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Bullying in Schools

Opposition Day — [20th Allotted Day — First Part] – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 17th October 2007.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 4:53 pm, 17th October 2007

I beg to move, That this House
do now adjourn.

I am pleased to open today's debate on dealing with bullying in our schools. This is the first opportunity that the House has had to debate these issues since we announced our new package of measures to help schools tackle bullying, "Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools", in September.

The safety and well-being of children and of the professionals who work with them is a top priority for the Government, as I know it is for Members in all parts of the House. Our commitment is reflected in the new public service agreement to improve children and young people's safety, of which bullying is one of the four underpinning indicators. This indicator is measured using the Ofsted "Tell Us" survey, which talks to children and young people about their experiences of bullying.

The starting-point of our policy on bullying is that every child has the right to a good education as well as the right to feel safe and secure as they learn. That is not just our concern as the Government; it is the concern of parents, teachers and young people themselves. Schools should be safe places for children and young people. They should be communities founded on tolerance, understanding and mutual respect and they should be places where it is safe to learn and also safe to teach. Those are the principles that are fundamental to improving attendance and developing young people as healthy and happy individuals, while ultimately raising academic standards as well. In contrast, those affected by bullying can suffer not just in the most obvious way, but in their studies, so where bullying does occur, schools must deal with it quickly and decisively.

The new measures that we have introduced are designed to help parents, pupils and teachers to tackle bullying on three fronts. It is important to have robust anti-bullying policies in schools. "Safe to Learn", the guidance to which I referred earlier, gives school staff practical advice and effective strategies and approaches to prevent and challenge bullying. It also offers information for schools working together with parents to support those who have suffered from bullying, engaging the whole school community in the fight against it. In addition to the new guidance, we have developed targeted support for particular schools through the national strategies, while regional advisers are sharing good practice and helping schools to improve their anti-bullying policies.

Through our partnership with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which we also fund, we provide further support to schools through regional co-ordinators who can provide advice to local authorities and schools. With the support of the main teacher unions and professional associations, we have issued the anti-bullying charter to help schools draw up effective policies and evaluate procedures.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

When the Select Committee on Education and Skills looked into bullying, we discovered that when bullying takes place in schools, it is quite difficult to know how bad the situation really is without a national system of registration. I thought that Ofsted's report this week was rather complacent about bullying and did not pay much attention to it. Given that we pointed out that difficulty to the Department, are the Government having any second thoughts about it?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and for the important work that his Select Committee does on the issue of bullying and education more widely. As he is aware, our view is that it would be wrong to overburden schools with statutory requirements on reporting, but we expect them to collect and record information about bullying incidents, which we believe is best used on a local basis. There are some technical difficulties in achieving absolute consistency in the recording of bullying, but a toolkit is available from the Anti-Bullying Alliance, which should help schools follow best practice in the recording of these incidents.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Conservative, Weston-Super-Mare

Is it not true that bullying is one of the most under-reported problems in schools? Whether or not there is a consistent way of measuring it across the country is always less important than establishing an environment in which pupils who are victims of bullying feel able to report it to someone so that proper action can be taken.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is far more important to embed an anti-bullying culture in our schools that will make children and young people confident that systems are in place so that when bullying is reported, appropriate action will follow. The updated guidance—I shall talk about its new additional parts later—provides the right sort of framework to create that sort of culture. Speaking as a former teacher, albeit many years ago, I am aware that there was occasionally in the past a culture within schools that bullying was something that the school management should deny could possibly be happening in their institution. That is understandable because of their fears about the school's reputation, but I think we have now moved on to acknowledge that bullying takes place in every institution, not just in schools. It is important for that acknowledgment to be acted on, which is what the guidance is all about.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is not one of the problems the fact that bullies will almost habitually deny having done anything wrong, and it is often difficult to gather evidence to substantiate a claim? Parents will defend a child who they cannot believe could be guilty of bullying, and finding out exactly what has happened can be quite a complex process.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

The hon. Lady is right—and, of course, bullying is not always physical. The position can be especially difficult when psychological bullying such as teasing is involved. A good policy in schools and the following of guidance will raise awareness, helping professionals to be more alert and spot signs of bullying in both those who are being bullied and those responsible for the bullying.

