I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anti-bullying Week.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Buck. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. Although parliamentary business meant that this debate could not take place last week, during Anti-bullying Week itself, I am delighted that this debate is now able to take place and that Parliament is debating Anti-bullying Week for the first time—I hope it will not be the last.
Anti-bullying Week is an annual event which aims to raise awareness of the bullying that far too many young people experience, and discuss ways in which schools and others can help end bullying. The Anti-Bullying Alliance defines bullying as,
“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online.”
In Scotland, the main Scottish Government-funded anti-bullying charity respectme widens that definition to include bullying behaviour. It says:
“Bullying is both behaviour and impact; what someone does and the impact it has on the other person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. We call this their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships. It is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out and it can happen face to face and online.”
In my experience that is an important point. There will be thousands of young people at the receiving end of this kind of behaviour, but who do not realise they are being bullied. I know this through personal experience. I do not want to overstate the bullying. I was not bullied violently, bar perhaps one time in primary school. I was not called a specific derogatory name in front of the whole school persistently, but I was constantly belittled by two or three individuals. Young people react differently to abuse of whatever level. My reaction, as a fairly socially-awkward 14-year-old, lacking in self-confidence, was to retreat into myself and essentially give up on school.
Over the first three years or so in high school I had largely 1’s—A’s, as it would be down here—across the board on report cards and was a pupil of high promise, but that changed almost overnight. I am sure that the raging hormonal imbalances of my teenage years, in conjunction with the bullying, had a big effect as well. I went from loving school, soaking up the information and learning all that I could, to avoiding school, but not in the traditional sense of “dogging it,” as we say in Scotland—that has nothing to do with car parks, I hasten to add. [Laughter.] We have to make light of it. I would kid on that I was going out to school and then hide under the bed until my mum left for work, and I would bin any letters about attendance. I still had to go to school more often than not, but my heart and mind simply were not in it any more. I ended up leaving school with some at best half-decent standard grades— the equivalent of GCSEs—and two average Highers. Consequently university was not a route open to me.
It is not hard to see why an individual being bullied will have a higher absence rate than children who do not experience bullying. Research from the National Centre for Social Research confirms that over 15,000 children aged between 11 and 15 are absent from school at any one time due to bullying. Children are not only absent from school, but are struggling to reintegrate once they have returned to the classroom. People who have been bullied tend to have less education and fewer qualifications by the age of 50 than those who were never bullied. That requires us to adopt policies that not only stamp out the bullying behaviour, but help the child who was bullied to integrate back into school once the bullying has ended. Our actions to end bullying do not stop when the behaviour has ended. We have a responsibility to children beyond that.
This period in high school had the most profound effect on my self-confidence for my life since then. It has impacted on almost every life choice I have made since. A longitudinal study into bullying by the Institute of Education at University College London backs that up, and found that the victims of childhood bullying had higher rates of depression and psychological distress at ages 23 and 50 than those who were never bullied. Those who were bullied frequently while they were growing up had higher risks of anxiety and were more likely to have thought about suicide by the age of 45 than those who were never bullied. The effects of childhood bullying on adults’ mental health remained even after taking into consideration related factors such as family, social class, parenting and behavioural problems.
A lot of people who bully do so in the name of “banter,” possibly not fully realising the hurt and pain that their behaviour is causing. I would strongly encourage any young person who suspects that they may be being bullied or carrying out this behaviour: speak to one of your classmates or one of your teachers.
In preparation for today’s debate I have been sent numerous briefing papers by fantastic organisations, all doing inspirational work to combat bullying behaviour. There are too many to name, but I thank them all. I will try to cover as many points as I can in the time available. Reading through these papers is a stark reminder of the scale of the problem. The Scottish anti-bullying charity respectme states that 30% of schoolchildren have experienced some form of bullying during a recent academic term. Research conducted by the Anti-Bullying Alliance found that 40% of children in England would hide aspects of themselves for fear of being bullied. Engender, in a shocking 2015 report which I have quoted before in this place, found that 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes.
However, behind every statistic is a story of a young person who is living in fear due to the bullying behaviour of others, and behind every statistic is a story of a child who lives in fear of going through the school gates every morning or who is reluctant to go online due to the actions of others. Behind every statistic is a story of a young person being bullied due to others perceiving them as being “different.”
Children who have a disability are more likely to experience bullying than their peers, with Ditch the Label suggesting that 63% of disabled schoolchildren had experienced bullying, with 19% of these kids being bullied every single day.
An amazing organisation based in Renfrewshire are doing groundbreaking work to tackle the bullying that many disabled children face day-in, day-out. I Am Me Scotland work with pupils to design an innovative programme that raises awareness of bullying and help the young people to understand what they can do to help create a safe environment for their classmates. They work with Police Scotland and travel around Renfrewshire and across Scotland in their mobile cinema bus, delivering this innovative programme to local schoolchildren. To date, they have reached over 10,000 primary school children in Renfrewshire, creating a long-lasting change in our schools.
Over the summer, I Am Me Scotland launched their network of Keep Safe places across Scotland. Keep Safe places are premises across Scotland that provide a safe space for any disabled person who is being victimised while out and about. The scheme uses an app to let people know where their closest Keep Safe space is, and staff at the premises are fully trained to help that person, should they come into their premises looking for assistance. I cannot speak highly enough of I Am Me Scotland—I have met them two or three times now. They were awarded the title Scottish charity of the year just a few weeks ago. I would definitely encourage the Minister to meet the staff of I Am Me Scotland to learn more about their work. He would be amazed by their energy and drive, and it would give him the opportunity to spread their best practice around the UK.
Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is also widespread in UK schools. The School Report in 2017 found that 45% of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are bullied for being LGBT at school. LGBT+ students are hiding a central part of who they are, due to the fear of being bullied if their classmates found out about their sexual orientation. In research undertaken by LGBT Youth Scotland, less than half of the respondents said they would feel confident reporting homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying in schools, highlighting that pupils are not confident that teachers and schools will be able to deal with their bullying. LGBT Youth Scotland calls for a dedicated fund for initiatives to prevent and address homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools, including training for teachers. It is a no-brainer—they are right. We need to offer more support to these young people, and we can take inspiration from the work of Diversity Role Models, LGBT Youth Scotland and others who are working in our schools to eliminate this form of bullying.
Diversity Role Models provides a range of storytelling workshops to help schools create an environment where everyone feels safe. It encourages schoolchildren to celebrate being different and is achieving fantastic results; 96% of young people who have attended one of the workshops say that they would treat an LGBT+ person with more respect in the future.
