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Learning Disability: Bullying

Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further action has been taken, since March 2008, to address the implications of Mencap’s research finding that eight out of 10 pupils with learning difficulties were subjected to bullying and six out of 10 to physical hurt.

My Lords, we are currently working with Mencap and other disability groups to look at ways in which we can tackle more effectively the bullying of children with special educational needs and disabilities. In May 2008, we produced guidance for schools on tackling bullying involving children with special educational needs and disabilities.

My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend’s manifestly genuine concern. Is she, however, aware that Mencap has seen no reason to revise its findings on the prevalence of this appalling scourge? Is not bullying and brutality against such vulnerable disabled children on this scale deeply shaming both of its perpetrators and of the educational environments in which it thrives; and will she now ask Ofsted urgently to undertake a full review of its incidence, school by school, and name those still in default even of their legal duty to publish a disability equality scheme?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. He has decades of experience of raising awareness of disability concerns, and this issue in particular. I reassure him that we take this matter extremely seriously and appreciate that Mencap does not feel ready to revise its findings. We will work with Mencap and others, and, as my noble friend suggested, are already talking to Ofsted about the potential to extend its review of SEN, which was committed to in the Children’s Plan, to include precisely this issue.

My Lords, as president of Mencap, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris, for asking that Question—entirely unsolicited, I assure the House. When do the Government plan to publish their proposals for a duty on schools to record incidents of bullying?

My Lords, because of the noble Lord’s intimate involvement with Mencap over many years and his personal knowledge of this subject, I take his concerns very seriously. In September 2008, we made a commitment to put a statutory duty on schools to record incidents of bullying. Of course, the noble Lord is suggesting that the records of those incidents should reflect the cause. We will consult very shortly on the nature of that guideline and, in particular, will consult organisations such as Mencap and other members of the disability lobby.

My Lords, does the Minister now accept that the wholesale closure of SEN schools was wrong and that young people needing specialist support have been failed by the Government? Will she now call for a moratorium on further closures of SEN schools?

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s analysis. I have taken the trouble to look at the closure of these special schools. Such closures are a matter for local consideration, and the interests of children in a locality must be taken into account. Therefore, I am afraid that the answer must clearly be no.

My Lords, reports from young offender institutions indicate that young people in prison with a physical or mental disability suffer considerably greater degrees of bullying than other young people. What training is given to prison officers in regard to levels of bullying, in managing the behaviour of both the perpetrators and the victims, and in how they can best support disabled young prisoners?

My Lords, as I said last week, when we were discussing the training of staff in the juvenile secure estate, the Government are overhauling that training and, of course, the management of behaviour. Looking at how incidents involving bullying can be defused is all part of that issue. The noble Baroness raises a very important concern.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that bullying is also a cause of large numbers of Gypsy and Traveller children dropping out of secondary school? Will she ensure that that too receives attention?

My Lords, I shall certainly ask my officials to look into the data that we have. I shall come back to my noble friend or discuss this with her further. I am sure my noble friend shares my concern that all children should be able to learn in an environment where they are free from any form of bullying, whatever the strange rationale for it might be.

My Lords, the Mencap figures are indeed horrendous. It sounds as though the Government are now pursuing a positive policy of encouraging all children to offer help and support rather than indulge in bullying. Can the Minister reassure us that that really is happening across schools and that there are very good examples, such as that provided by the Nurture Group Network, of schemes encouraging pupils, from nursery onwards?

My Lords, from our experience with London Challenge, we know that it has been possible, through intensive work with schools, to transform performance. I can reassure the noble Baroness that we shall be working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance and national challenges to ensure that the guidance that we have produced on bullying in relation to SEN and disability is embedded locally. Part of that is ensuring that schools understand where good practice works.

My Lords, can the Minister give me an assurance that when the equality Bill is published later this year, it will guarantee the retention of the specific duty on schools to produce disability equality schemes to reduce bullying?

My Lords, I must be clear: we are absolutely committed to the disability equality scheme in schools and to ensuring that that is a really good device for embedding change in schools. My honourable friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry will shortly be writing to schools to remind them of their responsibilities under the equality scheme. That is an indication of exactly how committed we are to ensuring that the scheme works in schools.

My Lords, what is being done to improve access to speech and language therapists? Many of these children have difficulty expressing the fact that they have been bullied or are bullied because they cannot communicate easily.

My Lords, recently there has been a review of access to speech and language services. There is enormous concern about a whole range of disadvantage, whether it be the bullying of disabled children or of Gypsy and Traveller children. We are committed to tackling every strand of that.