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Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister is making an interesting case, but is not bullying most prevalent in a culture of ill-discipline? Does he share my concern about the fact that, according to figures produced in the past year, more than 10 per cent. of children at no fewer than 1,587 schools have been excluded? Should the Minister not focus on that wider issue?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that behaviour is very important. Every Ofsted report over the past 10 years has shown an improvement in the number of schools that are meeting either "very good" or "satisfactory" standards of behaviour. However, we want to go further. We want to raise the bar in terms of behaviour, as we have made clear in the new Department for Children, Schools and Families. I hope that if that results in a change in the statistics, the hon. Gentleman will support our action. We think that behavioural standards are as important as academic standards, because one feeds into the other.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

According to the evidence, 41 per cent. of gay children in schools are beaten up and no fewer than 17 per cent. of them receive death threats. Will the Minister tell us how the revised and strengthened guidance will promote action to counter that phenomenon, especially in the light of the growth of faith schools in which there is often a very strong and traditionalist ethos in regard to sexual practice? If that is not dealt with by good guidance, it could lead to a bullying and homophobia that most of us in the House would regard as abhorrent.

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B

Well done to this MP for raising this important, and often ignored, issue...

Submitted by Bridget Hall

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing record in the House on this subject. He and I collaborated in the most positive way on the Bill that became the Adoption and Children Act 2002, and his long-standing record includes having moved his own party in the same direction in relation to homophobic bullying and equal treatment of people with a gay orientation. I will deal with his intervention a little later in my speech.

More than three quarters of secondary schools and more than 50 per cent. of primary schools are already using the anti-bullying charter. Clear procedures, coupled with a strong message from heads and teachers that bullying will not be tolerated and that schools will apply disciplinary sanctions to perpetrators, is the key to instilling confidence in parents and pupils. The guidance and the charter are invaluable tools that will help heads and teachers to develop the approach that works best for their schools, in order to deal with the problems and challenges specific to them. The advice is now backed by strengthened legal powers to enable heads and teachers to tackle bullying.

The Education and Inspections Act 2006 has made absolutely clear that teachers who are in charge of pupils have the necessary legal backing to discipline pupils for bad behaviour, including bullying. The Act gives teachers clear legal backing for confiscation of items such as mobile phones from pupils when they are used to cause disruption or bully other pupils. Heads now have clear legal backing to regulate the conduct of pupils outside the school gates where appropriate, including applying sanctions on their return to school. Those powers are important and, taken together with the guidance, provide an effective framework to help to tackle any problems of bullying. However, as the world changes, so does the nature of bullying. Keeping up with the evolving problems that bullying presents and giving good advice to tackle specific forms of bullying is our next defence against the problem.

As you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, last year we produced our guidance on bullying around racism, religion and culture. We have added to that this year by producing new guidance to tackle homophobic bullying. I am pleased to say that it has received a very warm and wide welcome. We know from surveys that homophobic bullying is common, yet anti-gay remarks are rarely treated with the same seriousness as, for example, racist remarks in schools. It is important that all school staff know how to challenge homophobic remarks, including the use of the word "gay" as a term of abuse.

I am absolutely delighted to confirm that the approach that permitted the introduction of section 28 is now well and truly gone from our politics. I think that that is welcomed on both sides of the House.

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Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

The Minister mentioned the importance of language and the use of the word "gay" as a term of abuse to suggest that something is second-rate or derisory. What sort of message does he think the BBC sends out when it allows leading disc jockeys, who are listened to by a large number of young people, to use the word "gay" in a pejorative sense? The BBC says that that is acceptable because the BBC has to reflect 21st century use of language. That is the excuse that I got back from the then director-general of the BBC when I wrote to complain about it.

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J

Why did no MP respond to the BBC attitude to your very pertinent point?

Few people ever, sadly, are aware of what is said in Parliament yet millions hear what is said on the BBC which can be very damaging to genuine proponents of efforts to combat Homophobic bullying in all its aspects.

Submitted by John Rippon

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I do not wish to refer to any particular individuals in responding to the hon. Gentleman but as he may be aware I have made it clear in public remarks on the matter that I regard that as highly unfortunate. It is my view that it is unacceptable for the word to be used in that way. It is particularly important for high-profile figures to remember that.

Where section 28 hampered teachers from using their professional judgment to discuss with students sensitive issues around sexual orientation, the new guidance on homophobic bullying, which has been developed in collaboration with Stonewall and Educational Action Challenging Homophobia and in broad consultation with all interested parties, including faith groups, gives teachers for the first time specific advice to help to challenge and to change homophobic attitudes, while supporting and affirming gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils, and their right to be themselves without being bullied.