Young women are also far more likely to experience bullying, especially sexist bullying, than other students. Children in Scotland reports that sexualised bullying has been described as a regular occurrence in our schools. That complements a poll of 16 to 18-year-olds that found that 29% of girls experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and that a further 71% said they had heard sexual name-calling towards girls at school on a daily basis. Sexual harassment in our schools undermines the dignity and safety of girls. It negatively impacts on how these young women perceive themselves and contributes to gender stereotyping, which will sadly follow them throughout their lives. Unfortunately, in Scotland schools are not required to collect data on sexist bullying, unlike with racist bullying. Engender in Scotland believes that that should be a priority to enable us to understand better the problem that too many young girls are experiencing.
We also have to take a whole-school approach that tackles the gender inequalities in schools. School policies, management processes and teacher training must all specifically address the problem of negative gender stereotypes and sexist bullying. Not only will that help us to address sexual harassment in schools, but it will be an effective preventive approach in helping to stop those stereotypes growing and leading to violence later in life.
The Race Relations Act 1976 states that schools and governing bodies have a duty to ensure that students do not face any form of racial discrimination, including attacks and harassment. However, despite the positive intentions behind that legislation, too many children are still being targeted because of the colour of their skin or their ethnicity. Last week, a poll by the Diana Award found that 61% of school staff had witnessed bullying that resulted from racism. That is a pretty shameful state of affairs in 2017 and it highlights how far we have to go to create an environment where racism does not exist in our schools.
I want to expand on the prevalence of bullying behaviour, as I believe that if we want to pursue effective preventive strategies in combatting bullying we must fully understand this behaviour, which is causing real harm to young people throughout the UK. A 2015 research report by the Department for Education highlights that one child in every classroom will be bullied every day, unable to escape the torment, and that children who say they are bullied every day are three times as likely to be excluded from school as children who are not being bullied. I hope that when he sums up, the Minister can address that point head-on. Why, all too often, are we still failing those who are being bullied? Why are we excluding those who are being bullied from our schools? What can be done to prepare our schools better to support those who are being bullied rather than excluding them?
Some bullying behaviour is as old as formal education itself, but we need to be aware of the new opportunities to bully in today’s digital age. Cyber-bullying, usually through social media and messaging, means that bullying can now be extended beyond the school gates and into the safety of someone’s home. It is a relatively new phenomenon, but in practice it means bullying through the use of electronic means and includes the spreading of malicious rumours, sending hurtful texts, emails or post, sharing harmful pictures or video content, manipulation, bribery and impersonation. Bullying UK reports that the number of young people seeking assistance with regard to cyber-bullying is increasing all the time. More people are searching for that form of bullying on its website, with more than 2 million views in the last year alone.
Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others all have a responsibility to tackle cyber-bullying. Although Facebook in particular has taken welcome steps of late, most social media responses are implemented to respond to problems once they have occurred, when often the damage has already been done, and are therefore of limited effectiveness. We must therefore look beyond social media companies for solutions, and harness the latest technologies to combat cyber-bullying, such as the SafeToNet app and others like it. That acts like a moderator, although it is exponentially quicker than any human moderator. Nevertheless, I am keen to learn what discussions the Minister has had with the major social media providers about what they are doing to create a safer online space for all our young people.
As I touched on earlier, there is a direct link between being bullied and the quality mental health. A study into users of child and adolescent mental health services in London found that more than 61% of participants reported being bullied earlier in their lives. Being the victim of bullying also significantly increases the chances of an individual experiencing depression later in life by well over 50%. Respectme points out that the impact of bullying can last even when the behaviour has stopped. That is particularly true when we consider some of the health difficulties that young people face because of the horrible and stressful experiences that they have gone through.
Sadly, there is a clear link between bullied teenagers and suicide. Ditch the Label, an international charity, published research in 2014 showing that one in 10 teenagers bullied at school had attempted to commit suicide, with a further 30% committing self-harm. Furthermore, studies have found that half of the suicides among young people were related to bullying. Will the Minister commission research into the impact that bullying can have on mental health at various stages in people’s lives?
Unfortunately, certain schools are better at recognising bullying and implementing effective prevention strategies than others, and quite frankly that is not good enough. I know this from my own local area, where it seems to me that some schools do not have a good enough level of preventive services or support. Every child who is being bullied and who is at risk of self-harm should receive the same high level of care and attention regardless of what school they attend. In relation to that, research published during Anti-bullying Week found that 36% of children do not believe they learn enough about bullying and what to do if they experience bullying themselves. I believe that government—I include all devolved Governments in this, given the devolved nature of education—has a key role in addressing what amounts to this postcode lottery in the approach to bullying. The Government must ensure that all teachers and support staff in our schools have the appropriate training and skills to recognise incidences of self-harm and to help those students. That is the absolute minimum level of care that we should be willing to accept for our children.
I hope that following this debate we, and more importantly the Government, realise that we are not dealing with bullying as effectively as we should be. I hope the Government listen to the variety of organisations that I have referenced, and many that I have not been able to, and formulate a more effective approach to bullying that can help us to deal better with it and its consequences. That includes undertaking large-scale surveys into the mental health and wellbeing of school-age young people, including specific questions on bullying. When summing up, the Minister should commit to reversing the Government’s cuts—he will probably disagree —to mental health services in England. Recent reports suggest that mental health spending is being cut by £4.5 million in five English regions this year. Ending bullying has to be a priority for this Government and the Governments across these islands, and that includes prioritising mental health services.
As I said at the start, Anti-bullying Week was last week. This year its theme encouraged us all to celebrate being different. I have spoken about the fact that schoolchildren who are perceived as different are more likely to be bullied. That creates a situation where more than half of teenagers worry about being seen as different, with 40% of those young people hiding aspects of themselves for fear of being bullied. We all tell our kids to celebrate diversity and to take pride in being different, but the reality on the ground is that young people are scared of being seen as different for fear of being bullied. To promote last week’s campaign, young people were encouraged to wear odd socks on the day as a way of celebrating diversity in our classrooms and across society.
No one is born destined to be a bully. No one sets out in life to target diversity and to see what makes us all different as a weakness. We are in a privileged position that enables us to influence younger children’s behaviour, and we should use that position of power to celebrate what makes us all different. Providing children with an equal chance to flourish in life is at the heart of everything we do and should do. However, the system is failing too many children from all backgrounds. We are failing to offer protection to our children, and the consequences of that are long-standing and often lifelong. None of us wants to live in a society in which kids are frightened about entering the school gates in the morning or logging in online.
Creating a society in which bullying does not exist will not be easy—at the moment, it almost seems like an impossible goal—but we as lawmakers have a duty to aim for just that. We have a duty to listen to young people about their experience and to do what can be done to create a safe environment for all our children. We have a duty to support policies that prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. We are currently failing in that duty, but with commitment, passion and cross-party support, I believe that we can improve the experience of all our schoolchildren.
Thank you for being in the Chair this afternoon, Ms Buck, and I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for his very powerful introduction to today’s debate.
