Bullying (School Transport)

– in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 5th November 2013.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Evennett.)

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party 7:00 pm, 5th November 2013

On 12 December 2006, 11-year-old Ben took his own life after being persistently bullied on a dedicated school bus in Sussex. The bullying incidents were reported on a number of occasions, but still the end result was this dreadful tragedy. Had it just been his peers he may well have withstood the bullying, but the bus driver decided to join in and, in his parents’ view, this took the situation to another level. As Ben saw it, here was an adult—someone to look up to and who represented authority—taking part in his denigration. Ben’s parents have since moved to my constituency and I have met his father on many occasions. Over the years, Mr Paul Vodden has spent an enormous amount of time working with charities associated with protecting children from bullying and he met a children’s Minister with me during the previous Government’s time in office.

In 2010, a year after the publication of Government guidance on tackling bullying on journeys to and from school, a survey carried out by 4Children and me showed that the majority of local authorities did not have a safer travel policy in place. The survey found that out of 67 local authorities, 60% did not have a safer travel policy and 52% did not have a safer travel team. Of those local authorities that did have a safer travel policy, only 50% said it covered all forms of bullying and only 38% said it covered all forms of journey.

The chief executive of 4Children said that the implementation of anti-bullying policies outside the school gates has been slow, with many local agencies still not working together as well as they could. Mr Vodden said:

“In my opinion, this incident represents a small tip to a very large iceberg of misery for many children who have a hard time on their way to and from school on dedicated school buses. In what other situation would we expect an untrained and unqualified adult to be in sole charge of 50 or more children and to do another complex task at the same time”?

This August, Mr Vodden completed his report on his own online survey to assess bullying on dedicated school buses. The aim of his survey is to attempt to determine the extent of bullying on those buses and the involvement, if any, of drivers. The report demonstrates that a number of problems still exist and they need to be urgently addressed. I have sent the Minister details of the methodology used by Mr Vodden and today I want to look at his conclusions.

The situation on the dedicated school bus is, by its nature, potentially problematic as far as bullying is concerned. Children are placed on a school bus in a group, the composition of which they have no choice over. There is no formal supervision and virtually no opportunity of avoiding conflict situations. In other social situations, such as during playground play, there is at least the potential of formal supervision by a teacher, access to supportive peers and the opportunity of escaping unpleasant situations. However, as we know, even in the playground, bullying is not easily avoided.

Mr Vodden’s survey aims to be a realistic snapshot of what is happening on dedicated school buses and a general indication of the effects and consequences of bullying in general. Although the intention of the survey was to focus on the dedicated school bus, anecdotal evidence suggests that the situation is not much better on public service buses.

To put the level of responses in context, it should be noted that bullied children feel that making an issue of bullying could make matters worse. Although the children ought to feel safe because they are anonymous for the purposes of the survey, the responses indicate that they still feel vulnerable. It is also common for such children to have low self-esteem, which makes them feel that the bullying is their fault and that no one will think that they are worth bothering with.

The responses to the survey indicate that there is a significant problem with bullying on dedicated school buses. That has had serious consequences for many of the bullied children. Thirty respondents reported self-harming, 24 considered suicide and 97 just wanted to hide away. Fear, anger and embarrassment were also significant reactions, which adds to the concerns.

The survey indicates that most bullying on the school bus starts when the student commences secondary school in year 7. One hundred and two respondents said that the bullying started in that year, which is 40% of the respondents. Children in the top year of primary school are confident of where they fit within the school and of their peer group. Moving to secondary school puts them at the bottom of the pile, with all the pressures and insecurities that that engenders. The move from year 6 in primary school to year 7 in secondary school should therefore be recognised as a time of particular vulnerability. That vulnerability is compounded by the fact that children are often moving from a small primary school where they know most of their fellow students to a much larger secondary school with many more pupils, perhaps from a greater variety of social groups. That is a particularly interesting finding and something that could easily be cross-referenced with other research. I wonder whether the Minister has further evidence on that point. We know that school transition can be difficult in many other respects.

Mr Vodden concludes that it is clear that the role of the driver is significant. Only four drivers were recorded as taking action to alleviate bullying, whereas 41 were reported as taking no action, even when many of them were reported as knowing what was going on. A worrying 17 drivers were reported as joining in.