The guidance provides schools with advice on how to use the curriculum to encourage a climate of respect to ensure that gay pupils and gay teachers are fully included as part of the school community and that those pupils also excel at their studies. Next year, we will go further by issuing new guidance for schools on how to prevent and to tackle bullying of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. I know that John Bercow also has that as one of his top priorities.

Bullying is not new, but there are new forms of bullying, or rather new means to bully. As technology rapidly develops and is more easily accessible, bullies have made cyberspace their new playground. Cyberbullying is a particularly insidious and harmful form of bullying, as it reaches into people's homes and direct to their mobile phones. There are various surveys and estimates, but a recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families indicated that about a third of 12 to 15-year-olds report having experienced cyberbullying in some form.

Some incidents will be more serious than others. The use of the term "happy slapping" is as much a misnomer for what it represents as the term "joyriding". There is nothing happy about being assaulted, but then for the assault to be recorded and shared with others is simply wrong. Cyberbullying can also take the form of abusive texts, e-mails and messages on social networking sites. Of course, it is not just pupils who are affected by cyberbullying. Teachers can be victims, too, with serious consequences for their motivation, job satisfaction, and classroom teaching.

Through the cyberbullying taskforce, we have now brought together the industry, education professionals and law enforcement agencies to take forward a programme of work to tackle cyberbullying. I am particularly pleased that the industry is starting to face up to this problem by participating in the work. Many of the companies in this industry started off as small unregulated operations with a culture averse to any so-called "censorship", but they have to understand that as their businesses grow up, their culture must do so also. Those companies have a corporate social responsibility to the young people who use their services. It is essential that they understand that. That is why I am so pleased that many of them are participating in our cyberbullying taskforce.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend has referred to instances of cyberbullying. As he knows, there are legal remedies against harassment under legislation that we introduced in the past 10 years, and they are often used by adults. Is it not now time for schools to consider further legal remedies that children and teachers might take?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

In our view, there is no need for any new offences to be created in relation to cyberbullying because the law is adequate. I absolutely support the right of schools to take legal action in such circumstances, where appropriate. As I have said, the companies who provide the services have a responsibility to ensure the removal of any offensive material that constitutes the bullying of pupils or teachers, even where it stops short of being illegal.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Sadly, the bullying of children with special educational needs is all too common, and it is extremely welcome that the Government intend to produce specific guidance on that. Regardless of whether one uses the word bullying or the more accurate term of "inadvertent unfairness", there is a problem among some teaching staff. Because they have not received training in handling such children—those with speech, language and communication difficulties, for instance, or those on the autistic spectrum—they wrongly mistake as bad behaviour the actions of a child who simply does not understand what is expected of him or her. Help is needed in that regard as well.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; he and I have discussed that matter outside the confines of the Chamber. His point also provides another reason why it is wrong to exclude pupils from school without appeal: there will be occasions when the behaviour concerned is linked to a disability or condition that the pupil has, and that should be properly taken into account.

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Photo of David Lepper David Lepper Labour, Brighton, Pavilion

I welcome the Minister's comments on the engagement of the industry in addressing cyberbullying. However, does he not share my concern that instances of bullying are sometimes posted on websites that originate outside this country, and that there is therefore an international dimension that probably requires the involvement of not only his Department, but others as well, in trying to get an international agreement to deal with the issue?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

That is absolutely right. There is an issue to do with the first amendment of the American constitution; many of the websites concerned are hosted in the United States. We are governed by European law.

Let me also say this in response to my hon. Friend's point: many of the companies that advertise on such websites would be horrified to learn that their brand was appearing next to the kind of content we are discussing. While we are doing all we can internationally to get appropriate regulation, we could also influence websites by pointing out to some of the major brands where their advertising is appearing, and what content it is appearing next to. That is one way in which we might apply pressure where we do not, strictly speaking, have jurisdiction.

We also commissioned Childnet International to produce our cyberbullying guidance, which provides schools with advice on safe and responsible use of the internet, on how to prevent cyberbullying in the first place, and on what action to take to get images or text taken down from websites. John Bercow referred earlier to sometimes inadvertent bullying, and our new online campaign, called "Laugh at it and you're part of it", aims to make young people more aware of the fact that viewing offensive content, even if they have not generated it, sending messages and thereby passing such content on, and laughing at it makes them part of the bullying. That is a very important message to get out to young people who might otherwise think that such behaviour is harmless, and who do not associate it with real suffering on the part of an individual.

It is important that the "Safe to Learn" guidance, including the cyberbullying and homophobic bullying guidance, is put into practice. I have therefore asked the Anti-Bullying Alliance and the national strategies to work with local authorities and schools to ensure that the guidance is being embedded effectively, and we will be closely monitoring how it is used.