The reason why Anti-bullying Week is so important is that it creates a space for us to raise the issue of behaviours and provides the opportunity to reach a greater understanding of bullying, its impacts and the actions that need to be taken. Although the focus is on children and young people, bullying is clearly not exclusive to them. I want to broaden the debate to talk about bullying in a wider context. It is an important time for us here in Parliament, as we look at behaviours in our workplace, to assess the impact of bullying on all environments.
As a national officer of Unite, I spent over a decade working with international experts in bullying and behaviours—with academics, leading experts, representatives and employers—on bullying in the workplace. In the sectors that I represented, bullying was the most prevalent issue that came to the trade union’s door, whether that meant a full case or a smaller part of one. As an MP, I have also dealt with many cases of bullying across all age groups, including children. Bullying can occur in all parts of our society. It is important to recognise that it goes beyond schools into the community—including in clubs and societies that young people belong to, the workplace and the home, and even in places such as residential care settings—and I am sure that Members from across the Chamber have much experience of that. Bullying is prevalent across our society and, as we have heard, it is incredibly isolating, so we need to address these issues urgently, which is why today’s debate is so pertinent.
I want to look first at the definition of bullying. That is important, and although it is not everything, we have to acknowledge that there is currently no formal definition of it. The Anti-Bullying Alliance says that it is about,
“the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. It can happen face to face or online”.
ACAS goes into slightly more detail, teasing out harassment, as defined under the Equality Act 2010, as,
“unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, which has the purpose or effect of violating an individual’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that individual”.
Bullying has no formal definition, yet ACAS defines it as,
“offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. Bullying or harassment may be by an individual against an individual (perhaps by someone in a position of authority such as a manager or supervisor) or involve groups of people. It may be obvious or it may be insidious. Whatever form it takes, it is unwarranted and unwelcome to the individual.”
An agreed definition would be incredibly helpful, not least for enhancing the legal protections. Having dealt with so many cases of bullying, it is absolutely clear to me that the framework across all sectors of our society is far too opaque to address people’s real needs. We need legal levers, as well as other forms of levers and frameworks, to ensure that good practice is put in place and that bad behaviour is mitigated against.
The current legislation is very hard to handle. Some cases have been brought under stalking legislation, whereas others have been under health and safety legislation. There is also the harassment legislation, but the system is completely inefficient. Some of the more progressive nations, such as the Netherlands, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and Canada, now have specific dignity at work legislation, which can really bring about change. I hope that the Minister will commit today to looking into good practice globally to see how we can bring about a real cultural shift, let alone provide the levers that are so urgently needed.
One thing that we do understand from the definitions of bullying is that it is about negative power being exerted over another individual. Although bullying can be about hierarchical, positional, relational, resource and knowledge power, it is definitely and most prevalently about psychological power—about identifying somebody’s vulnerabilities and then exploiting them to their detriment. Bullying can sometimes be without intent. That can be tested by the remorse shown by the perpetrator, but the consequences can be significant, whatever they may be. I am therefore really pleased that the academic world has moved on—as I believe the rest of society is moving on—in talking not just about bullying, but about unacceptable, unwanted and negative behaviours. That gives us a broader definition and recognises that small incidents have to be dealt with, as opposed to people waiting, under some definitions for six months, before intervention takes place. Clearly, we want a range of behaviours to be addressed.
A final word on behaviours: I am really pleased that academics and practitioners have moved the language on to talking about how important it is to institute positive behaviours—Anti-bullying Week addresses that through its campaigns—that counteract negative behaviours. It is therefore absolutely right that behaviours are taught in workplaces, schools and the home. We need to make sure that that happens to start changing our society.
We have heard about the real impact that bullying has on mental health. Given that the vast majority of mental health challenges begin in early life, we seriously need to address this issue in schools and ensure that the support is there. As we heard, the cuts are having a significant impact on support services. I know from my city of York the number of services that have disappeared, with only six people providing such services across the whole of our city. Schools say that that is nowhere enough to address the existing need. We also need to recognise that bullying impacts on physical health. It can cause physical sickness in people as well as resulting in mental health challenges. Unchallenged behaviours can be deeply wounding.
There is something I want to highlight, certainly for the public audience listening to today’s debate: if you are a target of abuse, that may just be because you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of us can predict the twists and turns of life that may confront us at any time. Although we have heard that disabled people, LGBTI+ people, and black and ethnic minority people have a higher risk of experiencing bullying, sometimes bullying just happens. Therefore, we need to have the framework to address that.
As a lifelong trade unionist, I say: if you are in a workplace, join a trade union. This is the work that trade unions do day by day. We often see the headlines about strikes, but holding people’s hands through bullying cases makes up the vast majority of the work that unions do. If you are in school, find a trusted person that you can talk to about mental health. Go and talk to your GP—that is what your GP is there for. Ensure that you have good lifelines with friends and family. It is so easy to become isolated at a time when you really need someone to believe in you and someone with whom you can walk through that difficult time, when you are feeling so powerless.
You might be a target of bullying and determine that you want to change your workplace, or even your school. I have been battling with a case in York in which we have not been able to get the children to move school. The perpetrator and their behaviours and the culture of the school obviously have to be dealt with, but we need the facility for children to continue their education in a safe environment. I ask the Minister to ensure that that can happen.
I want to say a couple of other things before I finish. It is really important to have mandatory audits, whether that is in a school or a workplace environment. Audits should be able to analyse in confidence to ensure that the issues being raised are addressed, appropriate action taken and sanctions brought where necessary. Training is also important. Often, people do not recognise such behaviours, and we could all be perpetrators unless they are brought to our attention. Training should include what negative behaviours are, and how important it is to display positive behaviours. I ask the Minister to comment on his support to ensure that every single school has training on bullying. We also want to see it across other environments.
In conclusion, I want to stress the importance of the bullying agenda and ask the Government to get to grips with the scale of negative behaviours across our society. Last week, as we heard, was Anti-bullying Week, and its focus was “All different, all equal”. I trust that society will seek out and celebrate our diversity, and we here have an important role in that. None of us is better than anybody else. Where there is power, we must demonstrate that we use it to dignify people.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing it. We have probably all been teased or made the butt of jokes at school— I should know; I am ginger, and it goes with the territory—but it does not take much for things to cross the line, and for us to start feeling intimidated or that we are being laughed at, not with. We start to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. That is when we get into the realm of bullying.
As other Members have commented, last week was Anti-bullying Week, which gave us all the opportunity to encourage young people to celebrate what makes them unique, to empower young people to be themselves without the fear of being bullied and to demonstrate to young people that diversity is to be welcomed and not something to be prejudiced against.
As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned, the Anti-Bullying Alliance tagline for this year was “All different, all equal”. I was brought up on the simple premise: “You are no better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.” Such a simple, defining message can go a long way in terms of how we treat other people. It is a high benchmark, but one that we must promote and meet if young people are to grow and learn throughout life. It is vital that children going into school do not worry about what the day has in store for them, but look forward to making new friends and learning new things.
