Bullying in Schools
Opposition Day — [20th Allotted Day — First Part]
Stewart Jackson (Whip, Whips; Peterborough, Conservative)
It is a pleasure to follow 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 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 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, 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
"casual attitudes to violence seem to be becoming more common",
and that there was
"a lack of respect for other people, a lack of respect for difference, and anti-social behaviour, as well as bullying".
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
"a lack of accurate reliable data on bullying is one barrier to more effective anti-bullying work",
and expressed concern that
"decisions on anti-bullying policy are being made with very little evidence to guide them."
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 Mr. Gibb pointed out the link between discipline, standards and a reduction in bullying. The corollary is that poor discipline results in more bullying.