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Bullying on School Buses

Volume 593: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate as I wish to raise the issue of bullying on school buses once more before I retire from the House. I have raised the case of Ben Vodden in the House on a number of occasions, most recently on 5 November 2013, when I led an Adjournment debate on bullying on school transport. I shared the story of 11-year-old Ben, a young student who, in 2006, after being bullied persistently on a dedicated school bus in Sussex, took his own life. As I said at the time, the incidents of bullying that led to his tragic death were reported on a number of occasions, yet, for whatever reason, they were ignored.

The heartbreaking case of Ben Vodden shone a light on the role of dedicated school bus drivers. The driver of Ben’s bus not only failed to intervene, but was complicit in the persistent bullying that took place on the bus. In the view of Ben’s parents, that took the situation to a whole new level. Bullying by peers is, as we know, incredibly difficult to deal with, but adding to that bullying by the person seen by a child as a responsible adult is difficult even to comprehend. Since the tragic death of Ben in 2006, his father, Paul Vodden, has dedicated a great amount of time to tackling the issue. He has campaigned tirelessly for greater protection for children from bullying, worked closely with United Kingdom charities and met me and various Ministers from both the main parties to draw attention to the problem.

Back in August 2010, a year after the Government released their guidance on tackling bullying on school journeys, a survey conducted by 4Children and me showed that most local authorities did not have any kind of safer travel policy in place. From the survey we discovered that of the 67 local authorities spoken to, 60% did not have a safer travel policy; of the 40% that did, only half said that the policy covered all forms of bullying and 38% said that all forms of journey were covered.

As I outlined in my previous speech, the situation on dedicated school buses is naturally unique and consequently problematic. Where else would we suggest that an untrained and unqualified person be solely in charge of dozens of children while undertaking another task at the same time? The facts of the matter are that when children are put on a school bus there is no formal supervision as in a school playground, there is no way to avoid conflict situations and, often, the children have absolutely no choice as to the composition of the group by whom they are surrounded.

In August 2013 Mr Vodden carried out his own online survey to assess more closely the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. He wanted to discover the extent to which bullying on buses was a universal problem and to understand what role, if any, the driver had. The report made it clear that many of the problems persisted and that the issue needed urgent attention. I shared the methodology of Mr Vodden’s study with the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then the Under-Secretary of State for Education and the responsible Minister.

Mr Vodden and I have both now carried out further surveys. In his latest study, Mr Vodden focused on school bus drivers. He has not finalised his report, but is permitting me to quote some of the preliminary results today. I shall refer to his first study as Vodden report No. 1 and the latest study as Vodden report No. 2. As a former teacher, I realise that this will require concentration as I proceed with my speech. I will not spend too much time talking about Vodden report No. 1 today, as I shall focus more closely on my second survey, which I carried out last year. Some key conclusions from Vodden report No. 1, however, provide a good context in which to assess whether progress has been made.

Vodden report No. 1 found bullying on school buses to be a significant problem. Thirty of the survey’s respondents reported self-harming, 24 had considered suicide and 97 simply wanted to hide away. The research indicated that bullying on school buses starts in year 7, highlighting the difficulties of making the step up to a large secondary school, perhaps from a small village primary school. In fact, in response to my previous speech, the Minister at the time acknowledged that that was concerning and needed exploring. Will the Minister today update me on what steps have been taken?

Vodden report No. 1 also revealed that only six of the respondents knew about the safer travel policy that all local authorities are required to have. To hear that 69 respondents were aware that their school had an anti-bullying policy was promising, but, equally, it was worrying to find out that the same number were not so aware. Many of the respondents did not know whom to turn to in the event of bullying or whether their school actually had a system in place to deal with it. Concerns were expressed about the role of the driver and the need, in four instances, for a driver to intervene to prevent bullying. By stark contrast, in 41 incidents the driver failed to act, while in an alarming 17 cases the driver joined in.

As I have mentioned, last year I carried out a second survey to discover whether any progress had been made on the implementation of safer travel policies by local authorities. Given the findings in Vodden report No. 1, I felt that it was necessary to discover the extent to which local authorities had introduced such measures and whether perhaps any innovative and successful anti-bullying systems had been introduced. The survey was sent out to 152 local authorities in England, and 109 responded in time to be included in the report.