The anti-bullying strategy in my constituency was changed in 2015. In the updated strategy, the local authority ensured that each type of bullying, whether targeting race or religion, or of other kinds, was categorised with solutions for dealing with each as they arose. Subsequently, research on prejudice-based bullying commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission cited East Renfrewshire’s anti-bullying policy as,
“a clear example of good practice…as it included suggested strategies for dealing with each form of prejudice to which it referred”.
Although that comment was welcome, and as much as we might like to congratulate ourselves on the progress that we are making, bullying is still a prominent problem throughout our schools. I am sure that we have all had distressed parents come into our surgeries or offices at their wits’ end about what to do with their child who is having a hard time at school, and who do not feel that they are being taken seriously. In one case of mine, a pupil who was badly bullied in primary 6 and 7 moved up to senior school, looking for a fresh start, but found herself placed in the same reception class as her bully, despite assurances from both head teachers that that would not happen.
Every year, Ditch the Label, a UK-based anti-bullying charity produces an annual bullying survey. This year more than 10,000 young people were surveyed, and the findings make for stark reading. It found more than half of respondents had been bullied and that one in five had been bullied in the past year, one in 10 in the last week. Of those who were bullied, half stated that it was down to their appearance, while 36% of those bullied developed depression and 24% had suicidal thoughts.
Bullying does not stop at the school gates. An ever more connected world brings ease of online abuse. I did not get my first mobile phone until I was in my third year at high school; my three-year-old daughter can already find her way around a tablet and likes playing with “smiley faces”, known to the rest of us as Snapchat filters. The world has changed, and mobiles are just one more thing that kids have these days.
It is an uncomfortable truth that suicide remains a main killer for anyone under 40 years of age, and there has also been a dramatic increase in suicides among 15 to 19-year-olds since 2013. We need to get to grips with that. Figures from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children show that Childline delivered 12,248 counselling sessions about online abuse in 2016-17, a 9% increase on the year before. Worse than that is a 44% increase in child sexual exploitation online.
As parliamentarians, we are no strangers to online harassment—or indeed harassment in more traditional forms, such as odd Christmas cards—but I can only imagine the emotional strain on our young people growing up in a world where they are expected always to be available, contactable and showing the best sides of their lives. A telling statistic from the annual bullying survey is that 71% of young people do not feel that social networks are doing enough to prevent bullying online, so it is essential that we create parity between both offline and online abuse. Nearly half of all respondents stated that they had been a victim of cyberbullying on Instagram. If social media outlets are to get serious about online bullying, that cannot continue.
What can be done? In Scotland, we have taken a slightly different approach from the rest of the UK. Organisations such as respectme, an anti-bullying service based in the west of Scotland and mentioned earlier, have helped to reshape how we define bullying. In Scotland, “bullying” is centred more around behaviour and impact than intention. We should also consider how we talk about it. I am not sure that labelling people as bullies and victims necessarily works. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, people are not born to bully; they bully because of learned behaviour emanating from the current circumstances of their own lives. Compounding the issue with a “bully” label can degrade self-worth or have the reverse impact of becoming a strange badge of honour that people feel proud to carry around. Respectme believes that redefining bullying can bring about the cultural shift that the hon. Member for York Central mentioned in her remarks.
In conclusion, we must stamp out bullying wherever we see it, but we must also be flexible enough to take new approaches. We have entered the age of online abuse, and we are losing. We must put pressure on social media outlets to stamp out bullying, but we must also put pressure on ourselves to bring about the much-needed culture change that the 21st century requires of us.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this debate, which is timely after the last week. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), whose comments were most pertinent. I would like to address two aspects in my speech, but first I would be grateful if Members noted that I am a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland and a council member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland.
Bullying among young people has been mentioned. Bullying is a strategy and a symptom of society; it is the visible result of behavioural activities among lots of people. Unfortunately, it is a very negative activity, and it permeates our society from top to bottom. I have had the dubious pleasure of dealing with people categorised as bullies in nurseries, all the way through to people rightly categorised as victims high up in primary education.
I would like to express what huge strength all victims of bullying have. They show, display and have internalised strength in standing up to, fighting and opposing behaviours that attack the very fibre of who they are. I pay huge compliments to all those who have suffered at the hands of others. It is an enormous thing to expect anyone to put up with, but most of all our young folk who are growing up to be members of our society.
It is interesting, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out, that at the moment the House is only too aware of what happens if we fail to deal with problems by pretending that they do not exist, pushing them to one side or ignoring them. Those problems come back, and they need to be dealt with, because they are there. If we deal with them properly, we can come out a stronger and better society.
I would also like to express my huge thanks for the support given to all the victims of bullying who are able to cry out and receive help. A significant number of worthy charities, third parties and local authorities have excellent practices; I mention Place2Be, a charity that works within schools and with which I have had the great pleasure of working in two local authorities. It provides sympathetic and supportive help to young children, both victims and those accused of bullying. It deals with it not as a matter of blame but as a matter of support—a way of looking forward to what can be achieved and what can be better as a result of what someone has suffered.
I echo the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire on labelling; whether it is right to call someone a victim or a bully is fundamental to how we deal with it. A significant number of parents will rightly come to me and say, “Such and such has happened. This person is a bully.” We lack an agreed definition of bullying and, as a result, many activities are labelled as bullying and many people make assumptions about situations that sometimes aggravate those situations. We need to be incredibly careful about the language we choose, and we need a huge amount of work to be done to decide what the appropriate language is. That will come from research, from notification and from pooling information from good practice and otherwise, so that as a society we can accept when people are victims of a situation and need support and when people have occasioned a situation. In so many cases, those people also need support because we frequently hear that bullies were bullied. Certainly, my experience as a teacher reflects that wholeheartedly.
I have spoken a number of times in Westminster Hall and in the House about social media and the pernicious effect that it is starting to have. For previous generations of children, bullying might have been restricted to the playground, the changing rooms and transferring between lessons. Now, a significant number of children never leave the bullying situation. They get home and are pursued on their mobile phone. They log on to the computer to do their homework and are instant messaged. In our community, that is driving a wedge between people who suffer at the hands of social media and people who use it to perpetrate hideous messages.
It was interesting that only yesterday, the coroner in the Ann Maguire inquest, Kevin McLoughlin, told the Wakefield coroners court that,
“he wanted social media companies to introduce contracts that would make parents responsible for their children’s online activity.”
That is an enormous call from a coroner judge about the dangers of social media companies. I have discussed with social media companies the fact that having social media accounts ought to occur only from the age of 13 because of data protection and allowing someone’s data to be out there. I have asked about the reality that so many children in primary schools—well under 13 years old—operate social media accounts. Their answer to that, on three different occasions, has been that that is the responsibility of the parent—the parent has authorised it. I question that because from a practical point of view, with so many children under 13 operating social media accounts—many perfectly lawfully and kindly, but some using them for other means—the data that social media companies push out to others who fund them are clearly incorrect.
