HL Deb 15 November 2004 vol 666 cc1186-90

2.39 p.m.

Baroness Massey of Darwen asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress has been made on their anti-bullying strategy.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, there has been significant progress to sustain the Making a Difference in Bullying campaign. Following on from the regional conference series, we formally launched the Anti-Bullying Alliance in July 2004 and provided funding of £600,000 to sustain the momentum of the strategy. We are now pleased to announce that the Anti-Bullying Alliance will run the first-ever national anti-bullying week next week, with a range of local, regional and national events.

Baroness Massey of Darwen

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very positive Answer. Is he aware that bullying is becoming evermore complex and subtle and now happens by text messaging and e-mail? Does the strategy cover those aspects?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. We are aware of the use of new technology such as mobile phones and the Internet for bullying and harassment. The strategy is wholly applicable to all forms of bullying. We are also working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance to identify ways of counteracting some of the new technology forms of bullying, to which the noble Baroness referred.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, given that being bullied can affect the whole pattern of an individual's life, can the Minister assure us that teacher training and teacher refresher courses will place special emphasis on that? In particular, will the Government see that those responsible for teaching citizenship courses are aware of the importance of this issue?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Baroness is absolutely right. In serious forms, bullying can damage a child's self-confidence, self-belief, ability to learn and ability to relate well to others. We have all been aware of the most appallingly tragic examples of that. Undoubtedly, since 1999, it has been a statutory duty of all schools to have effective anti-bullying policies in practice. As part of that, they must look to how the whole school and staff treat bullying seriously, both in the ethics that they project and by the clear practical actions that they can put in place when a child reports bullying to a teacher or another member of staff.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a very important element of the anti-bullying strategy are the relationship skills, personal and social skills, emotional self-belief and self-confidence which develop from the very beginning of a child's education and before? Am I right in believing that relationship education is an important element of the PSHE syllabus, and that it is not delivered effectively in many schools—perhaps more than 50 per cent—today?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that children's self-confidence can have an impact on their ability to cope with and to stop bullying. The problem is that, in its worst forms, bullying undermines children's confidence and therefore in many situations makes it more difficult for them to take those issues effectively in hand without help from peers, their parents or the school.

I am not sure that I have seized the exact thrust of the noble Lord's question on the wider point about relationships. No doubt, when I rejoice and look at Hansard tomorrow, I will give the matter further thought and come back to the noble Lord if I can offer him further benefit.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, what sanctions can be taken against a school that fails to implement a proper anti-bullying strategy? What happens, in particular, if a school has an anti-bullying strategy but an ineffectual one? Does the DfES monitor the position?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, it is part of Ofsted's duties, when it carries out an inspection, to consider how the school is responding to bullying. It can write an adverse report in that regard. It is also the duty of the LEA to ensure that the statutory duty on schools is exercised in practice. Ofsted and the LEA can seriously censure a school that is failing.

The issue is to try to ensure that the school recognises, without an excess of inspection or regulation, that the matter goes to the heart of its responsibilities to its pupils. Schools should develop an ethic in the school that such behaviour is unacceptable and, above all, an ethic that it is legitimate to seek help. The way in which staff respond should be sensitive to the way in which the pupil articulates the need. Sometimes, that will mean not acting immediately but allowing the child to keep some measure of control, but schools should also follow through when that is the appropriate action. That is where Ofsted can play a strong part, and it has done so through the code of practice and the guidance that were issued to all schools.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I appreciate that this matter goes beyond the remit of my noble friend's department, but will he, in the spirit of joined-up government, undertake to ensure that any lessons learnt are transmitted to the Health and Safety Executive, with regard to the position of apprentices, and to the Army?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, yes.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland

My Lords, what action is being taken in children's homes? Children tell the Commission for Social Care Inspection that it is in children's homes that the worst physical and sexual abuse takes place. Although the wider aspects can be tackled in schools, such bullying is very much within the dynamic of the group of children in the home.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. We are aware that the vulnerability of children in children's homes is potentially greater. It can feel like a closed world, and, for obvious reasons, access to a parent is not necessarily always possible. The corporate parent—the local authority—is not as well placed to offer support as a good parent would be.