I think it is fair to say that the responses to last year’s survey have been varied. A number of the local authorities made great strides in tackling bullying on dedicated school buses. Some authorities have displayed fantastic examples of best practice in dealing with the problem, but others have failed to act, with some local authorities convinced that no action needs to be taken because they are sure that bullying is not an issue in their area. I shall talk through a few of the key findings of the survey, celebrating the progress that has been made, but also outlining areas that still require much improvement if we are to tackle bullying on school buses and to learn lessons from the sad events of 2006.

To discover that 64 local authorities had a clear safer travel policy in place was refreshing; a further 24 had policies specific to the safe transportation of children on school journeys. Unfortunately, and in spite of the 2009 publication of the Government guidelines, 18 councils still reported not having a safer travel policy, nor any policy resembling one. Given the unique circumstances of the dedicated school bus journey environment, does the Minister agree that at the very least it is important for all local authorities to have such a policy in place?

When the authorities were asked if there were contractual requirements on bus companies to ensure the safety of their passengers—in this case, the children on the buses—108 out of 109 answered yes. I acknowledge the point made by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk in the previous ministerial response on the issue that local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004. For that reason, however, I find worrying my survey’s finding that still only 40 of the responding local authorities require contractors to follow an anti-bullying policy. That is in spite of all the findings of previous studies, the Government’s published guidelines and the previous Minister urging such a policy on the contractors in the 2013 debate.

Potentially, the aspect of my survey to display the most worrying lack of progress or success was the finding concerning the provision of training for drivers on how to deal with bullying. Only 16 of the 109 local authorities responding answered yes when asked if that was included as a contractual requirement. Given the clear message from the Vodden report No. 1 about a risk of school bus drivers acting inappropriately towards young people in their charge, as well as my emphasis on that in my previous speech on the subject, I am disheartened. Again, I make a plea for a requirement for at least some training to equip drivers with the necessary skills to deal with the array of inevitably childish incidents that occur on dedicated school buses.

Corroboration is also provided in the preliminary results from Vodden report No. 2. Only 25% of the responding school bus drivers said that they had received training on working with children, while 78% had not been given any advice on how to handle bullying or behavioural issues. In a follow-up meeting with the then Minister, we talked about the necessary cultural change, but we also stressed the point that when contracts were let there should be a requirement for training for drivers.

In my recent survey, only one local authority said that displaying prominent anti-bullying messages such as posters was a requirement inside school buses. However, promisingly, a few councils currently in the process of updating their anti-bullying policies mentioned that they had not thought of that as an option before and that as a result of the survey’s drawing their attention to it they were going to review the idea with the intention of including it in future plans. That highlights the importance of sharing best practice among local authorities: if one council has seen success with a particular anti-bullying scheme or policy, it should be made readily available to other councils, enabling a more coherent nationwide approach to tackling bullying.

Nine local authorities reported over 21 cases of bullying in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 62 reporting between nought to five cases in the same period. One could be forgiven for assuming that the nine areas with the highest reports of bullying would be where we would find the worst anti-bullying policies; on the contrary, those local authorities often had the most detailed and wide-reaching policies in place. That is a really positive discovery: facing up to the fact that a problem exists and tackling it means that local authorities will find out more about it. Further research in this area will be really helpful.

I suspect that the actual process of reporting is confused, to put it mildly. Some reporting will be to schools and some will be directly to local authorities, and it is not clear whether all the data ever get collected together. If we bring academies into the equation, it will probably get even more complicated. Then, of course, there is the definition of bullying. I accept that it is really difficult for anybody to distinguish between high spirits and bullying, but that is something that we have to work through.

It is clear that over the past eight years important steps have been taken to get a better grasp on the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. From the research I carried out in 2010 with 4Children, from findings of the Vodden reports and from my recent survey of 109 local authorities it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure further progress.

There must be accredited and 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, and it should be a requirement for all contractors of school transport to give such training to their school bus drivers. In addition, all school bus drivers should have an assessment to see whether they are suitable and safe to transport children. Clear reporting procedures need to be set up and followed. In Vodden report No. 2, only 33% of respondents said that the bus company had a clear procedure in place for reporting incidents.

