Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Ann O'Dwyer, director of schools at Kerry Education and Training Board, representing Education and Training Board Ireland, ETBI; Mr. Seamus Mulconry, general secretary of the Catholic Primary Schools Management Association, CPSMA; and Mr. John Curtis, general secretary of the Joint Managerial Body, JMB. It is good to see familiar faces from my previous term on the education committee. They are people who serve us very well. We have all had a very difficult and strange 14 months since we last spoke.
The witnesses are here to brief the committee on the impact on mental health of school bullying. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Ms O'Dwyer to make an opening statement, and this will be followed by Mr. Mulconry and Mr. Curtis. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee, with each member having a six-minute slot to ask questions and for the witnesses to respond. I would appreciate members respecting the time limit.
Witnesses are probably aware that the committee will publish the opening statements on its website following the meeting. Before beginning, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As witnesses are giving evidence remotely from outside of the parliamentary precinct, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present. Witnesses have already been advised that they may think it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory with regard to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction. I ask members, when it is their turn to speak, to confirm that they are in the precincts of Leinster House or the convention centre, which is considered part of the precincts.
I call Ms O'Dwyer to make her opening statement. The witnesses have three minutes each.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
On behalf of ETBI, and the 16 education and training boards, ETBs, that we represent, I am pleased to make this statement to the committee on the topic of school bullying and the impact on mental health.
ETBs are statutory authorities that have responsibility for education and training, youth work and a range of other statutory functions. ETBs manage and operate community national schools, second level schools, further education colleges and a range of adult and further education centres in communities throughout Ireland. Our initial written submission highlights the views and experiences of the sector in more detail, while this statement outlines some of the more significant observations.
The parallel matters of bullying and mental health have never been more to the fore, particularly in recent months. Research informs us of the significant impact of bullying on mental health in "normal" circumstances and this has no doubt been compounded in different ways as we tackle our Covid-19 response. In addition, the relationship between bullying and mental health is further challenged by the reality that some young people are bullied because of their mental health issues and some develop mental health issues because of being bullied.
The policies and practices of anti-bullying procedures in schools under the patronage of ETBs at both primary and post-primary level are directed in the first instance by Department of Education procedures, guidelines and circulars. Additional materials and resources are accessed through the support agencies, such as the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the professional development service for teachers and the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS.
As mentioned in our longer written submission, ETBI also wishes to acknowledge and reaffirm the significance of school culture as an important influence on tackling bullying at local level. The ETB core values of excellence in education, care, respect, equality and community lay the foundation for a responsive and restorative approach at individual, collective and community level for tackling both bullying and any aligned mental health impacts. ETB schools are unique in that they are Ireland's state school model and, as state schools, we provide for all children equally in a multi-denominational context. In consultation with our schools, ETBs have developed a clear ethos and we can confidently describe ETB schools as state, pro-education and multi-denominational, underpinned by the core values of excellence in education, care, equality, community and respect.
The ethos permeates all aspects of life in our schools, including our approaches to behaviour and anti-bullying measures. Research indicates that children and young people experience bullying as a result of various aspects of their identity. Our ethos, which informs the explicit and informal curriculum, teaches children and young people to recognise and value diversity in all areas of life.
In addition to incorporating Department of Education policy and its requirements, schools in the ETB sector also endeavour to engage in whole sector approaches that demonstrate and adopt diversity of engagement. These models of practice originate both within and outside of the formal education sector and aim to embed a preventative approach where possible. These engagements include the Goodness Me, Goodness You programme, which underpins the community national school policy to respect and recognise diversity, the instructional leadership programme that supports schools to facilitate the voice of the learner and ETB schools’ engagement in the BeLongTo – Safe and Supportive Schools programme, embracing a whole-school community model designed to create schools that are fully inclusive of LGBTI+ young people.
As acknowledgement and recognition of local and cultural context, many individual ETBs supplement specific elements of existing programmes with transition year, leaving certificate applied, and as part of individual subject specifications across the formal curriculum. In the informal and non-formal school community, student support and the impact of "one good adult" can be witnessed through the work of student support teams, the well-being programme, extracurricular, cross-curricular and community links, as well as the contribution to and from parents and guardians. Structured local programmes are also utilised where appropriate, such as the empathy education programme and the restorative justice approach.
The ETB sector endeavours to be responsive and pre-emptive in its approach to bullying and any mental health impacts but it will also continue to advocate for additional beneficial supports aligned to these matters. Our current recommendations include school-based resources related to online harassment and harmful communications, as well as initiatives which support the resilience and positive mental health of our staff, including principals, deputy principals, teachers and support staff.
In conclusion, it can be difficult to identify when students in our care are involved in bullying, whether as the person being bullied, the perpetrator, or both, and there are many ways that a young person can be affected both within and outside the school setting.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
Continuing to advocate for and assist in supporting students through any mental health challenges that may affect them as a result of bullying is a priority for our partners.
We thank the committee for inviting Education and Training Board Ireland to engage with it on these issues and affording us the opportunity to reflect the varying impacts and experiences of the education and training board sector.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
The CPSMA welcomes this opportunity to take part in a round table discussion with the Oireachtas joint committee on the topic of school bullying and the impact on mental health. The CPSMA is the management support organisation for Catholic primary schools. Since the school closure in March of last year we have dealt with more than 15,000 queries from approximately 2,400 schools.
I believe schools are putting a huge amount of time and effort into proactive strategies to make school environments as welcoming and inclusive as they can be and, on the whole, those strategies are working, according to the vast majority of children in our schools. Schools have comprehensive social, personal and health education, SPHE, curricular plans where the focus is on building relationships and developing skills needed for children to engage with each other. Many schools also engage in the Friends for Life, Incredible Years and other whole school programmes to build resilience and foster good relationships. Wellbeing is at the heart of many schools’ self-evaluation process and initiatives such as restorative practices, wellbeing and friendship weeks, buddy benches and amber flag schemes, among others, help promote the values of respect and tolerance as well as educating children on how to engage appropriately with others.
This work is paying off. As the latest chief inspector's report notes:
Primary schools were found to be managing their pupils well and the vast majority of parents are happy with their child’s school. In particular, questionnaire results from pupils and parents indicate a very high level of satisfaction with the arrangements in place in many schools to promote positive relationships and to tackle bullying.
The Growing up in Ireland study also found, "A very large majority of 9-year-olds (93%) said they liked school" which, I suggest, is a major change from how school was experienced in times gone by.
We also all remember the many images of smiling and joyous children delighted to be returning to school buildings in the media last September, reinforcing the importance and value of primary education for children’s socialisation as well as their education. However, relationships are complex and require work on an ongoing basis. If they break down for whatever reason, all schools have anti-bullying procedures, in line with circular 45/2013, to deal with that, which are annually reviewed. When a report comes to a school either through observation or from a pupil or parent, schools follow that policy. This would entail an investigation of the alleged incident where the class teacher and-or the principal would talk to the parties involved. A breakdown in relationships is a very complex matter. It can take time to establish what is occurring and whether bullying is substantiated. The school engages with both parties to repair and restore the relationship using restorative practices. Schools do much good work in this area. It can provide opportunities for healing.
However, schools are also experiencing a rise in interpersonal issues which are occurring outside of school on social media. There is an obligation to deal with these matters in school in certain circumstances as part of the anti-bullying procedures, which can be extremely challenging as the school has no control of what happens when a pupil leaves the school grounds. Schools are also reporting to us that these issues are taking up more and more time at the expense of teaching and learning.