Following a series of appalling scandals in previous years, all children's homes are more aware of the seriousness of abuse by other pupils or by staff. It is one of my areas of ministerial responsibility, and I will give it further attention as we consider how to ensure, along with the local authorities, that children's homes are as well run as is practicable.

Lord Rix

My Lords, is the Minister aware that perhaps the most bullied of all are people with a learning disability, children and adults? What steps are being taken to improve that situation?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: pupils with learning disabilities are potentially more vulnerable in a range of ways to exploitation, bullying and disadvantage. As for what is being done specifically, I shall have to rack my brains and check in the department. I shall be pleased to do so because, as the noble Lord knows, that matter is also among my personal responsibilities.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, clearly, school bullying is undesirable and unacceptable. How are we doing in comparison with our European partners? Is our record comparatively good or comparatively bad?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, when I asked officials that question last week, the information that I got was that there was probably one other country—Norway—that was doing better than us. However, when we have discussed bullying at round-table events, other countries have been impressed by the statutory basis of our approach and the effective practice.

No country has an easy answer to the problem. The reason is obvious: there are no easy answers. It is important that we keep track of international experience on the matter. We need not feel that we are in a completely hopeless position, although there is an enormous amount more to be done to make children feel safe.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, does the Minister agree that lack of self-confidence and poor interpersonal skills can be characteristics of the bully, as well as of the child who cannot deal very well with bullying?

Are the Government carrying out any research into the root causes of bullying and the reasons why certain children do it and others do not? We should consider whether there is any link between such behaviour and the general disengagement from the education process.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is not the case that only the bullied child will experience a lack of self-confidence. A high proportion of children are, at some stage, bullies—a sobering thought—and I suspect that they reflect the full range of human characteristics.

The noble Baroness's question is a good one. One needs to think about why it happens and what it is in the experience or mindset of a child who chooses to bully that makes him or her want to exploit a power relationship. I do not know the specific answers as to what research is under way at present. But it is an important question. I shall be pleased to write to the noble Baroness on that position when I have researched it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one of the problems relating to bullying in schools is that if a teacher dares to put a restraining hand on a bully, he is at risk of suspension from his job, the ruination of his career and possible prosecution? Is that problem being tackled? If not, why not?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I cannot for the life of me think why a teacher would feel that he or she needed in any way to touch, hit or whatever a bully as part of an effective intervention.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I did not say "touch" or "hit", I said "restrain".

Lord Filkin

My Lords, if the noble Lord means that a child bullying another child is doing it in front of a teacher, that is an implausible situation. It is not the way in which bullies normally behave.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I trust that the Minister will forgive me if I am wrong, but I believe that some time ago the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, mentioned bullying in the Army. The noble Lord has not touched on that.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I recollect that I said, "yes". The question was whether I would make sure that any lessons that were learnt would be looked at more widely.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there needs to be good communication between local authorities and schools if children in local authority care are less likely to be bullied or to become bullies in schools? If that is so, what action is the Minister taking in the light of the Social Exclusion Unit's report on the education of looked-after children, which found that in some areas communication between schools and local authorities was inadequate?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Earl has raised, as well he might, the wider issues of the pretty appalling outcomes that looked-after children experience. As the noble Earl knows, that is part of fairly wide-ranging work being done by government, including the Social Exclusion Unit.

I expect that we are all aware that looked-after children have much worse educational outcomes than average children, which is not usually a product of them being in care but a consequence of the factors that have led them to being in care. Clearly, as was signalled previously, children's vulnerability to bullying in children's homes is part of what local authorities have to look at in order to address getting better outcomes for looked-after children, which should be one of our priorities.