HC Deb 21 May 1992 vol 208 cc601-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

10.30 pm
Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to discuss the important subject of bullying. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

I shall give the hon. Member a little time. Would hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly? We need to proceed with the business of the House.

Mr. Coombs

Sadly, bullying in schools casts a blight on the lives of thousands of children.

The catalyst for the debate was the sad and tragic death of Katharine Bamber, aged 16, who committed suicide in my constituency on 31 March. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly please?

Mr. Coombs

Katharine left a note that said: Dear Family, I hate my life, People … make it hell. I hate them for threatening me and calling me a tart and slag. I can't take it anymore. I'm very scared and hurt inside by them and the only way I know out is by killing myself. Two hours later, Katharine was found hanged in the garage at her parents' home.

The case has received a great deal of publicity on television and in the national press. Although it is a matter, sadly, of some controversy, it has not been dealt with as sensitively as I would have liked. Although I appreciate the desire to consider bullying from the point of view of the children in schools as well as from that of children such as Katharine, it was extremely insensitive of the chairman of the education committee of Hereford and Worcester county council to hold a press conference that made Katharine's reputation a matter of controversy. Her family were in no position to answer back.

Such cases are never simple, but it is possible to draw a number of conclusions from that local case. First, it would be extremely foolhardy to discount bullying as a reason for Katharine's suicide. Secondly, the local education authority is now committed to conducting an investigation into the circumstances at the school that surrounded that unhappy incident. Thirdly, the debate gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the Bamber family, who have steadfastly and nobly sought to turn Katharine's sad death into an opportunity to bring forth to the nation the subject of bullying. I hope that this debate goes some way towards doing that.

It is an important campaign, because bullying in schools is disruptive for the person being bullied and to the general ethos of discipline and good order in the schools and, as a result, to the standards that can be maintained. The measurement of bullying is extremely difficult. Almost by definition it is a matter of perception, particularly when mental rather than physical bullying is involved. Also, many children are so scared of the consequences if they do report acts of bullying that they do not do so.

Some academic research has been done into the incidence of bullying. Michelle Elliot compiled a study between 1984 and 1986 of 4,000 children between the ages of five and 16. She found that no less than 68 per cent. had been bullied at one time or another; 38 per cent. had been bullied seriously; and 8 per cent. had been bullied so consistently and oppressively that their lives had been blighted by it. Delwyn Tatton, who has made a study of bullying in schools here and abroad, was quoted in the report of the Elton committee, which the Government set up to look into school discipline, as saying that bullying was widespread and too often ignored by teachers.

Childline, and Bullyline, which has been set up by the BBC in conjunction with British Telecom and the Government in recent months, found that in only three months in 1990 it received no fewer than 7,600 calls from children alleging bullying. That led to 2,000 firm cases where information could be studied in detail. Jean La Fontaine, an educational academic funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation, found that no fewer than one in seven or 1.3 million children throughout this country were being bullied at any one time.

Many people might say that bullying, disruptive behaviour, fighting and teasing are part of growing up in schools. Inevitably, children compete with each other, form themselves into individual groups and are jealous of each other's boy friends and girl friends. The National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations has said that children should be able to stand up for themselves. We all agree with that. However, when bullying becomes oppressive, systematic, organised and continuous, it can make the lives of children in this country no less than hell. I can use examples of letters that I have received and letters received by Childline to show some of the problems.