Only six respondents knew about the safer travel policy. Although 69 respondents knew that their school had an anti-bullying policy, it is worrying that an almost equal number did not. A significant number of respondents did not know who to turn to in the event of bullying or whether the school had any systems in place to deal with bullying. That might indicate that the school did not have an effective system in place, if any. Although a few respondents reported that support was forthcoming from the school and that practical, effective action was taken, a large majority reported that they received little help from school staff. When help was provided, it was generally found to be ineffectual.

That part of the analysis shows how patchy anti-bullying policies are across schools. I have seen some excellent examples of good practice in schools in my constituency. It is clearly necessary to ensure that good practice is spread. There is also a question over how much leadership there is from the local authority and over what is happening in academies and free schools. ChildLine and other helplines are important because they allow children to discuss bullying, but children are still highly likely to need practical support from their school. Good mentoring from older pupils can be particularly useful in helping children to overcome their reluctance to talk to adults.

My husband recently led a working party on anti-bullying policies across Poole. He concluded that the local authority needs to promote wider discussions with schools to help them understand bullying and must give schools greater assistance in dealing with individual cases. He found that governors need to develop a more proactive role and challenge or encourage their schools to develop and implement anti-bullying policies. He said that partnership working must be developed in conjunction with the expansion of an anti-bullying programme, which could provide for the greater inclusion of parents. It is interesting that that separate piece of work came up with the same areas where more needs to be done.

Mr Vodden’s survey shows that bullying takes place on dedicated school buses and that it involves both verbal and physical abuse such as spitting, punching, slapping and pushing. He concludes that, apart from some notable exceptions, bullying on school buses is clearly an area of child vulnerability that has received insufficient attention. In what other situation are as many as 50 or more children forcibly restricted in a confined space for up to an hour, with a single, untrained adult present, who is undertaking a separate task that requires their full attention? When students are taken on school outings, the ratio of adults to students is strictly controlled and there are always a number of helpers.

Drivers of school buses, whether public service routes or dedicated school services, are recruited on account of their training, qualifications and ability to drive a bus. I make a plea for a requirement for some training for people who drive a bus with those vulnerable pupils. As a minimum safeguard, most local education authorities of course require drivers of dedicated school buses to undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check, but additional training and assessment is needed to ensure that such drivers are able to relate to children and equipped to deal with the childish behaviour that is bound to happen. The findings of the survey indicate that there is a risk of school bus drivers reacting inappropriately towards the young people in their charge. At best they may fail to notice or to report peer bullying, thus leaving vulnerable children without a responsible adult to turn to. At worst, either through ignorance or wilful intent, they may themselves take part in acts of bullying.

Mr Vodden asks whether the driver of a bus can reasonably and safely be expected to monitor children’s behaviour while giving their full attention to the serious undertaking of driving. If not the driver, however, where is the “responsible adult” who can intervene to safeguard children from bullying during their daily journey to and from school? That question requires an urgent and unequivocal answer.

The psychological effects of bullying on children are potentially long term and significant even in the short term. It seems from the responses given in this survey by victims of bullying that a number of schools do not adequately understand the complex nature of bullying, and appear unclear how to deal with it. The responses indicate a lack of joined-up thinking between the relevant agencies when dealing with bullying, and an absence of a coherent strategy or clear procedures. Schools are required to enforce measures that will encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying, including the provision of an anti-bullying policy, but the results of the survey indicate that in many cases that is not properly implemented. Even when systems are in place to deal with bullying, they may be ineffective.

Owing to the complex nature of bullying and the varying needs of both the victims and the bullies, it is essential that any procedure for identifying or dealing with bullying should be flexible and applied specifically to the individuals involved. It is self-evident that children—like the rest of us—are individuals and must be dealt with as such. Any procedure must be efficient and effective to alleviate the bullying without delay. It is important to assess accurately what is taking place, but it is potentially risky to undertake a painstaking investigation before taking speedy action.

Mr Vodden’s conclusions and recommendations include a properly trained adult or “chaperone” other than the bus driver to be provided for all dedicated school buses, particularly on longer journeys, and that all dedicated school bus drivers be given appropriate training in how to behave when dealing with children, how to respond in the event of bullying, and how to avoid becoming involved in the bullying itself—I have asked the previous Schools Minister about that issue on a number of occasions. Mr Vodden recommends that all dedicated school bus drivers should be assessed as suitable and safe to transport children; that it should be made clear to all which agencies and individuals are directly responsible for resolving incidents on the school bus; and that those individuals must be properly trained. In Ben’s case, the parents went to the school repeatedly, but nothing happened as far as the bus journey was concerned. It is so easy to separate school departments from transport departments at local authority level.