While schools are implementing the procedures laid out, targeted training should be provided for teachers and boards of management on the educational responsibilities for schools, strategies to deal with investigations and restorative practices to resolve such issues. Training for parents also needs to be provided to help them support their children in building and maintaining relationships and to educate them on how the anti-bullying procedures are implemented by schools. A review of the Department of Education’s anti-bullying procedures from 2013 should take place in consultation with school communities.
Schools require increased supported in dealing with mental health issues in general. The presence of the National Educational Psychological Service psychologists is now rarer than our most endangered bird species, the corncrake, while a referral to the child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, can take up to 18 months. This is neither fair to children nor schools and should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Mr. John Curtis:
It is nice to see the Chairman again, albeit remotely. I thank her for her kind opening remarks.
The Joint Managerial Body welcomes the Oireachtas joint committee’s focus on the topic of bullying and mental health and is grateful for this opportunity to present an opening statement on behalf of the organisation. Our position is that student bullying, and its impact on mental health, can only be addressed when our anti-bullying policies are schoolwide, SPHE-driven and properly resourced. There is no silver bullet which will resolve the problem of bullying in schools. We need every single person in the school to attack the problem from every possible aspect every single day.
Anti-bullying policies in our schools reflect this schoolwide approach. I will take one example, which is a live anti-bullying policy in one of our schools. That policy states our aim is to provide an environment in which all can teach, learn and work, free from intimidation. It also states we will achieve this by: ensuring all parents-guardians have access to this policy prior to commencing school; assigning a teacher to lead the anti-bullying ambassadors; introducing initiatives on how to recognise and deal with bullying; placing an emphasis on inclusion by meitheal leaders in their work with first year students, emphasising inclusion and awareness of bullying in the school environment by prefects in their work; including bullying in the code of behaviour and in school journals; educating students through the SPHE and Wellbeing programme at junior cycle regarding bullying in all its forms, including cyberbullying, homophobic and transphobic bullying; educating students through the relationship and sexuality education programme by providing opportunities to explore and discuss areas such as human sexuality and relationships, which have particular relevance to identity based bullying; ensuring that within the teaching of all subjects there is an attitude of respect for all to promote the value of diversity, to address prejudice and stereotyping and to highlight the unacceptability of bullying behaviour; ensuring appropriate supervision of students; providing an anonymous comment box for general use, including bullying issues; and ensuring bystanders understand the importance of telling if they witness or know that bullying is taking place.
Meanwhile, the recently published OECD report Education at a Glance ranks Ireland in last place out of 36 countries for investment in second level education as a percentage of gross domestic product, GDP. The Department repeatedly sets out high demands for schools in respect of anti-bullying measures but clearly the State is neglecting its responsibility to provide its schools with the resources we need to tackle bullying effectively and to support positive mental health development in our students.
Our schools have been doing more with less since the financial crash of 2009. In particular, schools have had reduced allocations of teachers and guidance counsellors which have not been restored. Yet, our teacher workforce numbers have increased. This is due to significant student population growth but at school level, the cuts in staffing have never been fully restored.
What we would ask for is the following; we need our year heads and student support teams to have time for duties, ring-fenced and allocated for; our guidance and counselling provision fully restored; a full deputy principal in every school; to invest in team teaching and greater learning support for students with special educational needs; teacher training and ongoing expert advice, particularly on empowering students to speak out; leadership development on schoolwide approaches that work; free up time for the necessary in-school group meetings involved, particularly regarding teachers investigating incidents of bullying; our schools will always face the challenge of bullying and, among other actions, every school continues to review its existing policies in line with the Department’s anti-bullying procedures from2013; ensure its SPHE programme is well developed and well delivered; provide teacher professional development on anti-bullying strategies; and provide for parent and student support in tackling online bullying in particular.
The mental health of our young people has never been at greater risk. We must now invest in giving schools the resources they need to support this uniquely challenged generation.
In my opening statement, I have amplified our original submission to the Oireachtas in February. I will make two further points to follow up on some contributions at earlier meetings. We need exemplification of best practice from schools in other jurisdictions. We also need external supports in terms of facilitating an ongoing voice for leaders in our schools.
I thank our guests for appearing before us. Ms O'Dwyer referred to "the significance of school culture as an important influence on tackling bullying at local level." What ingredients create a good and positive school culture? Do they come from principals, teachers, students or somewhere else?
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I thank the Deputy for his question. The significant ingredients in a good school culture are care and respect. These two values permeate all other elements and actions. The school's patron is responsible for the characteristic spirit and core values that inform the school's culture. A good and effective school culture is discussed and known by every member of staff and is visible to students in every engagement they have with teachers and other students. No one feels belittled in a school that has a positive culture of care and respect. Everyone feels valued and that he or she has a voice that will be heard if something happens inside or outside a classroom that upsets the student's day or time at school. Everyone has a responsibility for a school's culture, but it has to come from the leadership - the patron, the board of management, the principal and the deputy principal. Everyone in the school needs to know that he or she has a responsibility to contribute.
Regarding training and support, we have done a great deal of work on our core values and characteristic spirit across every ETBI school over the past five years. We consulted every school in our sector. During that time, we put an effort into ensuring that everyone contributed to the five core values that now underpin all ETB schools. That is important.
I thank Ms O'Dwyer.
Before I ask a question of Mr. Mulconry, I wish to agree with his statement that a large majority of national school children are happy with school. That is distinct from what was the case 20 or 30 years ago. Mr. Mulconry mentioned the importance of interpersonal relationships. Obviously, bullying derives from the breakdown of those relationships. We place many duties on teachers but what role do schools have in trying to resolve interpersonal difficulties when relationships break down in school, for example, between students inside and, more difficultly, outside school?
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
It is even more fundamental than that. One of the key roles of primary schools is the socialising of children, that is, providing children with an opportunity to learn how to get on with other people, including people they do not particularly like at times. That has been a core role of schools for some time. Where it has become more important is that children now have a great deal less time for or experience of unstructured play outside the school. When many of us were growing up, we would have spent a great deal of time out on the street or out in the countryside interfacing with other children of all ages and having the corners rubbed off us, as it were. That does not happen to the same extent any more. Schools have a greater focus on trying to manage those interpersonal relationships and giving children the skills to get on with one another. It is something that schools are doing constantly.
Bullying is an indication that something is not working. When it is identified, we need to crack down on it as quickly as possible. That is difficult, however, because the word "bullying" is now used for many behaviours that are not necessarily bullying. If a child calls a teacher down to a yard, the first thing the teacher is told is, "He is bullying me", but it may have just been a push or shove. Sometimes, this stems from different expectations because young people from different backgrounds who are starting school are rubbing up against one another for the first time. There are many things happening that are quite normal and need to be managed, but not overly so. At the same time, we need to be able to identify bullying and deal with it quickly when it occurs.
Interpersonal relationships have probably been made more complicated by technology. What negative influence has technology had on bullying and secondary school students' interpersonal relationships?
Mr. John Curtis:
It has had significant implications for us. As a society, we have still not found our feet with the implications of the digital age. In the cases that we are advising our schools on now, the majority relate to cyberbullying or events that have occurred online. They can be very difficult for us to handle. We all have to upskill ourselves to deal with them. We also need some external help. We made a submission on the online safety Bill. We asked that an online safety commissioner be appointed to help us because we struggle on occasion to deal with the complexity of some of the issues we are facing now.