First, I have a letter from a family whose son was bullied for two and a half years. It says: We watched our son change from a normal happy, healthy boy. He became thin and pale, walking with his head and shoulders dropped. Our GP eventually realised that the stomach pains, backaches etc. that he had been treating … were all psychosomatic. It would take pages and pages to tell you all the wicked things that happened … he took more verbal and physical abuse in those 16 months than anyone should go through in a lifetime. I have another letter from a man aged 49 who wrote in to talk about his school experience in Newcastle upon Tyne. He talked about physical torture, and some of the things that he described can be called nothing else. He said: The verbal abuse included terrible sexual innuendoes about my Mother and what they would like to do to her. These verbal obscenities affected me more than anything else and created terrible nightmares. Another girl wrote saying that at school she had been beaten up no fewer than 168 times: If I had told the school, told my Dad, told ANYBODY then things would probably be different. I stopped telling them though when they stopped punishing her"— in other words, the bully. Telling her often didn't do the slightest bit of good at all. It only made things worse because she knew she could get away with whatever she liked. Perhaps most poignant, a boy aged 12 wrote a poem about his experiences of being bullied only six months ago. Sadly, that bullying continues. He said: It makes us unhappy It makes us mad It steals our childhood It's sad to be sad It makes us moody It makes us cry It makes us feel we want to die.… Four more years of terror to go"— he was 12— Can I stand it? I don't know. `The best years of your life' they say But I'd give anything to stay away. I remember an incident involving an eight-year-old boy who, in his first term as a boarder at prep school, was systematically belted with a leather whip by the 13-year-old prefect in charge of the dormitory and, in the middle of winter, held by his ankles over a 30 ft drop. I remember that vividly and was horrified by it, because that eight-year-old was my twin brother 30 years ago.

The conclusions that we should draw from these appalling experiences are, first, that mental bullying is often as vindictive and felt as hard by the victim as physical bullying. Secondly, although most children recognise that for a teacher to take no action is the worst possible non-response to the victim, poorly trained action can make the problem worse. Thirdly, bullying leads to delinquency in the bullier and the bullied, which can lead to truancy. Fourthly, children are particularly vulnerable when they change schools. Fifthly, and sadly, as has been shown by the case of Katherine Bamber, too often children who are bullied are categorised as over-sensitive children who deserve or select themselves for bullying.

What can be done about the problem? First, it must be recognised that it can be dealt with within the context of schools, but that does not mean that the Government and local education authorities do not have a significant role to play. The Norwegian Government issued guidelines on bullying and instituted an anti-bullying campaign. Within a year, reported bullying fell by 15 per cent. The Scottish Office Education Department issued a support pack for school, "Action Against Bullying", which is having a similarly beneficial effect.

What is being done? Section 22 of the Education Act 1986 talks about the requirement on schools and governors to ensure self-discipline in schools and proper regard by pupils for authority. Indeed, subsection (iii) deals with securing an appropriate standard of behaviour among pupils. Section 1 of the Education Reform Act 1988 deals with the encouragement of the moral and spiritual development of children, which obviously would preclude the consistent bullying that I have been talking about. The Elton committee, which was commissioned by the Government and which reported in 1989 or 1990, said: A sense of Community cannot be achieved if a school does not take seriously bad behaviour which mainly affects pupils rather than teachers. One does not want to leave the matter subject only to statutory declarations, codes of conduct and platitudes. I am delighted to see that the Government are taking the matter seriously, and that earlier this week the Under-Secretary of State who will reply to the debate emphasised the importance of ensuring that Her Majesty's chief inspector insisted that the inspectors who, under the Education (Schools) Act 1992, will inspect schools, should look specifically for anti-bullying policies in schools.

I am delighted, too, that the Government have set in hand a study by a Sheffield academic—Mr. Peter Smith. The study will report in 1994 and examine the strategies that schools should adopt to minimise bullying. It was interesting that a survey carried out by Mr. Smith revealed that 27 per cent. of children in primary school were bullied.

Over the past month and a half, the Gulbenkian Foundation, together with British Telecom, has distributed a significant pack to every school in the country. I was also pleased that, in 1989, my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who was then Secretary of State for Education and Science, stressed the importance in teacher training of the management of pupil behaviour.

That is all very good, and I am sure that many education authorities and schools have codes of discipline. But those codes are not specific enough. We want anti-bullying codes, as well as generalised discipline codes, to be instituted in every school in the country where there is a significant probability that bullying may exist. Sadly, that appears to include most of them.