That brings me to the third front on which we can fight bullying—by empowering the pupils and the victims themselves. Giving young people the facts about bullying and how to protect themselves is crucial, but we must also equip them mentally and emotionally with the resources and resilience that they need to recognise offensive behaviour, to stand up for their rights and those of others, and to understand others' feelings and resolve conflict themselves.

Since coming back into education as a Minister, having left it in 1994, I have noticed that, as everybody involved in education will recognise, all the acronyms have changed. I have decided that we need a new word in the English language to describe all the acronyms that we no longer use: "anacronym", which means an anachronistic acronym. I want to tell the House, however, about a new acronym: SEAL, which stands for the social and emotional aspects of learning.

SEAL is a programme that allows pupils to explore some of these issues in the classroom and to find solutions to deal with them. In my view, every good school is based not just on a good record of attainment and a firm grip on bad behaviour, but on leadership and positive values. SEAL contributes to that value system by promoting tolerance and respect throughout the whole school, and by facilitating better relationships between staff and pupils. It is not a soft option—it is a valuable lesson for life. I believe firmly that, unless we help to strengthen the emotional intelligence of our young people in this ever-changing and hectic world, we will find it harder to develop their academic intelligence, too.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

Much of what my hon. Friend has been speaking about regarding Government action on this issue is first class. However, does he agree that one real problem is that, if we do not give leadership to young people in our schools, we will never keep pace with and crack bullying? The only school in which I have seen that achieved is the Blue school in Wells, in Somerset. It empowers students to deal with bullying through active citizenship, which really cracks the problem. That is the only way in which I have seen bullying expunged.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I have heard of the work of the Blue school in Wells, and of its school council. I know that my hon. Friend has visited the school and seen what happens there. He is absolutely right: it is by creating a culture of empowerment among young people that we will really get to grips with this problem.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons

There are two elements that my hon. Friend has not referred to—the family and the youth service—and although he might say that that is because this is a debate about bullying in schools, they are material to this subject. In fact, a lot of the bullying that happens around schools happens away from the school premises itself and is part of kids' life. The youth service can make a dramatic difference by enabling kids to face up to these issues in a non-academic environment. Also, nearly every bully is the child of a bully, and if we are unable to tackle some of the parenting problems in society today, do we really stand a chance of weeding out bullying?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I do not want to stray too wide, and my hon. Friend is right that we could get into a debate about extended schools, the work that we are doing with parents and so on. That would be going a little wide of the mark, and I know that you are strict in your observance of these matters, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Suffice it to say, my hon. Friend is, as usual, correct in his observations.

Some 60 per cent. of primary schools have implemented the SEAL programme, and it is just being introduced in secondary schools following a successful pilot project. We have provided £10 million of funding between 2007 and 2011, with the aim that every school will be in a position to use the programme by 2011. My Department also funds ChildLine in Partnership with Schools—CHIPS; it is the only instance when we actively encourage chips in schools these days. Through that programme, pupils are encouraged to become peer mentors or supporters. Pupils who are being bullied will often prefer to talk to one of their peers before talking to an adult.

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Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister has been generous in allowing interventions, although he has been speaking for 27 minutes. I might have missed something, but I do not think that he has mentioned two words: "parents" and "guardians". Perhaps he is remiss in that.

This issue was touched on by Chris Bryant and at one stage I thought that I might agree with him for once. What about having active policies to engage and support the parents of bullied children in schools and, just as importantly, the parents of children who are doing the bullying, who are often shocked and dismayed by the behaviour of their children?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

That is important. I believe I had mentioned parents, although perhaps I did not use the words "guardians". We can develop this theme during the course of the debate, and I am conscious of the amount of time that this speech has taken, but I should say that we are funding organisations that do work in this area, including Parentline Plus.

We have had SEAL and CHIPS in this debate, which is an interesting combination. CHIPS, another acronym, runs mediation, befriending and listening-based schemes, which allow children and young people to support each other. Through these schemes, pupils can take responsibility for promoting good behaviour, preventing bullying, and helping to keep their peers safe.