The 2013 circular and the bullying guidelines that were then published were good and the report that preceded the guidelines in January 2013 was thorough. Perhaps we need not reinvent the wheel too much in the context of the existing documentation. However, we need to consider how cyber issues have manifested and made matters more difficult for us.
There also needs to be some attention given to bullying issues, as 2013 is a long time ago now. School communities, the Government and the Department need to put a spotlight on the matter, make revisions and see what we can do better in a number of areas.
I thank the witnesses for attending. The three organisations before us are involved in the business of providing support and guidance to the people who run our primary and secondary schools. My first question relates to a scenario that I have often encountered, that is, where bullying is connected to the school but continues outside the school, be that through social media, on the street or wherever. Unfortunately, I have encountered situations where parents have been frustrated by their experience with a school's attitude, which was effectively that bullying outside the school was not its problem. Attitudes are evolving in that regard and some schools are proactive, but will the three organisations give a brief insight into how they advise that such situations be addressed? Although it is challenging, it is important that, where there is a connection to a school, there is a responsibility on the school.
I noted that at least two of the three organisations mentioned the online safety commissioner, which is a vital piece of work. Previously, the ASTI mentioned that it would be beneficial if the large social media platforms had a contact person available to schools as a resource for incidents of online bullying. Will the witnesses comment on this point?
I do not need them to comment on my next point, but I agree with the comments made by the CPSMA regarding mental health services.
Are the witnesses confident that enough data are being gathered by schools and the Department on bullying, including its incidence?
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I might respond to the last question first on whether the Department is collecting enough data.
The review of the 2013 anti-bullying procedures gives a fantastic opportunity for the Department to look at how it can collect data. In that is an annual checklist, which should be reviewed. I agree with my colleagues, who have stated this already. The Department should use that checklist. It could easily be developed into an online form on which to collect data. Every school has to put this in front of its board of management every year. They should be asked additional questions, such as how many cases they had to deal with in the year, how they dealt with them, what their success rate was and what methodologies they used.
Getting back to the Deputy's previous question, I suggest that the restorative approach is one of the most beneficial and sustainable approaches to deal with bullying, whether it is bullying within the school or bullying that permeates outside the school or the online space. Mr. Mulconry mentioned this already. If a restorative approach is used, it means that the perpetrator of the bullying is not demonised. He or she is also a young person growing up and our educator function is that he or she learns not to engage in this behaviour. A restorative approach, therefore, means that person must show that he or she takes personal responsibility and empathises with the feeling of the person who is being offended and really hurt by this. There is a whole process around that.
I suggest that at the moment, we do not have enough of a strategic approach to training teachers in all our schools in that approach. Teachers need to have basic skills to deal restoratively with behaviour in the classroom. Dealing with bullying in a restorative way requires skills and competencies that not all teachers have, however. If we are being strategic when we are reviewing the procedure, that is one area in which we should put in cyclical training. Teachers need to be renewed in this approach at least every two or three years. When it works, it is amazingly positive for everybody.
One of the most important elements is that having reported the bullying, the victim is not worried that something will happen again. If the punitive method is used, the victim is still going around worrying if something will happen to him or her again because he or she was a snitcher, whereas if one uses a restorative approach, the victim is empowered in the process but the relationship is also restored. That is one area I would like to see included in a very strategic way, where we decide we will train a team of teachers in every primary and post-primary school in a cyclical way. We know this is an evidence-informed approach that really works and is sustainable. It has implications for future life and future relationships, and it is a really important educator function of our schools.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I agree with all the points made by Ms O'Dwyer. I think the social media companies have gotten away lightly in many of these debates. They have a responsibility and need to be made accountable. We know that social media is designed to be addictive. We know they are collecting vast amounts of information on all of us who use it. It also means, however, that they are now able to recognise patterns within that. They should, therefore, be able to have technology that can identify bullying when it is taking place.
There needs to be a really serious conversation with the social media companies as to their responsibility. This is having a profound psychological impact on children and young people, and it is not just in bullying. A really profound conversation needs to be had with these companies. This is a huge change in children's development and I do not believe we have really understood just how big it is.
Mr. John Curtis:
An online safety commissioner into which schools would also have some kind of direct line would be very important. The ombudsman made a point about the pathfinder project, in which it was engaged with the Departments with responsibility for children, health and education, to have some kind of support system for schools in that space. That exemplifies, perhaps, the outside support that schools might need. We will be able to deal with most issues internally.
The Deputy made a very valid and interesting point about online bullying and things that happen late at night. This is the frustration we have. Any issue that pertains to the well-being of a child should and will be dealt with in school as best as possible. We find, however, that some of these cases are so difficult that we scratch our heads in wondering what to do when, for instance, an online comment is made at 2 o'clock in the morning during the middle of the summer holidays. Some things are very difficult.
Ms O'Dwyer made a comment about training and she is correct. I am old enough to have been around when the social, personal and health education, SPHE, and original relationships and sexuality education, RSE, guidelines came in. There was a huge investment in training at the time. The problem now, however, is that because of cutbacks, perhaps we have taken our eye off the ball. We are not training teachers adequately in dealing with some of these issues. We need to look at that.
It is difficult for us at school level as well. We want to have the best people in our school engaging in these issues with our students and pupils. Sometimes, it is a battle to get people to engage. They just do not feel they have the capacity to do it. We need, therefore, to train and keep the awareness up there. We need to realise that some of these cases are almost unsolvable.
I scratch my head on many occasions not knowing how to deal with an issue around bullying. I was a principal for more than 20 years. Of all the issues I have dealt with in school, those relating to bullying or perceived bullying behaviour, or problems with relationships between pupils, are the most difficult. I never stayed awake at night worrying about academic results. I often stayed awake at night worrying about problems regarding the relationships between pupils.
I confirm that I am in Leinster House. I have three quick questions: two for all three witnesses and one for Mr. Mulconry.
My first question is on potentially restricting the age at which a child can own a smartphone. I do not know if it is possible or if it is necessarily desirable. Do any of the witnesses have a view on that? The nature of bullying has changed. It follows the child home and the witnesses have all mentioned online bullying. The first issue is accessibility through a smartphone.
Do the witnesses have a view as to whether the disproportionately high level of gender segregation in Irish schools helps or hinders tackling this issue? Some 17% of all primary school children go to a single gender school. One third of secondary level young people go to a single gender school. Do the witnesses think this has an impact?
In the terms of homophobic and transphobic bullying, the Catholic Church considers homosexual acts to be acts of grave depravity and that homosexuals are intrinsically disordered. How does Mr. Mulconry find the challenge of that stated belief system of the Catholic Church? Given that the Catholic Church is the patron of 90% of Irish primary schools, how can he balance that belief system with tackling homophobic bullying?
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I am sorry; if memory serves me right, the catechism of the church does not say that homosexuals are intrinsically disordered. It refers to acts as being disordered, never to people. Fundamental to the ethos of a Catholic school is respect. We are all born in the image and likeness of God. It does not matter about any other fact. Once a person is a human being, her or she is worthy of the utmost respect. That, therefore, is where we come from. When we are dealing with anybody in the school community, that person is a valued member of the school community to be treated with the utmost respect. That applies to everybody.