Mr Vodden also recommends that a professional body of experts and practitioners in child behaviour should be created to set up and frequently monitor a national procedure for assessing and dealing with bullying. That should be flexible and take into account individual requirements. Every school should have in place an efficient, effective and up-to-date procedure for dealing with bullying, ideally including peer mentoring schemes with proper pastoral care for students.

Clearly, this survey has been carried out in response to a heartbreaking tragedy and a father’s passion to try to ensure that better support is given to children like Ben who suffered so much. Seven years on, many improvements could still be made. I commend the whole piece of work—the survey—to the Minister. There is scope to cross-reference with other pieces of research to come up with further ideas to build on the good work that the Department for Education already supports. I should like to request a meeting with the Minister and Mr Vodden to discuss that further.

A number of charities do excellent work for bullied children, and I thank all of them. Mr Vodden specifically mentions the anti-bullying ambassadors scheme operated by the Diana Award—a cheap and highly effective system for implementing peer mentoring in schools—and the counselling work undertaken by Kidscape, and says they are of particular value in dealing with children in extreme cases of bullying. However, all hon. Members know that bullying happens and will continue to happen. The worst situation is when a school suggests that no bullying takes place, because it is most likely to be happening somewhere. We must face up to the problem and not believe that school transport, as something that happens outside the school, is nothing to do with the teacher in charge of bullying policy, and the governors, who must support the school’s anti-bullying policy. Let us ensure that everybody pulls together so we can do our very best to avoid tragedies such as Ben’s.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:16 pm, 5th November 2013

I congratulate my hon. Friend Annette Brooke on the powerful case she has made concerning bullying on school transport. Bullying in any form and for any reason is totally unacceptable and should never be tolerated. It can instil fear, damage self-esteem and reduce academic attainment. Sadly, it can lead to the most tragic consequences.

I am aware of the case of Ben Vodden—the son of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Paul Vodden—who sadly took his own life following bullying on school transport. I very much admire the fact that, since the tragedy, Mr Vodden has devoted time and energy to looking into this issue with a view to ensuring that no other children and their families suffer in the same way. I know that bullying is very high on the list of parents’ concerns about education and children going to school.

I should like to set out the Government’s approach to tackling bullying in and around school. Children and young people can be bullied in and out of school, and on the way to and from school. To tackle bullying successfully, the whole community and all those who provide services that include children and young people need to work together to change the culture, so that all forms of bullying are unacceptable.

Being victimised restricts a group’s or child’s use of their area’s amenities, such as parks, playgrounds and leisure facilities, and can lead to one group gradually dominating a territory. For example, some children do not play outdoors because they are scared of being bullied. Whether children are in groups, clubs or residential care, on the streets, in parks, or using public or school transport, they should feel safe from victimisation and discrimination.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, local authorities, local safeguarding children boards, the police, schools and parents all have a role to play by intervening to prevent and to respond to bullying. Local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004, which includes tackling bullying. Authorities can develop their own approaches to tackling bullying, including by employing dedicated staff such as anti-bullying co-ordinators, or by commissioning support from the voluntary and community sector. It is important to recognise that different solutions may be appropriate in different locations, and that local authorities have a responsibility to deliver those solutions.

When contracting to provide school transport, local authorities can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. I strongly urge them to do so. No doubt they, like me, will be interested in Mr Vodden’s recommendations in developing their policies. Only by taking collective responsibility will we be able to eradicate poor behaviour in our schools and wider communities.

I recognise that the majority of pupils travel by public transport that is provided by private companies. It is for those companies to determine the training of their staff. Responsible providers of any service, whether a private company, a charity or the state, should take into account its interactions with young people and other vulnerable groups when developing safety policies, and they should act when they encounter bullying. Members of the public not directly involved with schools or services for children have a responsibility to play their part in keeping children safe and reporting poor behaviour, in the wider interests of the community. It is important that we all take responsibility for dealing with this scourge in our society.