Ideally, properly trained adult chaperones should be provided for all dedicated school buses, particularly on longer journeys, so that the driver does not have to compromise the safety of the children in order to resolve disputes on the bus. Another possibility is having dedicated school bus monitors—older students who step up to the role of monitoring the bus and reporting any incidents to the school; one local authority reported great success with that method. A further possibility could be to install CCTV. More protection and support need to be given to students in year 7, the group that Vodden report No. 1 identified as the most susceptible to bullying. The psychological effects of bullying in that age group are particularly significant.

There should be a comprehensive transport management approach by local authorities. It should be made clear to all students which agencies and individuals are directly responsible for resolving incidents on the school bus, and those people must be properly trained. That would ensure that children suffering from bullying, and their parents, knew exactly where to go to access help. The responses to my survey indicated a lack of joined-up thinking between the relevant agencies when dealing with bullying. Even when systems are in place to deal with bullying, they can be ineffective: I know from personal experience that local transport departments can be quite separate from local education departments, and I have intervened on occasion to make sure that departments talk to each other.

I very much welcome the progress that has been made on the issue over the course of this Parliament. My survey alone has shown some excellent illustrations of good practice across the country. Schemes such as Suss the Bus and Buswise, and the creation of safer travel teams, are excellent, innovative steps towards tackling the problem. However, we must pay attention to what the survey suggests are areas for further improvement. If we do so and continue to take action to create an environment where students feel safe and comfortable talking about bullying, to promote more holistic bullying policies that are acknowledged and understood and to improve communication between all the parties involved, we really will reduce bullying on school buses.

We can always do more to tackle bullying in all contexts. The limited time available today has meant I have focused on one particular area where we can and should make further efforts to protect our children. I hope that the Minister has been convinced by the research that Mr Vodden and I have carried out, quite separately, that his Department should look at the issue in more depth, with, perhaps, a more rigorous research base. It is a moving picture, with improvements already in place, but I am convinced that more needs to be done.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. I know that bullying on school transport has been a key concern of hers for many years and that she has raised the issue before, both in the House and at meetings with Ministers, including my predecessor in this role, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Bullying in any form or for any reason is totally unacceptable and should never be tolerated. No child should have to suffer the stress and indignity of being bullied at school or on the way to school. It is tragic beyond belief when bullying results in a child taking his or her own life. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Vodden in the past and admire the fact that he has devoted so much time and energy to looking into these matters, with a view to ensuring that no other child or family should have to go through what he and his family have had to suffer.

The response of schools to bullying should not start at the point at which a child is being bullied. Schools that excel at tackling bullying have created an ethos of good behaviour, in which pupils treat one another and school staff with respect because they know that that is the right way to behave. Respect for staff and other pupils, an understanding of the value of education and a clear understanding of how our own actions affect others should permeate the whole ethos of schools and should be reinforced by staff and all pupils.

To ensure that teachers have the powers that they need to maintain discipline and enforce school rules, we introduced a number of reforms in 2011-12. Tackling bullying and ensuring good behaviour in our schools is right at the heart of our education reforms, which are designed to raise academic standards in our schools.

I apologise for not being here in time for the start of the debate; there are many demands on our time. This is an important issue, including in my constituency, and I am sorry that I did not hear the contribution by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. In Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, we have addressed the issue by working with the police, schools and transport companies, as well as with individual parents. In that way, it has been possible to address bullying on buses going to and from schools. The issues that had to be addressed were clear, but it took a combination of all those bodies to make that happen.

I am grateful for that intervention. I could not agree more with that approach. The agencies—schools, local authorities and bus companies—have to work together to tackle the problem. We revised the home-to-school travel and transport guidance last July; I will come back to that.

To tackle the specific issue of bullying on school buses, we have to track back and raise standards of behaviour in the whole school system. That has been a key focus of this Government’s approach to education policy. We have given teachers stronger powers to search pupils, removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of after-school detentions and clarified teachers’ powers to use reasonable force. We revised and updated advice to schools on promoting good behaviour and maintaining discipline—that advice includes the Charlie Taylor checklist on the basics of classroom management—and simplified advice on how to prevent and tackle bullying. We introduced anonymity for teachers accused by pupils of criminal offences until such time as they are actually charged with an offence. We changed the system of independent review panels to ensure that a school’s decision to exclude an unruly pupil is not undermined by an appeal process that can force the reinstatement of a permanently excluded pupil against the best interests of the school and its pupils.