I am sorry; the Deputy had a question on gender.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I do not actually know whether gender has an impact on mental health or not. I know there is an increasing demand for mixed schools. Most new schools are mixed schools and most amalgamations result in mixed schools. It is something with which society is dealing. We will see much change on it in the next few years.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
Mobile telephones are a complex issue. As a society, we need to look at what age we give these devices to children. I am not sure banning them outright for young children would be a good idea. We might look at advising parents not to give them to children while they are still in primary school, however, and at working with the telecoms companies to create some kind of walled garden, which would create an online environment that is safe.
In such a scenario, a child who had a phone would not be exposed to bad material or to bad content. Some schools in the UK have a scheme whereby they basically provide one with an old Nokia. Parents can buy an old pre-smartphone in order that the child has all the benefits of having a phone such as contactability etc. but are not exposed to dangerous content or material. It also protects to some degree against bullying.
Mr. John Curtis:
The issue of phones is interesting. In our schools we deal with teenagers. Prohibition in that space can be very difficult. Part and parcel of being a teenager is to rebel and to not want to have rules foisted on one. It is more important that we try to engage parents on issues relating to digital bullying and how to manage things digitally. On one level, much work is being done on this but perhaps more needs to be done to make parents aware of the difficulties and the problems around online engagement.
Prohibition, certainly with regard to the pupils we have in our schools, would be difficult. We have to educate them on how to use it and to help them along the way. As I said, we are only finding out the proper ways ourselves. We have work to do in this regard and it is a very interesting question.
As for gender issues in schools, our schools are either mixed or single-gender schools. I imagine the problems in the single-gender schools might be different. I do not have any information to suggest there are more issues because people are in single-gender schools. I imagine the type of issues we deal with are perhaps slightly different but that is something on which I would need to reflect. I would be curious as to whether there is any extant literature on that. Again, as I said, we are all learning as we move through this process.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
In respect of phones, we have a parents’ forum within our own organisation where we have that discussion fairly regularly. I agree with Mr. Curtis that in post-primary schools, it is our responsibility to educate our students on how to manage themselves safely online. The Lockers programme that was provided by the Department and Webwise a number of years ago is an excellent programme that should be provided again. I suggest that teachers should be trained in providing that.
In relation to younger children, I would say again to parents that I would not allow it. I reared three teenagers in the last ten years. I would not have allowed them into a youth club down the road with no supervision. If one provides a smartphone to a child, with no filters and no supervision, that is exactly what one is doing. One is allowing them into a whole world of rooms with no supervision. There is a lot of responsibility in relation to providing phones for children in primary school without that support and understanding of the impact, particularly that of watching and observing pornography online at an early age. We know the impact that can have later on.
In respect of co-educational schools, I can give my personal experience, having worked in both single-sex and co-educational schools. I strongly recommend co-educational education. It is normal for children to grow up and mix. When they are learning the SPHE curriculum, which we talked about earlier, in the context of a mixed school, it is a much healthier place for children to speak about the important issues of managing themselves, consent and sexuality issues. In my experience, it is a healthier environment for children to grow up in.
I thank the witnesses today, who clearly have watched the previous sessions. As it is quite clear, I thank them their involvement throughout the course of this section of our work.
I seek their views in relation to the use of technology, technology as a tool of the modern era and over-restriction with regard to technology. Could we be doing a disservice to young people who are not learning how to manage themselves in all areas of life? Politicians’ lives are very much in the middle of technology but, for the most part, adults’ lives are different, depending on their generation. We do have a responsibility.
Either Mr. Mulconry or Mr. Curtis raised the point that there used to be more time out on the street to kick about and to mix with people of all ages. I have brought this up previously but I wonder whether separating people by age is always the best way to go about dealing with young people through our education system. It is not normal life. It is not what happens outside of school and outside of the education system. When we go to work, we mix with people of all different ages. The only time we will be with people who all are the one age is when we are in school. Do witnesses have a view on how we might change the education system to better reflect the kind of relationships that we have in the outside world?
Last week, Mr. Matthew Ryan from the Irish Second-Level Students Union, ISSU, raised the question of how much we empower young people to make decisions in the school system around how to deal with bullying and what kind of structures are put in place. He quite rightly said that we, as adults, do not have the same experience of the technological world, for instance. Through their own patron bodies, how much do the witnesses involve young people in decision-making on how to deal with bullying?
The Growing up in Ireland study mentioned that many things have changed for young people. However, it did still say in the most recent report that 10% of 13-year-olds said they had felt bullied in the previous three months. That is still quite significant. That is touching a large number of families, if one considers that families may have two or three children. That has an impact on family life as well. It is important to remember that.
Finally, in relation to RSE, does Mr. Mulconry feel confident that the kind of education in the 90% of schools that are Catholic is reflective of every family, gender identity and form of sexuality that we have in society? Are children learning about respect for themselves and for their varying genders and identities?
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
In the most recent resource that patrons have provided to schools, there is a question. First, the class is asked to list out all the varying family types. Second, they are asked what they have in common. The answer is love. Therefore, yes, I do believe that we are providing materials for students where they are taught to respect one another and the various types of family that are out there. I do not have a concern about that.
I have many other concerns about how teachers need much more training in this area. They also need to be much more comfortable in delivering it. One problem that is not often noted about RSE is that no matter what one teaches in RSE, there will be a certain cohort of parents who will be annoyed, whether they are liberal or reactionary. It is a delicate area and teachers tend to shy away from it. If teachers had more training, they would be better able to engage with parents. Everybody would be more comfortable and all of us would do a better job.
The Senator mentioned the use of technology. There is evidence that increased use of technology is leading to shorter attention spans in human beings. In the future, the real competitive advantage will lie with those people who can concentrate for longer. I spent about ten years working in the technology sector. One of the things one has to understand about technology is that it is designed to be easy to use. That is the whole point of successful technology. We need to provide young people with a safe space up to a certain age before they engage with it. Then we have to control their interactions with it to some degree in order that they can learn the positives, the benefits and how to manage it. As I said earlier, technology is designed to be addictive. We need to be careful that children do not lose out on other activities or on the social engagement that comes from hanging around with a group of peers in the physical world. That is vitally important to their development.
Mr. John Curtis:
Picking up on a point made by Mr. Mulconry, many of our schools are Catholic denominational schools. In the context of the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programmes, I am adamant that we have made great progress in recent years regarding inclusion in our schools and having a focus on areas such as homophobia and bullying. The ethos of our schools is predicated on kindness and love, as Mr. Mulconry said. If we are not looking after the interests of every child in our schools, then something is wrong. Those principles are, must be and will continue to be fundamental to everything we do.
The impact of technology has many lessons for us all. I still struggle with aspects of it. If I was a youngster now who was on Facebook, for instance, with likes and dislikes and followers and unfollowers, I think the overall impact of all those aspects on children must be huge. We are still only scratching the surface concerning what technology is doing to the children in our care and that is why we must be so attentive to them. We must place a great emphasis on mental health and resource our schools properly.
I was not whingeing, by the way, when I mentioned the issue of resources for our schools at the start. Our schools are fantastic places and we do so much with the resources we have. The work we would like to do, however, is dependent on the people in our schools having the time to do it. We are concerned that principals have so much on their plates now that perhaps the important matters get left aside because they have been running around following up on other things. When I say I am seeking resources, therefore, I am not doing that in any kind of venal way. Rather, I am seeking those resources from the perspective of trying to support our schools to engage and look after the welfare of the pupils, especially in this difficult and complex time.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I will pick up on the point made by Senator Pauline O'Reilly about the relationships across age groups in schools. Some schools address that aspect by providing a house system where vertical relationships connect teachers to students right from senior classes to junior classes. It means students meet socially and have events, including competitive events, together. The system is intended to increase socialisation across the school as well and it also reflects more of a microcosm of life and society after school. Some schools have very good examples of such organisation. It is not widespread, but it is worth looking at.