Bullying is not a specific criminal offence in the UK, although in some circumstances it can constitute a criminal offence: for example, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1998, the Communications Act 2003 and the Public Order Act 1986. The Home Office’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is currently working its way through Parliament, contains provisions allowing a range of bodies—including the police, local councils and other agencies—to apply for an injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance in order to tackle antisocial behaviour. The injunction is designed to stop or prevent behaviour whereby someone has engaged, or threatens to engage, in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person. Bullying is a behaviour that could fall into that category. The injunction could be used to stop emerging antisocial behaviour before it escalates, and to protect victims from bullying in and around schools and colleges and in the community, and from cyber-bullying. For example, the injunction could stop a perpetrator associating with the victim outside of school or college, or from entering named areas in the community.

Schools have a key part to play in preventing and tackling bullying. Behaviour and bullying are closely linked. All schools must have a behaviour policy, with measures to prevent bullying. It is up to them to develop their own strategies, but they are now clearly held to account for their effectiveness in doing so by Ofsted. The number of criteria in the Ofsted inspections framework has been reduced from 27 to four. Of the four that remain, one is behaviour and safety, which requires school inspectors to take into account bullying, harassment and discrimination. We have made that criterion a core part of the inspection regime.

To ensure that teachers have the powers they need to maintain discipline and enforce school rules, the Government have introduced a number of reforms, including stronger powers to search pupils, the removal of the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of after-school detentions, and a clarification of teachers’ power to use reasonable force. Schools that excel at tackling bullying have created an ethos of good behaviour where pupils treat one another, and school staff, with respect, because they know it is the right way to behave. The best schools develop a more sophisticated approach whereby school staff proactively gather intelligence on issues between pupils before they become a problem: they prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. That might involve talking to pupils about issues of perceived difference in lessons, in dedicated events or projects, and in assemblies.

My hon. Friend made a very good point about the transition from primary school to secondary school, not just with regard to academic attainment, but to confidence and how pupils fit into a new school. That needs to be explored. In general, we are concerned about that transition.

Successful schools involve parents to ensure that they are clear that the school does not tolerate bullying and that they are aware of the procedures to follow if they believe their child is being bullied. They involve pupils, so that pupils understand the school’s approach. They regularly evaluate and update their approach to take into account developments in technology—for example, the role of computers and social media. They implement disciplinary sanctions, so that the consequences of bullying reflect the serious nature of the incident, and they have open discussions about perceived differences before they become problematic. It is important that schools work with the wider community, including the police and children’s services.

We acknowledge that tackling bullying outside school is challenging, but we have been clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted upon. If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a child or another member of the public, the police should be informed. The Department has issued advice to help schools prevent and tackle bulling, making it clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for bullying incidents on school and public transport and on the journey to and from school, when it is brought to their attention.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend about the excellent organisations working in this area, some of which the Department funds. We are providing four organisations with £4 million over two years from spring 2013. First, we are giving £800,000 to The Diana Award to identify and train 10,000 pupils as anti-bullying ambassadors. I recently met representatives from The Diana Award and year-11 student Henry Doran, an anti-bullying ambassador at the Magna Carta school in Surrey. I was incredibly impressed by what Henry told me about how they had created a much more positive culture within the school and how he enjoyed his role helping the other children. At a recent reception in Downing street celebrating that impressive programme, I was told about the smile and compliment days—I said I thought it would be good for us to have them in Westminster sometimes. It is a really good project. What is nice is that it accentuates the positive—it is the opposite of a bullying culture—creating a positive culture in which people compliment each other and focus on their similarities and strengths, rather than the issues dividing them. So that is very good.

Secondly, we are giving just over £250,000 to Kidscape to work in nine of London’s most economically deprived boroughs to train primary school professionals to deliver preventive and remedial strategies. Thirdly, we are giving £1.5 million to Beatbullying to train 3,500 11 to 17-year-olds over two years. Fourthly, we are giving £1.5 million to the National Children’s Bureau consortium to focus on bullied children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities, working with 900 schools and with parents, carers and school staff to reduce the bullying of these children and the impact when it occurs.

As we have heard, bullying can blight the lives of young people and result in tragic consequences. We do not want other children and their families to suffer as Ben Vodden and his family have suffered. We all have a part to play in helping to prevent and tackle bullying wherever it occurs—whether in the school, the wider community or on school transport—to ensure that no children have to suffer mistreatment. My hon. Friend asked if I would meet with her and Mr Vodden. I would be happy to do so in order better to understand the issues at a local authority level: what prevents local authorities from using their powers to make changes—she mentioned the survey—and how we can ensure that good programmes, such as the anti-bullying ambassador programme, become more widespread in our schools. That will help us to change the culture in our schools and create a positive environment where learning can take place.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.