In the light of evidence that showed that one in three secondary schools were still not confident in using their powers to discipline pupils, we updated our advice in February last year to make it clear that tough but proportionate sanctions for misbehaviour are permissible. Such sanctions range from verbal reprimands to loss of privileges, writing lines or essays or providing a school-based community service such as picking up litter or weeding the school grounds.

We expect each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school by rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour, and we have clarified our advice to make it clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour outside the school premises to such an extent as is reasonable. That can relate to any bullying incidents that occur anywhere off the school premises, such as on a school bus or public transport, outside the local shops or in a town or village centre.

When bullying outside school is reported to school staff, that should be investigated and acted on. The head teacher should also consider whether it is appropriate in extreme circumstances to notify the police or the antisocial behaviour co-ordinator of their local authority. In all cases of misbehaviour or bullying, the teacher can discipline the pupil on school premises or elsewhere only when that pupil is under the lawful control of the staff member.

We have strengthened Ofsted’s power. We reduced the number of criteria for inspections from 27 to four, and one of those four is behaviour and safety of pupils in the school.

I understand that my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Vodden, has been impressed by the work undertaken by the anti-bullying organisations the Diana Award and Kidscape. They do excellent work to tackle bullying, which is why we are providing funding to them. I have been involved with the awards ceremony of the Diana Award, where I have met many inspiring young people genuinely tackling bullying in our schools up and down the country. We are providing £4 million of funding to several organisations to tackle bullying, and we are considering bids for further projects. Many parents are concerned about cyber-bullying, so we have issued guidance to parents and to teachers on how to identify and tackle it.

Local authorities can play a part. My right hon. Friend touched on this: when they contract to provide school transport, they can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. The statutory guidance I referred to earlier on home-to-school transport, which was revised in July 2014, requires local authorities to ensure the safety of pupils on school buses. Paragraph 44 talks quite explicitly about the training of bus drivers, which she referred to. It says:

“All local authorities should ensure that all drivers and escorts taking pupils to and from school and related services have undertaken appropriate training, and that this is kept up to date.”

Paragraph 47 says:

“The Department expects each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school through rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour.”

It cites the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which, it says,

“empowers head teachers to take action to address unacceptable behaviour even when this takes place outside the school premises”.

That guidance, which is extensive, needs to be adhered to, because local authorities have a statutory duty to make suitable travel arrangements for eligible children in their area and to promote safe and sustainable travel to school.

I thank the Minister for his general points on bullying and for focusing on what happens inside the bus. I accept that there are clearly lots of guidelines, but I am concerned that they are not being implemented by all local authorities. Absolutely, there is good practice, but what checks will he carry out among just a sample of them to ensure that the guidance is being implemented?

I will reflect on my right hon. Friend’s point. A number of local authorities have adopted a policy of withdrawing transport either temporarily or permanently in more serious repeated cases of misbehaviour. There are examples of good practice up and down the country, but I will reflect on her comments and this debate to see whether we can do more to ensure specifically that bullying on buses is being tackled by local authorities.

I should make the point that bullying on school transport is a symptom of a deeper malaise in schools where poor behaviour exists. I could cite the survey from schoolteachers today that says that three quarters of teachers report better behaviour now than they did in 2010, and when schools have exemplary behaviour policies and behaviour is right in the school, that extends beyond the school to the pupils’ school bus environment and to town centres. We are trying to have that in all our schools up and down the country, because as a Government we place a high priority on improving standards of behaviour in our schools.

I conclude by reiterating my opening point and that of my right hon. Friend: what Ben Vodden suffered on that school bus should never have happened. It should not have happened to him and it should never happen to any child going to or from school. Tackling bullying outside schools is more challenging than tackling bullying in schools, but we have been clear on teachers’ powers to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. However, if a school’s approach to behaviour is as good as in the best schools in the country, that good behaviour will extend to the behaviour of pupils on school transport as much as in the schools. As I said, teachers are now reporting much better behaviour in our schools than in 2010, but until we have exemplary behaviour in all our schools and every pupil can feel safe and secure from bullying, work on that challenge will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.