More importantly, as a society, we should expect companies that benefit from the social media revolution to be responsible for adequately policing social media and for ensuring that it is not enough to expect a parent to say, “Yes, my child can have a social media account” or to freely accept someone entering a clearly incorrect date of birth. If it has got to the stage where coroner judges are demanding a contract between the parents and social media companies to be responsible for the children’s actions, we need to step up and do that now to protect everybody. Social media makes a positive offering to society, but it has a dark side, especially if people cannot escape it 24 hours a day. I find that very worrying and I will be interested in the Minister’s comments on that.
Finally, I want to reflect on the messages that were shared so much last week for people who are suffering bullying. There was strong advice on the Anti-bullying Week website to:
“Show open body language. Try not to show your fear. Tell someone who will listen”—
which is very important, and:
“Keep eye contact with the bully.”
That advice is massively important in the playground, in the school corridor and, unfortunately, also in the workplace. On social media it is slightly different. The last piece of advice that was shared widely is something that we should all listen to and follow and that we should all become responsible for. That advice was:
“Do not be a bystander”.
Bullies only achieve what they do because other people stand by. As members of society, we owe a responsibility to everybody. Not being a bystander would lead to a great change in our society today.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, as I have many times. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate. Two weeks ago today, I made a speech on the Floor of the House explaining what happened to me. I was bullied to the point where I was hospitalised after a violent attack. I spent seven years from the ages of 10 to 17 being physically and mentally assaulted on a fairly regular basis in school. That ranged from being kicked down flights of stairs to being held against my will and left to mess myself, if you will pardon the expression, Ms Buck, on the side of a school football pitch as a 14-year-old. I suffered enormously with my mental health. That started at the age of 14 when I had what would be considered to be a breakdown and continued until the age of 17 or 18 when I left school. University became my salvation and a place of great relief—not everybody I went through academic life with was a bully.
I have spoken at conferences, on the radio and on television about the experiences I faced in school, but the reason I spoke about it two weeks ago was to try to highlight that there is life beyond being bullied. We have heard from hon. Members who have been bullied and about the work of my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on bullying in the workplace. I am firmly of the view that if someone is bullied in school, they move on—there is lots of evidence to confirm this, but I know as someone who was bullied—to struggle in terms of relationships. That is not just in physical relationships but in the workplace and in friendships; we are naturally fearful of a joke—not something deemed to be bullying, simply something that can be humorous. Over the seven years that I was bullied, even when people were just trying to have an element of friendship with me, it became too complicated and difficult to keep that friendship going.
As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said about going into the workplace, if people are bullies and they have never been challenged by anyone speaking out, they do not understand that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. It is not acceptable in schools but it is certainly not acceptable in the workplace. Since I made that speech, adults have emailed me saying, “I was never bullied in school, but I am now being bullied in the workplace. I do not know where to go or how to tackle it.” Obviously, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for York Central about joining a trade union, but there is a real lack of understanding in the workplace that what to one person might seem to be a joke or a bit of light humour can actually be quite cold and calculated. That can cause all sorts of hurt in the workplace and indeed at home when people are having to deal with what has been said.
It is also deeply alarming how many young people from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales have contacted me to say, “Thank you for speaking out. This is happening to me.” People have emailed me to say that they have been sexually assaulted in school but the school is not dealing with it. After I said in a Radio 5 Live interview that I was frequently kicked under the school desk until my shins bled, young people in school emailed me to say that that happens to them once or twice in a month.
These things are horrific, and we need far more positive action from the Government and schools. Third sector organisations are fantastic and do amazing work, and I offer praise to the Minister, too, but this issue is not just the UK Government’s responsibility; we also need to work with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. I plead that we look at best practice for tackling bullying within institutions. I have had emails—the vast majority from people not in my constituency, but in other parts of Wales and large swathes of England—asking “Can you help?”, “Will you come and speak to my school?” or “Will you engage with our charity?” I will try to fulfil all those requests, but bullying has no borders; I have no doubt that the Minister understands that. No boundary between Scotland and England, or between England and Wales, affects how bullying works in schools.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) described best practice in his council, and I have been told about schools in north Wales that are using Scandinavian models to tackle bullying. We must examine best practice from the UK, Europe and beyond to tackle the scourge of bullying. As I have said before, when offences are committed we do not tackle them enough through the law, nor do we give enough support and defence to young people being bullied. I am eager for cross-party working, not just through the all-party group, but through commissioning work from Ministers in the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments, as well as in the Northern Ireland Executive once it is reconstituted and agreements are reached. We need cross-party working that engages with young people so that schools and Ministers understand what young people face every day.
The underlying theme of the emails I have received from young people has been that when they approach teachers, they are told that bullying is simply a part of life. I am not suggesting that that happens with matters as serious as sexual assault, but I have read emails from young people that say, “I tried to talk to a teacher, and they said ‘Oh, it’s simply part of growing up.’” These things are not part of growing up. As the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said, suicide rates have increased among young people, particularly those who have been bullied. Bullying has social and mental health consequences for young people.
I praise the third sector. My constituency has a wonderful organisation called Stand Against Bullying; I march with its members every year. They did not know when I was marching with them that I had been bullied, so they were quite surprised to hear about my experiences. I know of many other organisations in the voluntary sector that also do amazing work.
We need more than just school bullying policies that no one checks. We need recording and reporting of what is happening to young people. I know I cannot insist on this to the Minister, but I hope we can work across Administrations to tackle bullying, examine best practice and learn from each other. Too many children are committing suicide, and too many children are in fear of going to school. I used to invent all sorts of reasons not to go to school until I became very unwell at the age of 14. We must do more to tackle the scourge of bullying.
I have compassion for bullies. They, too, need to be offered our support, because something deeply troubling must be happening if a young person thinks they can be abusive about sexual orientation or anything else. I was bullied for allegedly being gay, although I am not, and for being fat. I was bullied because I was simply the lowest common denominator for a group of boys and girls who felt that that those were suitable things to attack me for.
Bullying has no boundaries and no borders, no matter who or what someone is. Unless we tackle it, it becomes a problem in the workplace. As I said two weeks ago, part of the problem the House now faces is that if we do not challenge instances of bullying, people wrongly deem them to be acceptable. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively; I hope he takes my views on board.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for securing this important debate. He spoke about his own experience of being bullied and its effect on him, which I am sure many people can empathise with; about many great organisations, including in the LGBT community; and about how bullying, which has historically been targeted within schools and workplaces, has now expanded into social media and become pervasive and extreme, 24/7.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke about the excellent advice and support available through ACAS. She promoted the systems being used in Australia, the Netherlands and Canada, and urged the UK Government to follow suit. She described the need to challenge abuse, and the importance of positive behaviour and celebrating diversity.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) highlighted the fact that parents often come to his surgeries because they feel that their complaints are not being taken seriously by schools. He also described the ease with which a younger generation can gain access to social media, with all that entails.