Mr. John Curtis:
I apologise to Senator Pauline O'Reilly for not engaging with the point she made about the age issue. We can do a great deal in our schools by using the older pupils to help the younger pupils. There are practical difficulties with some aspects of such a system, obviously, but we are learning how to be across the age ranges in setting up things like peer support and meitheal programmes in our schools. We can build on the richness to be found there, so I apologise to the Senator again for not addressing that element earlier.
I thank all our speakers and contributors for their detailed submissions. I will start with Ms O'Dwyer, who represents the 16 ETBs. My experience of having been a member of the Galway-Roscommon ETB is all that allows me to even begin to understand the breadth of activities undertaken by the ETBs. Their remit extends from primary schools to secondary schools and all the way to higher and further education. The ETBs are involved, therefore, in every stage of education. I really appreciate the core values and the ethos that has been spoken of, which is very important, as well as the diversity. The training delivered through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, and the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, has been acknowledged. The key feature for me is the significance of school culture. Ms O'Dwyer also acknowledged the importance of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, also known as Coco's Law.
Ms O'Dwyer mentioned an empathy education programme in her submission, which I think is being worked on in conjunction with Professor Pat Dolan of NUI Galway. I ask Ms O'Dwyer to give us an example in that regard. Many of the speakers referred to the restorative justice approach and I am very interested in that aspect. Ms O'Dwyer also mentioned identifying bullying in her submission and it was also mentioned by representatives of the teaching unions last week. How do we improve the skills and abilities of all teaching staff, special needs assistants, SNAs, and everybody in the school environment in being able to watch out for tell-tale signs? How is that done? I ask because it seems to be an issue.
In a question for all our witnesses, and I mentioned this aspect last week as well, how do we set up role play so that people know what to do when there is a bullying incident? I refer to how it can be identified, who can be spoken to about such an incident in a school and the measures that can be taken in the school environment. How do we approach those aspects to ensure that people become very aware of this area and such a perspective becomes natural? I refer to situations where a bystander sees something of this nature, in any shape or form, and the steps that can subsequently be taken in that regard.
Moving to Mr. Curtis, I did not realise that the Joint Managerial Body represented 380 voluntary secondary schools. That is very impressive. I appreciate that he mentioned that bullying is always going to be a challenge and that it is the response which matters. I also appreciate that he noted in this regard that anti-bullying policies should be school-wide. I would like Mr. Curtis to speak a little more about the concept of anti-bullying ambassadors, if we have time. He also noted that "teacher workforce numbers have increased", and that is very true. We have reduced the primary school teacher-pupil ratio to 1:25. It was reduced by one point in the last budget, and I think that is historically one of the lowest ever ratios in primary schools.
For Mr. Mulconry, and I hope I am pronouncing his name correctly, he is looking specifically at the Catholic primary schools. He mentioned programmes such as well-being and friendship weeks and buddy benches. Mr. Mulconry also stated that research has shown that "parents are happy with their child's school". I challenge that point, because the research conducted by the anti-bullying centre, in conjunction with UNESCO, stated that one in three children suffers from cyberbullying. Ireland had nearly the highest incidence in Europe in respect of the nine or ten countries where bullying was analysed in that research, and that probably includes cyberbullying as well. Finally, and I may not be correct about this, I think Mr. Mulconry mentioned that now was not the right time to engage with schools on this issue. I ask him to elaborate on that point. I understand there is a great deal going on, but bullying is a very serious issue for us now. I thank the witnesses.
Mr. John Curtis:
I thank the Senator. Anti-bullying ambassadors are a means of engaging with some of the older pupils in a school who can talk to younger kids, especially when they come into the school. They can tell those new pupils that if they have issues they should be sure to report them to a responsible adult. In that context, I refer to having enough people in schools to enable us to designate form teachers and give some additional hours to people like year heads and extra resources to guidance counsellors. That is important, especially in the early stages, because the changeover from primary school to post-primary school can be quite traumatic. We have found in recent years that we are doing more work in that sphere. The induction procedures we undertake in schools are crucial. It is also very important to engage the parents in that space as well. The indicative programme to which I referred earlier gives us a sense of what is possible in schools.
Turning to the subject of identifying behaviour, this is a key aspect and it is evolving all the time. I listened to Ms Stella O'Malley's engagement with the committee previously. I found it very interesting, because in my time a gentleman called Brendan Byrne wrote the books on bullying. We brought him into schools to speak to staff and parents. Ms O'Malley's language is very interesting in this regard and I was very taken with it because I am learning in this area as well. This is an important point. All our school communities are still learning about bullying and that is why we need training. She talked about being an "upstander" rather than a bystander and referred to the phrase, "if it's mean, intervene". Those are beautiful little epithets we can use ourselves. I reiterate that I am still learning in this space as well.
The question regarding when may be the right time for schools to engage with this area is an interesting one. On one level, I will throw up my hands and say that we have been so busy in the last couple of years with other things that we have just not had time to address this area. Senator Dolan is quite correct, though, about this being a crucial topic. It is so important that we must re-engage with this aspect as soon as we can. We must create an awareness of this issue, review our anti-bullying policies and examine the training it is possible to make available for teachers. We must also look at outside assistance for schools. When I am in a situation where, as a principal, I am left shaking my head because I do not know what to do, some counsellor should be available to assist. The Ombudsman for Children referred to perhaps having a counsellor available in each school, but I do not know if that might be possible. However, there should certainly be some outside agency that it would be possible to ring when a teacher finds himself or herself stumped by a situation. It is also often necessary to have people to talk to parents as well.
In the context of restorative justice, often the difficulty we have is talking to the parents of the pupils involved and getting them on board, so to speak, in the context of the solutions that we have in mind, so that extra year and that extra help would be hugely important for the system if we could get the structures around it and managed in a proper way.
As Mr. Mulconry mentioned earlier, CAMHS is so difficult to engage with at the moment because of time pressure and NEPS as well because people are doing so many different things.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
Senator Dolan asked about the empathy programme. It was provided by Barnardos for teachers. Teachers must attend a full week's training, which shows how important it is and the quality of the training that is provided for teachers. The teacher engages with either a family member or somebody connected to the school who has a small baby and over the year the baby is the coach. The teacher is coaching the students to engage with the baby. The whole idea is that they observe the growth and development of a small baby and it develops their emotional connection and their empathy. We know that at the root of bullying is a lack of empathy and this early intervention in particular with primary schoolchildren is about developing their empathy, their basic human kindness, their affection for the baby and their learning and understanding. There is evidence from research which shows that it reduces aggression hugely and it develops empathy and social skills as well. Whenever we have served it in primary schools everybody talks about it. The children go home and talk to their parents about it. The family engages in the conversations with the children as well and we hear back from the children, the teachers and the families that are involved that this is hugely impactful for children. We know from longitudinal studies that even years later it has a huge impact on younger children so I think this is a programme we should certainly engage with.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
When Senator Dolan talked about us not engaging with schools at this time, she may be referring to a letter which I wrote on behalf of all of the primary management bodies back in February. It was not a CPSMA position, it was a joint position. The rationale for it at the time is that we were engaged in discussions with the Department on reopening schools and did not feel in a position to engage in a survey with our own schools because they had a lot going on at the time. It was not an unwillingness to engage with the issue.
