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Schools: Bullying

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 20 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they are taking to address the implications of Mencap’s research finding that eight out of 10 pupils with learning difficulties are bullied and six out of 10 are physically hurt.

My Lords, the Government take these findings very seriously. There is already strong guidance to schools on combating bullying, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires all schools to prepare disability equality schemes. We are developing specific guidance to help schools tackle bullying related to special educational needs and disabilities, and that guidance will be issued later this spring.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, but is not the bullying of and physical hurt to such vulnerable disabled children on this scale deeply shaming, not only for its perpetrators but for the educational environments in which it thrives? Moreover, is he aware that, in four out of 10 cases, it does not stop when reported? Why has Ofsted not been commissioned to carry out, as in Northern Ireland, a thematic review of the responses of schools and children's services to the bullying of and physical hurt to disabled children? Again crucially important, why are most schools still not complying even with the legal requirement to have a disability equality scheme?

My Lords, I first pay tribute to my noble friend for his outstanding work in the field of disability and special educational needs over the years and with Mencap, with which he is closely associated. In respect of the Disability Discrimination Act and the requirement to publish disability equality schemes, which he rightly highlighted, those provisions assumed the force of law for primary schools only last December and for secondary schools the previous December, so they are very recent requirements. However, they have the force of law and it is essential that schools comply with them. Ensuring that reasonable adjustments are made so that children with disabilities are not bullied is one key element of those schemes. I will draw the comments that my noble friend made about Ofsted to the attention of the chief inspector and ask him to contact my noble friend directly about them.

My Lords, will the Minister accept my congratulations on the publicity campaign that the Government carried out to publicise their guidance on homophobic and cyber bullying? Will the Government carry out the same level of publicity campaign to ensure that everyone understands the guidance to which he just referred about the bullying of children with SEN and disabilities?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments about the guidance on homophobic bullying, which has been a big problem in our schools over the years. We will see that a similar level of publicity and promotion is given to the new guidance on the bullying of children with special educational needs.

My Lords, I echo the thanks to my noble friend Lord Morris of Manchester and salute him for his dedication to this issue. I agree that this type of bullying is totally unacceptable. Will my noble friend the Minister say how he intends to monitor what will be implemented in terms of how much children with disabilities are believed when they complain about being bullied? That continues to pose a problem for many schools.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. It is essential that incidents of bullying are monitored. However, the prime requirement is that those incidents should be monitored, properly recorded and dealt with at school level. That is precisely what we recommend and lay out in Safe to Learn, the guidance published to schools last September in respect of bullying.

The guidance on the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act is substantial. A lot of materials including DVDs are sent to schools to help them address the issue of the reasonable adjustments that should be made. They set out how schools can effectively record incidents and see that they are dealt with. However, it is not practical for us to accumulate at national level the sort of statistics to which my noble friend referred. The key requirement is to put in place a structure that ensures that these issues are dealt with to the satisfaction of parents and pupils, school by school.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister agrees that the figures produced by Mencap are appalling. Do they apply to England only, or do they cover the whole of the United Kingdom including Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales?

My Lords, I am not absolutely sure, but I think that they apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. But of course as the Minister responsible for England I take them extremely seriously in respect of England. As a Government, we have clear responsibilities in this regard.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us how he is strengthening support for and the continuing professional development of classroom assistants, who very often work directly with such children? They must have the confidence to protect them.

My Lords, the noble Earl is absolutely right to highlight the importance of classroom assistants. A large proportion of children with special educational needs with statements will have dedicated assistants who work with them. The training and materials we provide in respect of the Disability Discrimination Act are available to assistants as well as to teachers. The guidance also applies to them, along with any training that schools provide. Moreover, schools should use some of their training days to deal with issues such as bullying and behaviour management. That training would apply to both assistants and full-time teachers.

My Lords, if children know that they cannot get away with bullying, they usually do not do it. Much of this is down to the quality of the staff. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to improve initial teacher training in the latest effective anti-bullying strategies? Concerns have been expressed that not enough is being done in this area, which places newly qualified teachers at a disadvantage.

My Lords, behaviour management is a key issue in teacher training, so these issues should be covered. But of course it is experience in schools which is vital for preparing teachers. The greater focus in teacher training now being put on experience in schools rather than sitting in the lecture halls of teacher training institutions is better equipping teachers to deal with these issues. However, it is an ongoing matter and we are seeking over time to improve at the national level the quality of materials and training available.