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) complimented those who have overcome bullying and gone on to become strong members of our society. People who are being bullied need to know that there is a positive way out; people doing the bullying need to know that they can change, too. He also encouraged us to look at the research and frame the discussion appropriately.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) spoke about his distressing experiences at the hands of bullies and the salvation that he found at university. He asked for more positive action from all Governments across the UK, sharing best practice from the UK and beyond, including from Scandinavian countries, and cross-party work to engage with young people.
I recently read “Respect for All”, a new Scottish Government report that emphasises fairness, respect, equality and inclusion. It states:
“Bullying due to socio-economic status can take place in any community. Small differences in perceived family income/family living arrangements/social circumstances or values can be used as a basis for bullying behaviours.”
It lists a host of characteristics that may lead to bullying, including age, asylum seeker or refugee status, body image or physical appearance, disability, gender identity, a Gypsy or Traveller background, and sexual orientation. They are not reasons but excuses. Bullies simply look for an excuse to bully. It is bullying that is important to them, and the reasoning does not stand up.
Shockingly, the report also notes:
“Young carers are at risk of bullying for a variety of reasons. Depending on responsibilities at home, they may find themselves being unable to fully participate in school or after-school activities or ‘fun stuff’. This can make it difficult for them to form relationships; it can hinder successful transitions or lead to educational difficulties.”
Bullying happens not because of someone’s appearance, religion or sexual orientation, but because the bully gets something from being a bully. People being bullied do not have to justify themselves. Others may join in bullying because they do not want to be bullied themselves, or even because they are already being bullied at home or somewhere else.
This morning, I met pupils of Clydeview Academy, a secondary school in my constituency, who are visiting Westminster this week. I took the opportunity to ask them and their teachers how they approach bullying. The initial response was, “Tell a teacher, parent or guardian.” That is good advice, but ultimately if peer pressure is used to support the person being bullied, the bully fades away. Martin Luther King said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
So, let us consider this place, and the behaviour in the House of Commons. Members are constantly shouting over speakers; there are attempted putdowns and uncomplimentary remarks; and there are loud conversations designed to put speakers off. When parliamentarians behave in this fashion, it sends out a poor message to society at large, and too often in this place it is he who shouts loudest who gets heard.
Finally, while we must do everything we can to support schools, teachers and employers to eradicate bullying, we also have a duty to get our own House in order. We should be leading by example.
It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Buck.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate, and I thank all hon. Members and hon. Friends who have spoken so passionately here in Westminster Hall today. It was a particular pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), whose powerful speech will resonate with any child anywhere who is suffering from bullying.
The theme of this year’s Anti-bullying Week is, as we have already heard, “All Different, All Equal”. It was taken on board by the amazing children at Westoe Crown Primary School in South Shields, who this week made a cracking film about bullying. It is on YouTube and I urge everyone here to have a look.
Bullying can have a debilitating effect. For the victim, it permeates every minute of every single day, even when they are not in the presence of those causing them harm. When bullying happens in a school environment, it is intensified because—no matter what—in any given school day there will be times when a teacher or another member of staff is not present to spot that bullying is happening and stop it. However, bullying is not confined to physical space, with children reporting rises in cyber-bullying, where the bullying is all-pervasive and the victims are completely unable to escape from it.
I know that the Department for Education has produced guidance on preventing and tackling bullying for schools, headteachers, staff and governing bodies. That guidance reiterates:
“Every school must have measures in place to prevent all forms of bullying.”
However, in the context of what this Government have done to schools funding, does the Minister seriously believe that schools can give bullying the attention it needs? Cuts to education funding have led to schools in England losing more than £2.7 billion in funding since 2015. We have all seen the headlines about schools sending begging letters to parents, so that they can pay for essentials such as glue, paper, pens and other everyday items.
The Government’s response to this crisis was to introduce a new funding formula—one that led to 5,000 teachers endorsing a letter to the Chancellor to demand more money for schools, as well as warning of deep cuts to resources and soaring class sizes. Those teachers, including headteachers, will be greatly disappointed that their calls fell on deaf ears yesterday when the Chancellor, with much misplaced joviality, delivered a dire Budget that failed to acknowledge the crisis in our schools.
In light of the desperate situation that our schools find themselves in, can the Minister tell us what data the Department for Education collects on bullying in schools, such as prevalence levels and effectiveness of responses? I have a strong inkling that the Department does not collect such data, in which case I have another question. Can he explain how he thinks the Government can respond properly to an issue that they do not really have a full understanding of?
On funding, I will make a point about the pressure on funding for schools in Scotland, as Scottish councils have to make choices about where their reduced funding goes. In particular, there are the problems that Anti Bullying East Lothian, an award-winning service, has suffered as a result of cuts. If such cuts are being made, how can we support both the victims and the bullies?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. The reality is that if austerity measures and cuts continue, we will fail all our children.
Those of our children who suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and self-harm as a result of bullying should be assured that when they need professional help it is available. However, this Government’s total hash of child and adolescent mental health services has left some children waiting more than a year for help, with 28% of those who apply for such services being turned away due to lack of funding.
Just yesterday, there was an opportunity in the Budget to address the deepening crisis in children’s mental health, but the Government chose not to do so. Instead, the Chancellor announced that there would be a Green Paper this December, setting out the Government’s plans to transform mental health services for children and young people. In short, there is no action and more discussion.
Can the Minister please assure us today that this Green Paper will be forthcoming in December? How long does he expect the consultation to take, and when does he expect that we will see some action? Will the Government explore schools-based counselling, as recommended by the Labour party?
I ask these questions because children in need of mental health support need it now, and every day they wait is a day that they will struggle with their mental health. Their problems become more entrenched. The sad reality is that some children who need mental health support as a result of bullying will leave school and move into adulthood without ever getting the kind of support they needed, which greatly damages their future prospects and even leads some of them to take their own life.
Looked-after children are reported to experience bullying at a much higher rate than their peers. Almost every single looked-after child has already endured some form of trauma, with at least 45% of looked-after children entering care with a diagnosable mental health condition. As this Government are now presiding over the largest number of children in care since the 1980s, with that number reaching 72,670 in March 2017, can the Minister explain what the Department for Education is doing in relation to providing specialist support for these children when they are subjected to bullying?
Another group of children who experience bullying at a higher rate than other children are those with disabilities or special educational needs. However, it is little wonder that children with special educational needs or disability, or SEND, are treated unequally in comparison with their peers, when the Government’s approach to children with SEND has been one of segregation, whereby many children with SEND are still placed in specialist schools or special units within mainstream education. It has been a long-held view, going right back to the Education Act 1981, and it is a view supported by Ofsted, that well-resourced mainstream schools are best placed to improve the learning and social environment for disabled and non-disabled learners alike. Children with special educational needs are increasingly being pushed out of mainstream schools, and they are grossly over-represented in exclusion figures. Indeed, many of them are self-exclusions, due to bullying.