I thank the witnesses for their statements and presentations. A lot has been covered at this stage and I will not go over it all. I commend schools that are doing wonderful work. I have an ETB and other schools near me and I can see how the culture of some schools has been changed to make it one of openness, acceptance, tolerance and all of the things that were spoken about last week on "The Pat Kenny Show" in terms of the Sophie project and what happened on "Coronation Street" to stamp out hatred and intolerance everywhere. Wonderful work is being done in that regard.
I am always concerned about the lack of mainstreaming of good practice and initiatives. It is time to stop talking about this. What I want to know is if resources in terms of extra teaching time and time in general go a long way towards resolving the issue? It appeals to me to have the mental health supports on site and readily available so that issues can be dealt with efficiently and effectively. Often, what I see happen is that something starts off small and were it dealt with at a very early stage it would not progress into something that becomes quite toxic in terms of relationships between teachers, parents, boards of management and sometimes the wider community. There is a child in the middle of all of that. The challenge for us is how we address it.
What percentage of bullying behaviour could be tackled using all of the policies that we have in place at the moment but purely with targeted resources? I will ask Ms O'Dwyer first.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
Deputy Conway-Walsh raises an important issue. We have lots of interventions and the question is whether we mainstream them or if we just keep bringing in new interventions. If I were to ask what we could do that would really make a difference over the next five years, I suggest we look at how the junior cycle framework has been rolled out in the past five to six years. A strategic approach was taken to it and a team was set up nationally. A minimum standard of training was provided for everybody who needed to roll out all the different subjects and it was reviewed on a regular basis to see if that was happening. Then the inspectorate came in and it wanted to see if it was happening and it measured it. The same approach is required here. We need a team of people, probably employed through the professional development service for teachers, PDST. We need them to clearly outline the minimum standard of training required to provide a policy SPHE programme that really engages students. Unfortunately, SPHE is not a subject recognised by the Teaching Council. We do not have qualified SPHE teachers, so therefore we must provide supplementary training to SPHE teachers. SPHE teachers are often teachers who have some hours left at the end of their timetable from their other subjects. Instead of looking at it like that, we could decide that they are a priority group of teachers who require a minimum standard of really good quality training over a three-year cycle. Then we will have to start again because there will be changes, the programmes will be reviewed, there will be new content and there will be changes in personnel. That is a minimum that I would do.
Alongside that, we need training for leaders. We must ask what is the role of a principal and a deputy principal to lead social, personal and health education and relationships and sexuality education in schools. They must ask what their role is in the programme and how they are going to lead it. I make the same suggestion in terms of what has happened in the junior cycle framework where the leaders are trained in their leadership role, because this is a very important and legitimate leadership function in all our schools. If those two things were to happen, that would bring about a significant change.
Then we must decide what is the standard SPHE curriculum that we must see in every school. There is a very good SPHE curriculum at the moment, but we want to make sure it is happening everywhere. Other programmes have been introduced in recent years, in particular the lockers programme, which deals with cyberbullying and online bullying. It is an extremely important Department of Education programme but there has been very little training rolled out for it so far. If I was to say anything should happen from here, that should be the framework. We must take a strategic approach to it. That should be included in the review of the bullying procedures. They were very good at the time, but a lot has changed since 2013. All of that should be included and there should be an ongoing review. We have a quality framework for schools at the moment and included in that is SPHE. We have well-being guidelines that have been renewed again this year to 2021, which set out the importance of well-being and the health of students. There is a really good opportunity but the missing piece for me has been the quality standards and quality training that we need to provide in continuing professional development, CPD, for teachers in particular and for school leaders.
The only point that would concern me and perhaps someone else would address it, is even in what Ms O'Dwyer is talking about in that there so much bureaucracy and so much more to be done in what Mr. Curtis described in his statement as highly stressed environments. Are we adding more stress if we are continuously measuring? We should certainly measure the outcomes but should we be doing more and measuring less?
Within five minutes of going into a school, one can feel whether it is open and whether its culture or ethos is right. Surely that is a better measurement than continuous measurement in a high-stress environment that leads to more bullying behaviour, possibly even from teachers and others who are highly stressed. When any of us are highly stressed, we are prone to saying something we should not or behaving in a way that we do not like.
Mr. John Curtis:
That is a valid point. It is a matter of getting a balance between bureaucracy and engaging professionally at local level. The 2013 anti-bullying procedures raised awareness, but there was a bureaucratic aspect to them that perhaps unnerved people a little. Let us consider the language - "anti-bullying procedures". I cannot come up with better language, but I wonder about the lexicon we use when we discuss behavioural issues.
We need to train people, which is where we are falling down. We have taken our eye off the ball a little in the context of how we engage professionally and ask people to go into social, personal and health education, SPHE, classes. That is a major issue. The Deputy is correct about the bureaucracy. We want to be careful in this regard. The best resource one can give a school is to allow a principal a little leeway where a couple of hours are left over. By and large, principals are able to identify the people at school level who might be best suited to work as a form teacher with a first year class, who has a certain level of empathy, etc.
We are still flailing around a little in terms of research into what the best programmes are. DCU is doing some work and it has the FUSE programme. As to determining best practice and exemplifying it, though, we are still in genesis mode when it comes to determining what programmes will work best for us. We are all in learning mode.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
We need a far more strategic way of managing change in the primary system. We are bombarding the system with initiatives from all directions and multiple agencies. We need to give principals and schools the time to absorb some of the changes. We also need to re-examine how we develop policy. There is a tendency to look to international best practice and try to apply it in Ireland, but we need to start looking at the best practice in our schools and try to share that around. They are doing extraordinary stuff and it is time that we learned from them and shared their practices to a greater extent, but that will require an infrastructure around schools that allows principals some time. Principals are under extraordinary pressure and they do not have the necessary supports. We estimate that approximately 60% of primary school principals could benefit from an intervention around stress management.
I welcome our guests and thank them for their rich insights. I was struck by what Mr. Mulconry said about people having shorter concentration spans these days. I wonder whether it means anything that we are only being allowed six minutes to concentrate our questions to our guests.
I was struck by Ms O'Dwyer's comments on the vicious circle of a child being bullied because of his or her mental health issues and that bullying then causing further mental health problems. Deputy Conway-Walsh and others have discussed measuring. Why are we having this conversation? Is it a part of ongoing good practice in how we look after our physical and mental health or, from the experience of Ms O'Dwyer and the others, do they have reason to believe that the situation is worse than it used to be? With all of the emphasis on positive mental health and the nurturing that is now part of school life compared with when I was at school, one would hope that the situation would be much better. To quote U2, "Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same?" Is it worse than it was ten or 20 years ago? I would be grateful for our guests' thoughts on that.
I will focus my next question on the Catholic school patronage and management sector. Is there much politics influencing this debate? We hear so much about sexual issues, to be blunt, when talking about bullying. This committee has had relatively little conversation about race or ethnic-based bullying or people being bullied on the basis of perceptions about their religions or religious practice. We have had some focus on disability-based bullying. All bullying is equally wrong, but are there issues? In the JMB's presentation, it focused on cyberbullying and homophobic and transphobic bullying, cyberbullying being a means of bullying that we all need to discuss. However, is there evidence to suggest that bullying around sexual identity issues is a much bigger problem than bullying based on, for example, rivalries between children or has it to do with the prevalence of groups that are active in these issues? Is there a disproportionate focus that might be subtracting from our need to concentrate on the essence of what is causing bullying?
