class or if their lessons are disrupted. Teachers do not want to stay in the profession if they feel intimidated by poor behaviour. Parents need assurance that their child's school provides a secure, happy environment in which their child is focused on their education. However, the fundamental driver for dealing with poor behaviour is the impact on pupils themselves. The disruption and distress caused by bullying can be very damaging, as my hon. Friend said. Education is important, but children's safety is paramount, so we have made an explicit commitment in the coalition agreement to help schools to tackle bullying, especially homophobic bullying.

As my hon. Friend said, the problem is not confined to the classroom. There has been much recent media coverage of extreme cases of poor behaviour, linking bullying to suicide. She cited the statistics and research produced by Beatbullying, and spoke about how bullying has directly affected some of her constituents. I, too, have met Paul Vodden, the father of Ben. The case of his son, who tragically committed suicide as a result of bullying on a school bus, highlights the catastrophic effects that bullying can have and the urgent need for action.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) pointed out in his intervention, bullying can lead to serious mental health problems, and children with special educational needs can be particularly vulnerable
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to it. The Department for Education, through the anti-bullying alliance, is looking at the most effective way to deal with the bullying of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Although guidance on bullying on school transport was produced in April last year, we will look closely at the issue as we review the work on bullying and behaviour more widely. This is a top priority for our Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole said, there is much room for improvement.

In a survey last year, 28% of pupils said that they had been bullied in the last year and 59% said that they feel that their schools deal with bullying well, which prompts questions about the other 41%-the four in 10 who feel that their schools should be doing more. Currently, a raft of guidance advises schools on anti-bullying policies, written policies and specific forms of bullying. It is lengthy and confusing, so we have asked officials to sharpen and strengthen it to ensure that it has practical value and, as my hon. Friend points out, is implemented in our schools. We also need to make sure that the law is clear so that teachers feel confident when they use the powers that Parliament has vested in them.

Schools have a duty to prevent and tackle bullying but in tackling bullying they need to address the specific problems that their schools face, based on intelligence about what is driving bullying and where it is taking place. I recently visited a school where pupils were desperate to get home at the end of the day and did not take part in any of the school's extracurricular activities. The reason they were hurrying home was not that they wanted to watch "The Magic Roundabout" or "The Flintstones", but that they were thirsty. Further investigation revealed that the reason they were thirsty was that they were not drinking any water during the day because they did not want to go into the school toilets where the gangs were hanging out. That problem was relatively straightforward to solve once it was known what was happening. Building that awareness and sharing information within the school is very important so that teachers know what is going on in their school.

We also need to be sure that teachers can confidently and effectively deal with poor behaviour. Trainees on initial teacher training routes need to demonstrate that they have met certain standards, including standards relating to discipline, behaviour management and bullying.

Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con): The Minister is talking very eloquently about the need to ensure that proper training is in place and I fully support that, but we also need to ensure that, once teachers have been trained and are in post, the pressures on them from above do not work against dealing with bullying. At present, the exclusion targets, the emphasis on social inclusion and the pressure on teachers within schools in some cases almost to deny that there are any behaviour problems work against the interests of the school and ultimately against the interests of pupils. We have to make sure that teachers feel able to deal with the problems and that means having proper powers in place to ensure discipline.

Mr Gibb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that important intervention. He is absolutely right. One of the things that I have discovered from visiting schools is the importance of support from the head teacher for
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teachers, so that when parents come into the school to complain about a teacher, the head supports that teacher-certainly unless there are serious allegations. If teachers do not know that they have the backing of the head teacher, it makes their job twice as hard as it need be.

We have committed in the coalition agreement to

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