As I am in a generous mood, Ms Buck, I am happy to talk to the Minister about Labour’s approach to education, which is based on inclusivity not exclusivity, and where every child should be given the very best opportunity to reach their true potential, whether they have an educational special need or a disability. That is because, much like this year’s anti-bullying theme, we believe that our children really are “All different, all equal”.
I am conscious of the time, so I will not detain Members much longer. However, before I make my closing comments I will press the Minister on a very serious issue. Back in January 2017, I withdrew an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill on the basis that the then Minister assured me that guidance regarding peer-to-peer sexual abuse in schools would be updated. Bullying is insidious in all its forms, but imagine being a young girl in a school, having been raped by one of your classmates. Despite that allegation of rape being upheld, you have to go back into that classroom, day after day, lesson after lesson, and sit next to the boy who raped you. We would never force anyone in the workplace or in any other scenario to go through that, but it is happening in our schools.
Children contacting ChildLine have described being subjected to inappropriate sexual touching in school, and to verbal threats on the bus, in the playground, in toilets, in changing rooms and even in classrooms during lessons. Many young girls have reported feeling vulnerable, anxious and confused as a result of being pressurised for sex by boys at school. Some feel they should consent, as their peers talk regularly about being sexually active. Others are threatened with physical violence if they refuse to have sex, and they have rumours and lies spread about them.
As with adult-perpetrated abuse, the victim often thinks that the act was normal, as they do not know about healthy relationships or assume that all children are being similarly abused. Often, they do not have the language to tell anybody what is happening to them and they fear they will get into trouble if they try to disclose it. Sometimes, they also think that they were the initiator and may have gone through the act voluntarily. They are left with unimaginable feelings of guilt, which no child should ever suffer on top of the harm they have already suffered.
It is safe to say we all agree that we have a responsibility to keep children safe, yet the current iteration of the “Keeping children safe in education” guidance lacks the detail to support schools where incidents of peer-on-peer abuse occur. Moreover, many schools do not have the appropriate processes in place to support children returning to school following a serious incident. We cannot just leave it up to schools to formulate their own policies and procedures, as that leaves the response to a potentially serious, life-ruining act at the discretion of an individual school.
Abuse is never the fault of the victim, yet in too many cases children are left isolated with no avenue of escape. I was recently advised that the public consultation on revising “Keeping children safe in education” would be launched later this autumn. Autumn is coming to an end, so will the Minister explain why the consultation has not begun? The delay here, like the delay in implementing personal, social, health and economic education, is beyond unacceptable. There has been a long fight for PSHE. All the evidence already exists on the positive impacts it will have on all children, so it should not be taking until 2019 to implement.
Just last year the Government were examined by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in relation to their compliance with the UN convention on the rights of the child. It found the Government failing children across the board in 150 areas. I have repeatedly asked for the convention to be in domestic law. That commitment was in Labour’s manifesto.
It is estimated that one child in every single class is experiencing severe bullying. I know the Minister will agree that that is one child too many. I hope he will acknowledge that to tackle bullying, the Government need to have a more holistic view and stop operating in these monolithic ways. I hope he will share with us today how he intends to do that. I hope that in summing up the Minister can answer all my questions and those of other hon. Members, because we are asking these question not for us, but for every child who felt physically sick this morning because they could not bear to go to school, for every child who sat in the toilet though their dinner break because being alone is safer than being with others, for every child sat right now in a lesson unable to concentrate because what follows is that terrifying journey home where the protection of the teachers disappears and it is just them and the bullies, and for every child sat at home tonight alone, scrolling through hateful messages from their peers on their phone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) on securing this debate and on making a powerful speech with an honest and moving personal story. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on making another powerful speech with another moving story. I pay tribute to him for his speech and his activities here and elsewhere, using and highlighting his own experience of being bullied as a child to help others and to drive change. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) made the important point that people should not be bystanders when they see bullying occurring. That was a key message of the Diana Awards last week. The hon. Member for Ogmore also pointed to the damage that many of the bullies may have suffered. As one anti-bullying campaigner said last week at the Diana Awards, “Hurt people hurt people.”
The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) raised the important issue of peer-on-peer abuse. “Keeping children safe in education”, which was revised in 2016, sets out that all schools should have an effective child protection policy that minimises peer-on-peer abuse and sets out how incidents will be investigated and victims supported. We are going to revise and update that guidance. To ensure that we are doing all we can to assist schools and colleges, we will also be publishing interim advice this term specifically on peer-on-peer abuse.
Every individual instance of bullying is important. It can be a barrier to children achieving their potential and taking advantage of the same opportunities as their peers. Bullying can make a child feel isolated and alone when they should be enjoying the companionship of their close friends. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North said, bullying can undermine a child’s confidence, and that can last a lifetime. New generations of pupils face different challenges in relation to bullying, and we recognise that. Last year he tabled an early-day motion that highlighted the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s figure of 16,000 children absent from school because of bullying. He mentioned that figure again today. There is a very clear process that parents should follow if they have concerns about their child being bullied at school. All schools are required by law to have a behaviour policy that includes measures to prevent bullying among pupils. Parents can then raise direct concerns with the headteacher and governing body, and if those are not resolved, a formal written complaint to the Secretary of State for Education and the local authority team can be made.
In the light of the debate we have had, there is clearly a mismatch of power between those in authority and children. Will the Minister reflect on that in his comments? Clearly it is difficult to raise concerns about bullying when there is such a mismatch of power and when someone is already experiencing a diminution of their power.
The hon. Lady raises an important point, and I do not disagree with anything she said. It is why we need to make it absolutely clear what the complaint procedures are. We need to ensure that the guidance that we have about keeping children safe in school is as clear as possible and kept up to date to reflect modern forms of bullying, so that changes in modern society are reflected in schools.
The local authority has a duty to put in place education for any child of compulsory school age, and that includes finding them an appropriate school place. Recent research suggests that the amount of bullying in schools has reduced in recent years, which is welcome. The longitudinal study of young people in England published in 2016 compared bullying among two cohorts of 14-year-olds from 2005 and 2014. In 2014, approximately 30,000 fewer children said that they had been bullied in the previous 12 months. There was a drop from 41% in 2005 to 36% in 2014, although 36% is still unacceptable—as the Opposition spokeswoman said, even one child bullied in a class is one too many.
Different generations of pupils face different challenges, however, and we recognise new and different types of bullying. Each individual instance of bullying is important. It can be a barrier to children achieving their potential and taking advantage of school. That is why Anti-bullying Week is an important event in the school calendar. It shines a spotlight on the issues surrounding bullying and provides an opportunity for schools, children and young people and society in general to talk openly about the effects of bullying on children and young people and take collective action against it. We have seen two examples of that openness in today’s debate.