I have been admonished for talking for a long time, even though I have given way several times, so I shall wind up by saying that I am confident that these new measures will give teachers, parents and pupils the resources, and the confidence, to deal with bullying. I hope that members of the House will agree that they are a significant step forward in tackling bullying in all its forms.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 5:22 pm, 17th October 2007

This is an important debate, in which there is unlikely to be a huge difference of opinion between the Opposition and the Government. We welcome the various guidance that has been issued by the Department, in particular the "Safe to Learn" guidance. Poor behaviour in schools is parents' No. 1 concern about schools—it even comes before concerns about standards, although one tends to affect the other. Bullying is the sharp point where poor behaviour in a school acts directly and painfully upon an individual, and we are all too familiar with the consequences. The Select Committee on Education and Skills reported on bullying earlier this year. It said that the effects of bullying cause a

"number of problems ranging from general unhappiness, poor concentration, low-self esteem, psychosomatic symptoms and anxiety to depression, self-harm or suicide."

Data on the extent of bullying in schools is sparse, as the Chair of the Select Committee, Mr. Sheerman, said in his intervention on the Minister. The Home Office's offending, crime and justice survey examined the proportion of 10 to 15-year-olds who were victims of theft or assault. Some 25 per cent. said that they had suffered an assault, 14 per cent. with no injury and 11 per cent. with an injury. Of those who had suffered an assault with injury, 61 per cent. said that it had taken place at school, and of those who had suffered assault without an injury, 68 per cent. said it had taken place at school.

Ofsted's 2003 report into bullying mentioned a survey by Professor Peter Smith, whom the hon. Gentleman interviewed during the course of drawing up his report. That survey, conducted in 1999, said that

"between 10 and 20 per cent. of pupils interviewed in England had been bullied in the six months prior to the survey."

Ofsted also found that surveys of children and young people suggest that bullying in schools is more common than adults sometimes think.

That view was also reflected in the Select Committee report, which cited evidence from Barnsley council's children's services scrutiny committee, which found that

"only 18 per cent. of parent governors and governor chairs felt that bullying was a problem in their schools compared with 64 per cent. of pupils."

The NSPCC points out that between April 2006 and April 2007, Childline counselled 37,500 children about bullying, and that bullying is the primary reason for children calling the service in the past 11 years.

Whatever the data, it is fair to say that the problem is extensive, but that several initiatives by the Government and voluntary bodies and charities, such as Beatbullying and the Anti-Bullying Alliance, have had some modest success in changing the culture in many schools to one in which bullying is no longer seen as acceptable. Initiatives such as peer mentoring and clear anti-bullying school policies, set down in writing, must be part of that approach and we welcome all the initiatives that the Government have undertaken.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

We all hate bullying and we are all keen to have anti-bullying policies, but the Select Committee found that not enough research had been done before the policies were introduced. We did not find enough evidence of thorough research on which to base the policy.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

Yes, I took that important point from the report. Good research in education policy generally is crucial, and many of the problems in education have arisen from a lack of proper, scientifically conducted research. However, I also share the Minister's view that we do not want to impose too high a burden on schools in recording and reporting data for policy-making purposes, although if schools are taking a thorough approach to bullying, the data should be available as part of the way that they deal with the problem.

Bullying is an especial concern for children with special needs, as my hon. Friend John Bercow said. According to the National Autistic Society, two in five parents of children with autism have said that their child has been bullied in school. For children with Asperger's, that rises to three in five. Mencap has said that eight out of 10 children with a learning difficulty have been bullied—80 per cent.

Bullying is clearly linked to the general level of behaviour in schools. A school in which behaviour is out of control or poor is likely to have a higher level of bullying than one where standards of behaviour are high. Ofsted's first recommendation in its 2003 report suggested that schools should

"Maintain the momentum on action against bullying through initiatives to improve attitudes and behaviour in schools generally."

Poor behaviour in schools remains a major problem. It is one of the key reasons teachers give for leaving the profession. In too many schools, the prevalence of so-called low-level disruption goes unchecked and remains a fact of life. I have seen it first hand and I hear horror stories from heads who have successfully taken over failing schools.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I agree with what my hon. Friend has said, but does he agree that the very prevalence of bullying in schools of children with special educational needs underlines the importance of continuing and extending the drive to ensure that special educational needs co-ordinators are, as a matter of course and as the norm, not the exception, part of the senior management of the school, driving forward the anti-bullying policy?

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have heard tragic stories of children with special needs who have suffered terribly from bullying in mainstream schools that went unchecked. I met a nine-year-old boy at Cedar Hall school in Benfleet, which is a special school for children with moderate learning difficulties, who had been suicidal at his previous school. It is tragic that a child of that age should try to throw himself from a moving car on the way to school because he was so miserable there. One wonders what was happening in that mainstream school if that poor child was being bullied so remorselessly that he threw himself down the stairs at home and tried to get out of a moving car on the way to school. That prompts questions about inclusion and the policy to close down special schools.

