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Schools: Homophobic Bullying

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 14 July 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the incidence of homophobic bullying in schools.

My Lords, the Government aim to help teachers to promote good behaviour through new legislation that is being introduced in the Education Bill. We have updated our advice to schools to make it clear that prejudice-based bullying such as homophobic bullying should not be tolerated. This advice signposts schools to specialist organisations, such as Stonewall, that can support them. Accountability in how schools tackle bullying will also be sharpened through the new Ofsted inspections framework.

I welcome the Minister’s response. However, we need more than just words; we need tools to do the job. Will the Minister therefore give an undertaking that Ofsted will investigate how schools respond to homophobic bullying when visiting them in future?

Without wishing to be too prescriptive about everything that Ofsted will look for, as the noble Lord will know the whole purpose of our slimming down the inspection framework for Ofsted to concentrate on four core areas—including behaviour and safety—is precisely so that they have more time to look for the kind of issues that the noble Lord is concerned about. The framework that we are putting in place will sharpen the focus on behaviour and the way in which Ofsted looks for bullying of all kinds.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that any bullying for any reason is absolutely obnoxious and should be assailed and stopped wherever it happens?

I agree with my noble friend. If one is on the receiving end of bullying, no matter what the motivation is it feels pretty horrid.

Will the Minister reassure the House that the issue of bullying, including homophobic bullying, is part of teacher training? Ofsted inspections are fine but are only once every few years, whereas teachers are there every day. Their training therefore ought to emphasise the importance of identifying this behaviour very early on, and the skills to deal with it.

I agree with the noble Lord. He may know that some proposed new standards for qualifications have been published today by a group that has been advising the department. Those standards will then work through to what the initial teacher training providers provide. However, the noble Lord is obviously right; we want to make sure that teachers responsible for classrooms are properly and broadly trained in maintaining a good environment in which to learn, which will include an important focus on maintaining order and discipline and trying to minimise bullying.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House. The Minister invested in his Answer considerable confidence in Ofsted inspections, but he will know that in Clause 39 of the Education Bill, which is currently going through your Lordships’ House, the Secretary of State is taking powers to categorise classes of school that will no longer have to receive regular Ofsted inspections. What is the logic of removing schools from those regular inspections, given the problem of bullying that has been reflected here today? It is also known that a considerable proportion of category 1 schools are reduced in category on subsequent inspections.

The objective of the Bill, as in a number of areas, is to try to have a proportionate approach to inspection that is backed up by safeguards. I recognise that schools in an outstanding category can fall out of it, which is why Ofsted will have powers to carry on not only thematic assessments but risk assessments. Any member of the public or local authorities who have concerns of the sort that the noble Lord raises will be able to go to Ofsted and ask for an inspection.

My Lords, a few years ago when I was a councillor, I chaired a scrutiny review into the wider issue of bullying. We found that where there is evidence of homophobic bullying, there is often a wider issue in the social environment of the school of bullying in general against children with disabilities and other issues. Does the Minister agree that schools should use organisations such as Beatbullying to combat cyberbullying on Facebook and that sort of thing, which is now very widespread and insidious? Does he also agree that we need greater consistency in standards in schools, including in state-funded faith schools where this is often a difficult subject, and of course academies?

I agree very much that specialist organisations of the sort to which my noble friend refers can play an important part. I also agree about the dangers to children—and, indeed, to staff—of cyberbullying, which is a growing problem. That is one of the reasons why the Government are proposing measures in the Education Bill to tackle that problem. On faith schools, my note of slight caution to my noble friend is that one has to be very careful in making generalisations about whole categories of school. Nearly one-third of the schools in our country are faith schools. Many of them have outstanding records on behaviour, discipline and their work in promoting community cohesion. However, I agree with my noble friend’s underlying point that one needs as much outside help as one can to tackle these problems thoroughly and consistently.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bullying in schools, as with bullying by newspaper tycoons, needs to be challenged and punished?

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me when this problem arose? It did not happen when I was at school, or I suspect when many of us in this House were at school. What has precipitated it?

The truth is linked to the earlier point raised by my noble friend Lady Knight. Bullying comes in many forms. Types, categories, natures and methods of bullying change over time. When my noble friend Lord Tebbit was at school, homophobic bullying may well not have been an issue. However, it is more of an issue today.