Our society is now more liberal and an element in it is hostile to faith. Do children encounter bullying based on their faith or religious practice? Is there any evidence of that?
Do we need to focus more on resilience? Sometimes, I worry that we talk so much about this problem that we are putting children into a victim mode. Are we saying enough about the need to strengthen, encourage and cajole parents to be more active in their parenting and about the promotion of resilience in children so that they are less a target for bullying and better able to deal with it when it comes over the horizon?
I am sorry for asking so many questions.
Mr. John Curtis:
As to whether things are more difficult for students than they used to be, schools are much kinder places, and they become even kinder every year. We are focused on the fundamentals of our mission and challenge, namely, to look after the kids the best we can. Nonetheless, children are living in a much more difficult space. They lack the community support of previous years. I often think of the old adage, "It takes a village to raise a child". The situation has changed in that respect. That is why schools are so important. They give communities to students and a sense of differentiation. Students meet different kinds of characters and people. Today is a more challenging environment for children to grow up in, so schools are more important than ever in that regard. We must keep ensuring that they are kind places.
Regarding the types of bullying that we see in schools, there is no pattern per se. We see bullying in all guises. It can be transphobic, homophobic or because Johnny has red hair. Children are children and we must realise that, by their nature, they will do childish things. It is our job to try to educate them. They pick up on what is in the media and what is happening in wider society. I would hate to think that there was faith-based bullying in any of our schools. The majority of our schools are faith schools and we try to have an inclusive culture wherein we look after everyone. That is a fundamental part of our mission.
The question about coping skills was apt. It is a challenge for us. We deal with cases on occasion. What is one child's bullying is another child's banter. Perhaps children do not innately have the same skill level in those arenas now that they might have had hitherto. Perhaps that is because families are smaller, they have fewer social outlets or more of their social outlets are online. It is challenging. We must bear in mind that this is part of the package. Resilience is a major issue. We are trying to equip kids with the social skills to manage these situations and set them up for life. In some respects, what worries me most is that the kids with problems in school whom we deal with are often the ones who do not have problems later in life. That is because they have a focus or spotlight placed on them.
The children I worry about are the second-tier children who do not come to the forefront in school. Often, they are the ones who go on to have problems, especially young men in their 20s and the mental health issues that arise for them. I saw some surveys recently showing that, at third level, there is an increase in people presenting with mental health issues. I am always worried about the people who are under the radar in schools. What are we doing for them? Are we preparing them for life after school, when they will perhaps not have the supports they need? I always have that ongoing concern because I have seen some sad cases involving young men in their 20s. I worry about what we should be doing for them. It is often not necessarily the children who come to attention in school who suffer after they leave. We have much to think about, reflect on and work on in that regard.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
I endorse everything Mr. Curtis said. Schools have become much more sensitive to bullying. Physical bullying, for example, has decreased, but I believe cyberbullying has increased. If we look internationally, there seems to be a deterioration in young people's mental health, starting approximately in 2012. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist in the United States, has done some really interesting work in this area. He attributes the problem to the increased use of social media and overly protective parenting. We are, in effect, bubble-wrapping children when they are young, which means they are not getting access to the kinds of experiences that allow them to test their limits. We are not allowing them to be a little bit reckless and find out what works and does not work.
We are even seeing that happening in schools. We came across a school recently that had stopped children running in the playground. The school told the parents it was to do with insurance. When we chatted with management, it turned out there had been one complaint by a parent when a child had fallen. Children are going to fall. If we stop them from falling, it is not good for them. They need to learn their own limits. These factors are feeding into a more challenging situation for schools. Some of the challenge for society is that schools can do so much but we need the rest of society to realise these trends are occurring and try to finds means of addressing them outside the school environment as well.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I agree completely with what Mr. Curtis and Mr. Mulconry said. Building resilience is the role of the school, of course, but also, clearly, the role of the family and wider community. There need to be opportunities to build resilience. If any of us look back and consider what built our own resilience, it was all the relationships we had since we were young children. The school can do as much as it can but I would love to see far more happening for parents, particularly in the early years. There are some excellent parenting programmes such as the Incredible Years programme, which Mr. Mulconry mentioned is available in some of his schools. There is also the Parents Plus programme, which was developed in the Mater hospital. I would love to see those courses happening in a community context to give parents the skills needed. It is a challenging space for parents.
In regard to the types of bullying, the one that is most common at this time, particularly in terms of cyberbullying, is bullying that relates to sexual matters. We have discovered over the past number of years that, during the summer months, there is obviously far more online activity and issues then come into the school in September. Parents may not be aware of some of the online bullying and activity and it all comes to the surface when children return to school. They are fearful of different things and they disclose to the school, which then has to deal with it. That raises the issue of what we are doing to prepare and support children in advance of summer holidays. The same issue arose online when we were in lockdown. Certainly, it increased that type of activity because people had more online time. This is an area in which we need to do far more work with students of all ages to prepare them, prevent problems from happening and deal with them if they do.
I have a few questions and points for the witnesses. I am really struck by the breadth of wisdom and experience they have brought to the discussion today. Hearing about the very positive work that is happening is helpful. I agree that we need to have a sharing of that excellent work and the ability to bring it to different schools. Ms O'Dwyer mentioned the Incredible Years programme. It is a great programme but it is unfortunate that only DEIS schools are able to participate. There are many children in non-DEIS schools who would really benefit from it. We need to roll out all of these programmes to all schools if we are to benefit all the children who need them.
Mr. Mulconry talked about children not playing as much as they would have done in the past. He is right about that. We need to look at informal methods of education, such as through play and leisure activities. While I realise this is outside the school sphere to a certain extent, it brings it back to the community approach.
I was struck by Mr. Curtis's comments on the issues with language and the fact we talk about anti-bullying policies as opposed to trying to couch things in a more positive light. We should be talking in terms of resilience, positive mental health and developing positive relationships with others. There is a lot to consider and learn in this regard. I really enjoyed the philosophical thoughts behind the engagement we have had today.
I have a few queries for the witnesses. When discussing cyberbullying at previous hearings, and it is something we touched on today, we have spoken about the role an online safety commissioner could play. Do the witnesses have any suggestions on how such a commissioner could be empowered to tackle cyberbullying? We all agree this is an issue.
Ms O'Dwyer spoke about the roadmap of supports to be developed by ETBI. All the witnesses spoke about the difficulties in terms of schools and teachers accessing relevant resources. I agree that supporting professional development for teachers and in whole-school communities is hugely important. The Ombudsman for Children has spoken at the committee about the need for every school not necessarily to have its own counsellor but to have access to a counsellor. That also provides a supporting element for teachers.
At our second-last meeting, several witnesses raised the point that the Department does not gather aggregate data on bullying, including the number of bullying incidents, the types of incidents and the measures taken to address them. Do the witnesses think such data would be helpful?
My final point is more a comment than a question. We have had discussions in the committee on the issue of restorative justice. I consider it an incredible tool. We had a really strong submission from a former principal, Ms Noreen Duggan, on her experience in teaching. She is undertaking further study on the subject. There is a lot in this area that is absolutely key to what we are trying to do and I expect it to form a large part of our report.