Heads who manage to change the behaviour in their schools do so through a rigorous and uncompromising approach to discipline. The rules are clear and enforced consistently. In one school that I visited in Milton Keynes, one of the assistant heads walks the corridors of the school during lessons with a mobile phone. If a teacher has a problem with a child in class, he or she calls the assistant head who takes the child away. Consistent punishments are applied to such a child, so that every child in that school knows precisely what will happen. As a result, behaviour at the school is excellent. At a secondary modern school in Trafford, I saw a boy wearing trainers being told to go home and change into black shoes or stay in isolation all day—a strict school uniform policy strictly enforced.

It is unfair to blame poor behaviour on the intake of a school. Whatever the background of a child, the school should provide a safe and structured environment. I know of schools in challenging areas that have superb behaviour, and schools in leafy suburbs where behaviour is out of control. Eston Park school in Middlesbrough is an outstanding school serving a relatively deprived area. Student behaviour at that school is, according to the most recent Ofsted report, excellent.

At Mossbourne academy in Hackney, 50 per cent. of the intake qualify for free school meals but behaviour is exemplary. Children stand up when an adult enters the classroom, and the atmosphere is one of calm studiousness. Three members of the teaching staff are on duty in the canteen at lunchtime—one in the queue, one where the food is served, and one supervising the tables—and teachers eat with the students. In the playground, I saw five members of staff on duty. That is consistent with Ofsted's observation of what constitutes an effective strategy to deal with bullying. It notes on page 13 of its report:

"Teachers supervised the canteen, encouraging year groups to mix socially... Steps in other schools included introducing more indoor social areas, having more lunchtime clubs and activities".

The prevalence of extensive extracurricular activity is one of the common characteristics of schools that have not only good behaviour, but high standards of academic achievement. Boredom, whether in lessons or at break-times, is a key contributor to the culture of bullying.

I visited one school in Lincoln that had a fantastic atmosphere. The culture and ethos of that school was that it was cool to work hard and study hard. I met one 15-year-old who was wearing a tie that was different from those worn by others around him. It was a worn and slightly tatty tie. I asked him what the different pattern on the tie meant. He said that he was awarded the tie in year seven, when he was 12, because he had scored more than 100 merit points. I asked him whether wearing the tie was not big-headed and might encourage jealousy. He replied that he had earned it, and was therefore entitled to wear it. He said that he had not had any adverse reaction; the contrary was the case.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

He was not 6 ft 3 in.

At that school, academic achievement was acknowledged and publicly rewarded, as was sporting prowess and achievement. Too many of our state schools, certainly in the recent past, have been reluctant to highlight excellence on the ground that it might undermine the confidence of those who fail to win. But if a school does not reward academic and sporting achievement, the message is sent that those are not important accomplishments. The vacuum of what is important is filled by others: the toughest kid; the most hilarious child in the classroom; the biggest clown; the biggest bully. Those become the sought-after accolades.

A few years ago, that school in Lincoln had a child with a particular medical condition who underwent a sex-change operation. Pupils there were aware of what was happening, but because of the atmosphere of the school, and the way that teachers handled the matter, the child suffered no bullying or difficulties from other children. I have cited some individual schools, but many other secondary schools have achieved a similar atmosphere in which behaviour is excellent and bullying is at a bare minimum. We need to spread such best practice throughout the school system.

People talk about schools not being responsible for what happens beyond the school gates, and the Minister touched on that issue. I have heard head teachers in schools whose names include the word "community" saying just that, even after the arrival of the new powers under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. However, I recently visited a Cumbria comprehensive whose head said precisely the opposite. When he hears that youths at his school have been causing trouble in town, he finds out who they are and takes action against those perpetrators the next day in school. He believes that his school is very much part of the community.

As the Select Committee reported, bullying often takes place on transport to and from school. The Committee found one school that, after establishing that bullying was taking place on certain buses, arranged for prefects to travel on those buses for a time. That is an excellent practice. However, many comprehensive schools simply do not have prefects. One of the common characteristics of the best performing schools is that they have prefects, a head boy and a head girl. That gives responsibility to young people, but also provides a valuable resource for maintaining good behaviour and clamping down on bullying. If pupils—albeit the older ones—tackle bullying, that can be very effective, as they really know what goes on in the school.

