I am conscious of the time, Mr Stringer, so I will make sure colleagues have the same amount of time to speak as I have. First, I thank Layla Moran for securing this debate. I spoke to her earlier today and decided to come and make a contribution from the Northern Ireland perspective.
School can either be the best or the worst days of your life—that’s a fact. I attended a boarding school for five years or so. Although I enjoyed it, I can remember having things thrown at me when, as a Christian, I prayed at the side of my bed. I remember such things very well. I was—and still am, or I probably would not survive in politics—of a disposition where I can let things slide off my skin, just as those items that used to be thrown at me bounced off. However, I am also aware, as both an elected representative and a father, that that is a particular gift, and that even the strongest person can be wounded by the words of a peer. I have three children and two grandchildren, so I am aware of the issues.
More than 1 million of our young people admit to being affected by bullying. We can be sure that for every person who speaks out, another is suffering in silence. I read an article in the Belfast Telegraph that outlined the latest figures from Childline. They revealed that the NSPCC supported service delivered 4,636 counselling sessions for loneliness in 2017-18—a 14% increase on the previous year. Of that total, 105 counselling sessions were carried out with children from Northern Ireland, up from 71 in the previous year. Across the UK, girls received almost 80% of sessions, with some pointing to the harmful effects of social media. Among the reasons they cited for their being made to feel increasingly isolated was watching people that they thought were friends socialise without them. Children are sensitive.
Our children are struggling in a world that is increasingly “nothing hidden and all show”. Although social media can be wonderful to connect people and perhaps spread positivity, I agree with Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge in their campaign to address cyber-bullying. In June, Prince William launched the online “Stop, Speak, Support” code of conduct in a bid to tackle the problem. He spoke of the social media giants being “on the back foot” when it comes to tackling fake news, privacy and cyber-bullying. He said that technology firms
“still have a great deal to learn” about their responsibilities, and he challenged them to fight harder against the poison that is spread online. I agree very much with what he said.
Increasingly, teachers report that much of the bullying now takes place outside the playground, in what should be the safety of one’s own home. However, that does not take away from the responsibility to promote good mental health and make help available in schools.
I spoke in the main Chamber last Thursday—the Minister was there to answer the debate—about the financial difficulties that schools are facing and the cuts that have been made, as a result of which all teachers are under more time pressure. It also means less time to build up relationships with students and to supervise their interactions. We are seeing the rise of pastoral teams from churches in some schools, which is a good thing as it emphasises to children that there is someone there for them to talk to. Sometimes they need someone to listen and possibly help.
The End Bullying Now campaign, run by the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum, has said there is a basic level of good practice that all schools must achieve. There are strategies that empower young people, parents, carers and practitioners to know what bullying is, what to do and how to stop it. There are strategies that demonstrate a reduction in incidents of bullying; strategies that demonstrate good intervention if and when bullying behaviours occur; a whole-school consultation, including school staff, parents, carers and pupils in the development of an anti-bullying practice—everyone has to be involved in it—and strategies that include integrating an anti-bullying ethos into relevant areas of the curriculum.
It is my belief that schools are attempting to play their part, but I must come back to the budget cuts that see a reduction in teaching staff, classroom assistants and all those in the frontline defence who are in the right place to tackle bullying.
Kids are under more pressure than ever to have the right look inside and outside of school: to have the top clothes, the latest tech and the perfectly angled selfie—a perfect face of make-up and a perfectly ripped body. The weight of those expectations is too heavy for any child to bear and we must have support in schools to address that. My belief is that it must come by means of additional funding and assistance for key support staff on site in school.
The stories of children who have taken their own lives before they have begun are heartbreaking. Every one of us, as elected representatives in close contact with their community, will be aware of such cases. I am aware of some cases. I declare an interest as a member of the board of governors at Glastry College, where there were children that I knew personally who took their life. Indeed, because of my age I knew them from the day they were born—that is a fact of life—and in those circumstances the reality hits home.
To a generation increasingly asked, “Are you fit enough—rich enough—pretty enough—bright enough—social enough?”, there must be people to say, “You are loved as you are. You have the opportunity to write a new chapter and change your ending tomorrow.” There is an onus on us, with the Minister here, to put that in place. Will we do it?