What should the codes contain? There is no shortage of advice on the subject. Organisations such as Kidscape and the anti-bullying campaign, and the Advisory Committee on Education, and the BBC—through the programme "That's Life", which has done valuable work in highlighting the problems of bullying in schools—have all produced details of good strategies for dealing with the problem, and there are the instances of good practice from schools throughout the country. So what, broadly, should the codes contain?

First, schools should be able to identify the signs of bullying, which are not always physical. The child may play truant, or show reluctance to talk to his peers or to teachers, and develop a generally withdrawn personality.

Secondly, teachers must be aware that they act in loco parentis while children are at school, and must therefore put as much emphasis on the pastoral as on the academic curriculum. The duty must not be left to year tutors. Every teacher in every school has an obligation at every moment that he or she is in the school to ensure that bullying does not take place. In particular, children who have recently moved to the school, whom the research suggests are especially vulnerable, should be kept under surveillance.

Thirdly, playground practice is important. School dinner ladies and playground assistants should all be aware of the kind of problems that bullying causes. Fourthly, communication is crucial in preventing bullying and giving children the confidence to report incidents. School questionnaires have been suggested and successfully adopted. School councils, and appropriate prefect systems, can give children the feeling that there is someone they can approach if they are bullied.

There is also role play, and theatre in education. An excellent scheme is now going on in Birmingham under the auspices of Language Alive—although sadly, the local education authority seems intent on dismembering that organisation, which has done much valuable work, especially talking about racial abuse with ethnic minorities in inner city schools. I hope that Birmingham education authority will review its decision to dismember Language Alive—for the sake of its valuable work against bullying, if for no other reason.

It is also important to develop a strategy to deal with bullying once it is identified. That would include not only in-school strategies, but strategies to ensure that pupils who have to be suspended go to appropriate places in other schools rather than being sent back to the schools in which they have perpetrated bullying.

Most importantly, such a programme would create in every school a profound anti-bullying ethos. That will allow children to know that, if they are bullied, the schools are receptive to hearing about their misfortunes and to taking effective action which will not be counterproductive.

I ask the Government two questions. First, will they bring forward the date on which they expect to receive the conclusions of the academic survey to which I referred? it is ridiculous to wait until 1994 to tackle an urgent problem.Secondly—to be fair, the Minister hinted at this in his press release earlier this week—will the Department, like the Scottish Office, produce distinct guidelines for local education authorities and for individual schools, whether grant-maintained or under LEA aegis, as quickly as possible to give schools a feeling of urgency in dealing with the problem?

Such measures would be consistent with the important comments of the new Secretary of State for Education in his first few days in office about the moral curriculum of schools, about discipline and about combating truancy. More importantly than anything, such measures would do a great deal to prevent the misery and appalling blight on the lives of children who are bullied, and who find as a result that what should be the best days of their lives are often made a living hell.

10.51 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman have the leave of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) to speak?

Mr. Anthony Coombs

indicated assent.

Mr. Steen

I thank my hon. Friend the Member the Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) for raising an important subject. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis) here. His interest in these matters is well known.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Wyre Forest mentioned the excellent national charity Kidscape, which has advocated a practical anti-bullying programme for some years. In schools in which the programme has been in effect, bullying has been reduced by between 35 per cent. and 60 per cent. Intervention can work.

I am also glad that Kidscape was mentioned, because it publishes a free 20-page booklet called "Stop Bullying". It is full of good ideas for parents, children and teachers and for tackling bullying. Every schoolchild in the country should consider getting one of those booklets.

Every school should have a stated anti-bullying policy and practical ways in which to help the bullies and to protect the victims. Professor Olweus, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend, found in a long-term study that 60 per cent. of men characterised as bullies from the age of 12 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24, and that 35 per cent. to 40 per cent. of them had three or more criminal convictions.

Will the Minister tell us whether he believes that we could have a national anti-bullying campaign so that bullying in our schools is reduced dramatically, for the sake of the bullies as much as for the sake of the victims?