I want to make one final point, which I hope will not be controversial. We tend to grapple for answers to some of the problems facing schools—whether bullying, truancy, obesity, poor literacy or poor ability in maths—individually, with guidance or initiatives. All those are welcome, but our approach tends to be to look at the problems individually and then tackle them. However, it is possible that all such problems have a common cause and that if we tackle that, we will be able to tackle each problem. I think that many such problems have common or at least interlinking causes. A report by the Effective Pre-School and Primary Education Project, or EPPE, was published this year. The report is long, with many interesting findings, one of which is particularly relevant to this debate. The report found that

"Children who attend a primary school identified as more academically effective...show reduced 'Anti-social' behaviour at age 10."

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.

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Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee

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.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

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 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.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons 5:41 pm, 17th October 2007

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.

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:

"All my friends are worrying about boyfriends and I am thinking about shopping and paying the bills."

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.

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:

"Young carers don't want to highlight the bullying as it will highlight their situation at home."

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 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

"shocked to learn of the 150,000 young people in England and Wales, currently under the age of 18, who are caring for a sick or disabled relative, often a parent".

He also said:

"Social services departments and education authorities in particular need to ensure that those young people are supported, so that they are not excessively burdened, their childhood is not strangled by their responsibilities, and they are given educational priority."—[ Hansard, 10 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1337.]

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 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.

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Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 5:56 pm, 17th October 2007

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.

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. 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 physically hurt by the bullying—it was not just taunting. 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, 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.

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Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:08 pm, 17th October 2007

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.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

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?

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Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Opposition Whip (Commons)

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 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,

"we... take calls from parents of bullies appalled at their children's behaviour and not knowing which way to turn."

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.

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 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 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.

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Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:27 pm, 17th October 2007

Before I add my brief remarks to this consensual debate, I would like to endorse the tribute paid by 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, 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.

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, 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.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 6:40 pm, 17th October 2007

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. Mr. Gibb, who made a speech from the Conservative Front Bench, spoke about behaviour in our schools and, as I mentioned to 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.

We heard a contribution from my hon. Friend 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.

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Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons

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.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

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.

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.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the sending of guidance to all schools on homophobic bullying. I should explain that the homophobic bullying guidance is part of the overall "Safe to Learn" document. That extensive online document is available for schools to order if they wish to have a hard copy, although—as the Minister with responsibility for sustainability in the Department—I do not want to have too great an impact on the Amazon rainforest by sending out huge documents that schools do not want if they can be made available online.

The hon. Gentleman might also have been referring to some further work that has been done by Stonewall and the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I understand that Stonewall is planning to send additional materials to schools in conjunction with the Anti-Bullying Alliance. That is not specifically a departmental initiative, and it is not yet clear what the distribution strategy is.

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Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

Given that the resource has been made available to schools online by the Government, how can the Minister be confident that every school—especially faith schools—will implement the guidance?

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I have made it clear that I expect all schools to implement the guidance and we will use the national strategies and the Anti-Bullying Alliance to monitor what is happening in schools. The guidance applies equally to faith schools and we will monitor the implementation in all schools closely. It is a requirement for schools to develop a bullying strategy, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk a little about his party conference and the Prime Minister's remarks earlier today. He is right that there are many different types of bullying—I will not repeat the point about leadership bullying, which might concern his party—that sometimes require a different approach. That is what we are trying to do in our further work. It was remiss of me if I did not mention personal, social and health education lessons in schools, which are an important part of delivering that kind of education. I hope that he will also acknowledge, as I asked the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton to do, the importance of the social and emotional aspects of learning programme. We have had independent verification that that has been effective in improving behaviour in schools.

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Photo of Dan Norris Dan Norris PPS (Rt Hon David Miliband, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government's approach does not embrace the so-called no blame approach to bullying? About 18 months ago, in response to problems in Bristol schools, the then Liberal Democrat-run council gave out an instruction to schools that pupils should not be punished for bullying other pupils, and I am still angry about that.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that the Government are not embracing the no blame approach. We have also made that clear to the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Bullies should always be punished. As we have discussed, further help might be required for bullies, their families and their parents, but I have no doubt whatever that it is a big mistake if the bully's actions have no real consequence. It is ultimately in the interests of the bully's own welfare and well-being that there should be such consequences.

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Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I want to put on record that Dan Norris is being slightly mischievous. When Bristol city council issued anti-bullying guidelines over a year ago, the so-called no blame approach was just one of the options that schools could take up, and a link to the then Department for Education and Skills website highlighted that no blame was an option—not the sole option, but one of many—for a school.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

For absolute clarity, let me assure the hon. Gentleman that it is not our policy to support that approach to bullying. For the benefit of any local authorities or others who are listening, let me make it clear that such an approach to bullying is a mistake.