We know from the Anti-Bullying Alliance that more than three quarters of schools in England take part in Anti-bullying Week, which is welcome. Good schools recognise the issues around bullying, record incidents and review whether the action they are taking is effective. Last week I attended two events run by organisations that we help to fund to run anti-bullying initiatives in schools: the Diana Awards and the Anti-Bullying Alliance. I met many pupils, teachers and organisations committed to tackling bullying. Pupils were keen that, alongside supporting those who are bullied, schools should help to identify the issues that may be contributing to the negative behaviours displayed by those who bully.
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) said, the theme of Anti-bullying Week this year is “All different, all equal”. That theme is particularly important to pupils. We know that some groups of pupils suffer disproportionately high levels of bullying because of the attitudes and behaviours that some other pupils show towards those who are different from themselves. For example, the longitudinal study of young people in England in 2014 found that 46% of respondents with special educational needs reported bullying, compared with 36% of respondents without SEN. That should not be the case. That is why the Government are providing £4.6 million of funding over two years for 10 anti-bullying organisations to support schools to tackle bullying. That funding includes projects to tackle bullying of particular groups.
The Anti-Bullying Alliance’s project is focused on tackling bullying related to special educational needs and disability. It includes face-to-face training for teachers, including trainees. It also provides helplines and online information for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The Anne Frank Trust’s project encourages young people to think about the importance of tackling prejudice, discrimination and bullying using film clips as a catalyst for discussion. Those projects work alongside a project to report bullying online and projects to specifically tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools.
The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North referred to Stonewall’s 2017 survey, which showed that 45% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people had experienced bullying as a consequence of their sexuality or the perception of their sexuality. In Stonewall’s 2012 survey, that figure was 55%; in 2007, it was 65%. That is a welcome fall, reflecting how attitudes in society have improved over the last 10 years, but it remains unacceptable that 45% of LGBT young people still suffer HBT bullying.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) raised the important issue of workplace bullying. We also know from the Stonewall survey that in 2014, 13% of schoolteachers reported homophobic bullying. That figure, too, has fallen, from 25% in 2009—but again, 13% is too high. Employers are responsible for preventing bullying and harassment. They are liable for any harassment suffered by their employees. Anti-bullying policies can help, and ACAS’s advice covers that for employers and employees.
Last year’s inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools highlighted the scale of the problem. We want schools to be safe, disciplined environments where teachers can teach uninterrupted, and all pupils can thrive academically and embrace who they are. That is why it is important to create a culture of respect in schools. By creating that culture across the whole school, pupils can enjoy the knowledge-rich education they deserve in a safe and supportive environment, which allows them to embrace who they are.
Schools already have a range of legal duties that frame the positive action that they can, and should, be taking. We have already updated our anti-bullying guidance to ensure that all types of bullying and harassment are taken seriously, and to signpost schools to support in tackling different types of bullying. Creating a whole-school culture of respect is also reflected in Government advice on behaviour and discipline. The Tom Bennett review of behaviour in schools makes it clear that having a whole-school policy, consistently applied, with clear systems of rewards and sanctions, is central to achieving good behaviour. Tom Bennett argued for the importance of a whole-school culture that is clearly communicated to all staff and pupils. He stated that the best behaviour policies balance a culture of discipline with effective pastoral support. The combination of clear boundaries and known sanctions for poor behaviour in a caring atmosphere is crucial to promoting good behaviour and wellbeing for all pupils. We have put in place a set of measures to ensure that schools have the powers they need to address bullying, in the context of our overall behaviour measures, such as giving teachers new disciplinary powers and holding schools to account through Ofsted inspections.
Bullying of any kind can, however, now just as easily occur online as face to face. As the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North pointed out, cyber-bullying is increasingly becoming a means by which face-to-face bullying is extended beyond the school day, following the young person home. The Government have already put in place a number of powers that enable schools to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying, which includes making how to behave online part of the computing curriculum. Headteachers have the power to regulate pupils’ conduct when they are not on school premises and under the lawful control or charge of a member of school staff. When bullying outside of school is reported to teachers, it should be investigated at the school and acted on.
We have ensured that schools have the power to ban or limit the use of mobile phones and other electronic devices in school. We have also given staff greater powers to search for prohibited items such as mobile phones and, if necessary, to delete inappropriate images or files on electronic devices. The Government Equalities Office funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop cyber-bullying guidance for schools, and an online safety toolkit to help schools to deliver sessions about cyber-bullying, peer pressure and sexting. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport recently published the Government’s safer internet strategy. One of the questions that pupils asked the Department during last week’s anti-bullying events was whether tackling bullying should be part of the curriculum. Of course schools can play an important role in teaching about relationships. The Department is committed to help schools to deliver high-quality relationships education, and relationships and sex education, ensuring that pupils are taught about healthy and respectful relationships—both online and offline—and have the knowledge and confidence required to prepare for adult life.
To help to give effect to that, we included provisions in the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which the hon. Member for South Shields referred to, to place a duty on the Secretary of State for Education to make relationships education mandatory at primary school, and RSE mandatory at secondary school, through regulations. The Department has begun a process of engagement with stakeholders to develop the regulations and guidance for relationships education and RSE, and to ensure that subject content is age-appropriate and inclusive for all stages. We expect the regulations and guidance to be subject to public consultation next year.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire asked what is being done to ensure that children do not remain in the same class as their bully. As I said, we will be consulting on revisions to statutory guidance—the “Keeping children safe” education guidance—shortly. As I said in response to the hon. Member for South Shields, we intend to issue interim advice to schools this term.
I am grateful for the support that hon. Members have given to this agenda. It has helped to raise awareness of some important issues and concerns. The steps that we have taken highlight the importance of taking a strong stance on bullying, both online and offline. The Government have made a financial and legislative commitment to tackle the issue. We must now continue to work closely with schools and our partner organisations to ensure that the momentum behind progress in this important area continues.
I thank all the contributors to today’s debate. We have heard some extremely powerful testimony—none more so than from the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who spoke of his harrowing experience. I think I speak for all of us when I say that he is a credit to himself for coming through that and reaching where he is today. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke of the various definitions of bullying; I agree wholeheartedly that it is time to draft a legal definition. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) leant his experience to today’s proceedings, which was very welcome. He made an excellent point about the problem with labelling bullies, or indeed their victims. I certainly empathised with the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) when he spoke of his three-year-old’s skills on an iPad. I have two young daughters with similar skills.
To conclude, we all want the best for our children, and to ensure that they are all viewed equally and given an equal chance in life. On that basis, I urge the Minister to meet with anti-bullying organisations and to draft a new, properly-funded anti-bullying strategy to take the issue forward. I thank all Members, and you, Ms Buck. I certainly hope that this is not the last time that we debate Anti-bullying Week. I hope that this becomes an annual debate, to check our progress towards removing the scourge of bullying from our schools.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Anti-bullying Week.