My Lords, bullying should not be tolerated. Schools should take action to prevent bullying and protect pupils. Alternative provision is provided if a pupil cannot remain in a mainstream school. This enables pupils to receive education in different settings with specialist support if necessary, including for a return to a mainstream school. Some parents may none the less decide to withdraw their child altogether from all state-funded education. Local authorities may offer support to parents in those circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that the National Centre for Social Research report in 2011 estimated that 16,500 young people aged 11 to 15 are absent from state schools where bullying is the main reason, does the Minister agree that specialist education and psychological support interventions, such as the very successful Red Balloon Learner Centres, are the best way of helping these children back into mainstream schooling? Can he also say how such interventions can be funded if it is voluntary on local authorities’ behalf?
The noble Baroness’s pioneering work in this field in Cambridgeshire is a model of best practice, and I am familiar with Red Balloon’s work. I very much agree with her that, for some severely bullied children, the type of intervention she describes may well be the most appropriate provision to support a pupil returning to mainstream education. However, that will not always be the case. Severely bullied children are not a homogenous group and among them will be some with a wide variety of specific needs and requirements. Local authorities can commission appropriate provision from a wide variety of providers and are funded to do so.
My Lords, with the noble Baroness’s Question concentrating our minds on a toxic problem which is estimated to have led to at least 20 suicides each year, should we not be thinking of more imaginative and radical ways of co-ordinating our approach to bullying in schools? I commend to the Minister particularly the work of theatre companies such as Ten Ten, whose production I recently saw in a school setting and which, by working with young people, imaginatively addressed this issue of bullying. Does he agree that with one survey stating that 69% of UK children reported being bullied, and now with the phenomenon of cyberbullying and 31 million school days being lost each year through bullying, we need to take this incredibly seriously?
I could not agree more. Suicide is a tragedy whenever it occurs. I am not familiar with Ten Ten but I would like to be; perhaps the noble Lord and I could discuss it later. We are particularly focusing on cyberbullying. Our central thrust is to send a strong message to all schools that bullying is not to be tolerated. We have focused Ofsted much more on four specific categories of which behaviour and well-being—including bullying—is one. We have also recently funded four organisations with £4 million to work with schools specifically on bullying.
My Lords, in addition to the points that I have covered, including the Ofsted framework and the four organisations we have funded—namely BeatBullying, the Diana Award, Kidscape and the NCB—we are working with other innovative provision. In my own school, for instance, we have a programme where, if a child has been bullied and wishes to be out of school for a while, there is a student centre where they can come back in on a temporary basis and gradually engage again with classes until they have the confidence to get back into school life. I am keen to spread this practice elsewhere.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that underlying many of the statistics is the fact that bullying is also about racism and Islamophobia? If so, what are the Government doing about it? I take this opportunity to commend the work of the Osmani youth centre, which is based in Whitechapel.
My Lords, bullying is rampant throughout our society—even, it would appear, in areas such as the BBC, as we have heard via the media. Given that prevention is better than cure, as everybody has stressed, what practical steps are being taken to ensure not only that playground or classroom bullying is classified as absolutely unacceptable but that every school is required to eliminate it? Will the Government publish a document giving examples of how this has already been successfully achieved in some areas?
We should consider that. We have tightened teachers’ disciplinary powers, including their powers to search and confiscate, for instance, mobile phones and remove inappropriate material, and, particularly, to search for text bullying. We are continuing to focus on these areas.
We are focusing intensely on alternative provision providers. This Government have sent a very clear message that we expect alternative provision education to be equivalent to that in mainstream schools. There is no doubt that alternative provision in this country is extremely erratic. I am delighted to see that we have a number of alternative provision providers coming through in the new free school applications, and I expect that a number of them will be approved. A number of alternative provision providers are converting to academies. We have some excellent alternative provision providers. We have also asked Ofsted to look specifically at alternative provision through a thematic inspection process.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that many severely bullied children are very bright and can flourish educationally if they are given the right specialist intervention? However, such intervention has to happen at an early stage and all too often there is a gap between these children being identified and their being brought back into proper educational provision. The Minister has presented a picture of patchy provision across the country and said that it is erratic. What is the department doing to make sure that we have a complete picture of what is happening nationally and that those who are not providing the necessary educational provision are stepping up to the mark?
I entirely agree with the noble Baroness’s point about the patchy nature of the provision. That is why we are encouraging more new providers to enter the system and set some standards. It is also why we have asked Ofsted to focus particularly on this area. Children who are excluded from school are often very bright and very energetic and we have a duty to make sure that they can be educated in the best way possible.