The hon. Member for Peterborough made an important contribution. He said that the debate was important, and bemoaned slightly the lack of attendance for his speech, which was a great shame as it was well worth listening to. I suspect that the football might have had something to do with that, but certainly no one was excluded from listening to his speech.

The debate was broadly consensual, but I have a fundamental difference with the hon. Gentleman over the issue of ending appeal panels, which is his party's policy. It is a bit of a dog-whistle issue: superficially, the argument is that we must back the head teacher, and that it is a mistake not to do so. We would all assent to that proposition in its raw form. It is not common sense, however, to say that a mistake could never be made about exclusions. Nor is it common sense to leave schools open to being sued through the courts and dragged into the judicial system as the only way to deal with that kind of problem. That would allow lawyers to line their pockets with money as appeals were made through the courts, judicial review or whichever mechanism was used, instead of through a simple, proper appeals mechanism.

In 2005-06, only 1.4 per cent. of excluded pupils who appealed were reinstated, and only half went back to the original school they attended. It is a dog-whistle issue, and I understand why the Opposition are raising it, but it is not common sense. If they reflect on it, they will find that that is the case.

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Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

A quarter of appeals are overturned. That is a big concern to head teachers, who say that in many instances that deters them from making exclusions in the first place. The issue is a major drag on the ability of head teachers to impose discipline. We propose that there could be an appeal to the governing body of the school; it could be heard by governors who were not involved in the original exclusion.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Ultimately, we want to avoid such matters getting to the courts, and I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman suggests is the appropriate way to do that. Whomever is appealed to, he acknowledges that there has to be some sort of appeal. To pretend that an alternative form of appeal would be any different is not to be strictly open about the nature of the motivation behind that policy. That is one issue on which we shall have to agree to disagree.

I want to refer further to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Peterborough. He said one other thing: that poor discipline is a major problem in all our schools. I am not sure whether he meant to say that; I wrote it down when he said it. If he did, I should say that I do not agree with him; as we have discussed, discipline, behaviour and tackling bullying are important, but poor discipline is not a problem in all our schools, as Ofsted's report today would confirm to him. In fact, behaviour has improved in recent years. However, we have agreed in this debate that we have to do better.

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Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way because of the time available; I also want to comment on the remarks made by Angela Watkinson.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the school playground, buddy systems and so on, and he talked a lot of good sense about approaches to reduce bullying that use peer mentoring and so on.

Finally, I turn to the remarks made by the hon. Member for Upminster, who told us that she had been first in the class when a student. We saw why from her interesting and engaging speech, full of a lot of good sense. She also told us about an unfortunate incident that she personally suffered recently. The individual involved was no gentleman; that was absolutely clear.

I was taken by her remarks about pupils eating together in school. I met representatives of the School Food Trust this morning, and we discussed that issue. The hon. Lady may be interested to know that my mother was a dinner lady in the primary school that I attended as a young lad. I had no choice but to learn how to use a knife and fork and eat properly. There is a lot in what the hon. Lady says: we should consider how to ensure a good environment for children when they have school meals. It should not just be a case of their turning up to eat at lunch time; they should learn social skills and table manners, if we want to call them that. They should learn how to use a knife and fork properly and how to have a discussion while having a meal. Those are important skills for any young person to learn. A lot of young people come into school without such skills, which we might expect them to have.

The hon. Lady also mentioned how effective school councils can be. She may not mind my telling her, in another family reference, that my daughter was elected to her school council a couple of weeks ago; I am afraid that that is probably the effect of having an MP as a father. School councils are important, and I am personally aware of how useful they can be in dealing with problems such as bullying.

The hon. Lady also mentioned technology and video games. Not all such games are violent; there are some good, educational ones. However, as I am sure she will welcome, we are having a review on the issue—the Byron review—in the next few months, at the instigation of the Prime Minister. I am sure that any observation that she made to that review would be welcome. The review will specifically cover video games and their influence on children; I thought that the hon. Lady would be interested in that and want to make a contribution.

We have had a good and consensual debate and I thank everyone for their contributions. The issue is very important: dealing with bullying is fundamental to the learning experience of pupils and a safe working environment for school staff. Clearly, on both sides of the House there is a commitment, which I welcome, to tackle the issues. A range of views has been expressed, and I thank all who spoke.

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Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Assistant Whip

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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