10.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Mr. Eric Forth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) on securing this debate, although I acknowledge immediately the tragic circumstances that have occasioned it. I join him in expressing our condolences to the family of Katharine Bamber and our sympathy for the great ordeal that they have suffered over the past few weeks. It is sad that it is her death that has given rise to this debate, but perhaps what emerges from it will be positive. That in turn may give some comfort to her family and all who knew her.

Typically, my hon. Friend brought out most of the salient features of this difficult problem. With so little time left, I do not want to reiterate them, but I want to emphasise that the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 explicitly laid on head teachers responsibility for maintaining high standards of discipline and behaviour in schools. Among other things, the Act spells out that head teachers are required to determine measures aimed at

  1. "(i) promoting, among pupils, self-discipline and proper regard for authority;
  2. (ii) encouraging good behaviour on the part of pupils;
  3. (iii) securing that the standard of behaviour of pupils is acceptable; and
  4. (iv) otherwise regulating the conduct of pupils."
In exercising that responsibility, head teachers are required to follow any written statement of general principles provided for them by the governing body, or any guidance offered on particular matters. Where governors have not already done so, I urge them to consider the need to give their head teachers specific guidance on bullying. That is in line with my hon. Friend's request. They might also ask head teachers for regular reports on standards of behaviour and discipline in their schools and include reference to school policies in their annual report to parents.

There is also a great deal of scope for parents to demand and expect of their governors and head teachers that they codify their approach to this problem to meet the requirements of the 1986 Act and then include them in the annual reporting that schools are obliged to carry out through their governors to parents.

It goes without saying that parents also have a vital part to play in encouraging their children to report to them when bullying takes place. Head teachers and teachers generally are obliged to provide in schools an environment in which youngsters who suffer from this scourge are encouraged to report it, in confidence if necessary, so that effective action may be taken.

My hon. Friend did not overlook the key role that Her Majesty's inspectors have to play in dealing with this matter. Nor should we forget that in 1989 the Elton report dealt with this matter in fairly general terms and provided a useful basis on which to move forward. The advice in that report holds good today.

The Government are taking other and continuing action in this matter. Most importantly, I will ask the new HMCI to ensure that all inspecting teams appointed under the Schools Act 1992 pay particular attention to the arrangements for securing good discipline and behaviour. We intend that schools should be inspected every four years: this is more regular inspection than ever before. The inspectorate now has a firm foundation from which to identify where the problem exists in schools and to go on to indentify for heads and governors and my Department what needs to be done.

In the meantime, the inspectorate will be revising and updating its report on "Good Behaviour and Discipline in Schools", first published in 1987. The report looks at some of the ways by which schools with high standards of discipline and behaviour have achieved them, so that others might learn from what the best schools already do.

I am looking urgently at the recently issued Scottish Office documentation on bullying, which may prove useful for schools south of the border.

In 1991, my predecessor commissioned research costing £174,000 aimed at developing practical strategies to combat bullying. The aim is to produce materials for national use—exactly what my hon. Friend wanted. A team from Sheffield university with considerable experience in this field is carrying out the work, which should be completed in August 1993.

Although I heard what my hon. Friend has requested and will reconsider the matter, I would be reluctant to hurry this work in any way that might prejudice its quality or usefulness. I would rather the work was conducted in a methodical way, so that its results will be more reliable and more useful. I will see whether it is possible to speed it up, and I ask my hon. Friend to leave that with me. The results are in any event due a full year before he thought they were due.

My hon. Friend is to be thanked for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House, despite the tragic circumstances that give rise to it. I hope that he will rest assured for the time being that we are in no doubt of the importance of the matter. It is not underestimated, and it has not been neglected. The effort will continue along the lines that I have suggested and in other ways too. The problem needs constant review and action, but I hope that I have been able to assure my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis)—

Mr. Steen

And for South Hams.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend spoke in the debate, so I did not need to mention him quite so specifically. As I was saying, I hope that my hon. Friends will be reassured that we will continue to give the matter our serious attention so as to find the best way of solving this problem, which can cause such distress to our children and undermine their education— The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at one minute past Eleven o'clock.