I will go to Ms O'Dwyer first to respond to the points I have raised.
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I will talk about the roadmap. An issue we have not mentioned today is the student support team role in schools, which particularly addresses mental health issues, whether they are caused by bullying or otherwise. The student support team model was introduced four or five years ago to help vulnerable children and there are pilots happening throughout the country. We have engaged with NEPS on this and we are working with it to provide training for all schools in County Kerry, both ETB schools and non-ETB schools.
We have noticed over the past four years, since we introduced this training programme of three full days for everybody on the student support scheme, that the feedback from schools is it has made a very big impact, particularly in dealing with the most vulnerable of our students. These students have been victims of bullying in some cases and they are very vulnerable for many reasons. It is the few students rather than the many. I would like to see that as part of the roadmap to be rolled out very clearly.
The most significant feature of this process is the relationship built between NEPS and schools and that two-way relationship should improve. There is also a relationship with CAMHS and with Tusla and its mental health programme, as well as Tusla's child protection section. Where there is a Jigsaw programme available, that group is involved as well. There is a steering committee for managing and delivering the programme representing all the agencies. The relationship built between the school and those agencies clarifies the role and function of student support schemes and it clarifies the appropriate referral pathways for students. It also clarifies the boundaries of student support teams, including what the school can do and what the school should not be involved in. It is one element of the roadmap and we must ensure that in the next three to five years, that training is provided for every student support team. It is a cyclical programme because there will be changes in staff.
There are at least two if not three therapies that schools should be able to access. One is therapeutic counselling for students who need it and the student support team will be the group in school that will make that referral. The other two therapies to which schools need access fairly immediately are occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. Occupational therapy is particularly relevant to all our schools. For example, we have nine special classes across schools and many students are suffering from anxiety and mental health issues. Occupational therapists can work side by side with a teacher and there is a pilot under way in Kildare, Wicklow and Dublin that we are all reading about, as a report was compiled last September. That process should certainly be rolled out across the country. We should have access to therapy in the school, with occupational and speech and language therapists working side by side with teachers and with schools reinforcing those therapies such as behaviour management, where students can learn to manage their own behaviour, particularly those students suffering from anxiety.
I would like to see these two elements as clear parts of the roadmap, along with what I mentioned earlier regarding the training for SPHE teachers.
Mr. Seamus Mulconry:
As Ms O'Dwyer has said, we have all heard about the pilot and it sounds fantastic but there is no sign of it arriving to other schools. There is a real and urgent need for it. If a Minister with responsibility for finance or education makes an announcement at budget time, he or she always speaks about the increased number of special needs assistants, SNAs, but we also need occupational therapists and other supports just as much at this stage, if not more than SNAs. I certainly back that point.
On the question of statistics, the first question asked by schools is what will be done with those statistics. Much information is collected from schools but nothing ever happens to it. There is a sense that it is a box-ticking exercise. If we want to ask schools for statistics, we must tell them the reason and see that they will be used to drive policy rather than sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust.
On the question of an ombudsman or digital child protection officer, we must get the technology companies to formulate solutions rather than excuses. We must get them to demonstrate what the technologies can do. There have been major developments in artificial intelligence to recognise patterns across data and some of that could be used to track and identify bullying patterns at an early stage. This could serve as the tripwire to bring about an intervention. Much could be done but none of us knows as much about the technology as these firms do, so it is time somebody brought them into the conversation and held them to account.
Mr. John Curtis:
On the points made by Ms O'Dwyer and Mr. Mulconry, we have been calling for wrap-around services for pupils in our schools for a long time and we have those external supports to help people at the school level. That is very important as we move forward in this area. As there is so much pressure on CAMHS and NEPS, we should identify what we need, including outside agencies to help schools in this arena. From my reading of the matter, three elements have been mentioned.
A safety commissioner would be very significant. I suppose the big issue we have is chasing technology companies about the right to erasure and information that is held online. Perhaps we could even have a point of quick contact. I know there is a hotline that can be used and we can report highly problematic online material but we need to be able to engage with online issues very quickly. That is why an online commissioner would be useful.
We have spoken about supports that schools would need in the context of counsellors and therapists etc. I am curious about the comments from the children's ombudsman about the pathfinder project and what that might entail in the context of a liaison between different Departments and how they might support schools in this arena. There is much work that could be done.
I am a bit conflicted on the question of data and I go back to the question of language and the number of bullying cases. How we couch such matters is important and we must be as positive as we can about everything that is going on at a school level. I do not have an answer, by the way, although I have been thinking for the past few days about what other type of language would be used. It is a difficult space but we must all reflect on this while being as positive as we can about the environments that comprise our schools now in order that we can build on that. There are personnel in schools who do marvellous work in the area and they should feel supported rather than impinged upon in the context of what is being asked of them.
I thank the witnesses. They mentioned the school inclusion model initiated by the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, and it has been rolled out in community healthcare organisation, CHO, 7 and they are looking at rolling it out in two other CHOs. The most recent budget had investment in occupational therapists and educational psychologists and it is really impressive to see that coming through. As the witnesses have said, we should see that happen in more areas.
I will follow up some of the questions I had earlier. I ask Mr. Curtis about the telltale signs of bullying in primary schools. Could he give one or two examples that he has seen?
We have fire drills in schools, with kids and teachers - like people in every company in the country - knowing where to run to when the bells go off. They know who has to do what and who is the warden or must put on the jacket. They know they leave their bags behind and run. We need other drills and I really like the Vice Chairman's use of the word "resilience" over the likes of "anti-bullying". Maybe we could have resilience drills in schools so people know what their roles are if they see something happen. I am very concerned we do not speak about this in schools and people do not know how to act when they see this happening. If we have such drills, the culture in school might change and students would feel more empowered to act.
Mr. John Curtis:
In the context of post-primary schools and the kids we deal with, the big telltale sign in early days relates to groups and who is not in a group. Students tend to be creatures of habit. They walk the same ways, sit in the same places and congregate around the same lockers. We can see quite quickly, in the first couple of weeks, which first-year students do not seem to hang out with anybody else, for want of a better phrase.
One should have good people keeping an eye on that. One will always have an intuitive sense of where the problems might be. Prevention is better than cure in that one should get in quickly enough, have a quick chat with the child and, if necessary, have a little conversation with the parent. One should watch the dynamics of movement and engagement. That is the first telltale sign one sees, that is, who is hanging out with whom and which children are on their own and are isolated.
One will find that many pupils lack the social skills to be able to engage with other children, especially in the early days of coming into school, because there is so much going on. We can be proactive in much of what we do. However, it necessitates a little bit of manpower, having people watch out for it and identifying people at school level who have the skills in those arenas. Those are the subtle things one watches out for.
We all have to deal with the very overt bullying cases. One thing that I found useful was that it was explained to me that about 2% of people – adults and children - do not have empathy. These are people who do not feel the feelings of others. It is very hard to develop social skills there. Those are the children one needs to work on as well. One should be aware that in any given school there is a number of children who just do not get it when it comes to proper social etiquette. Again, it is about trying to identify early on who those children might be in any given year and any given class and intervening and helping as much as possible. That can be very difficult because oftentimes the impasse can be with parents in that arena. No parent wants their child to be called a bully, or to be accused of bullying or insensitive behaviour. That is where the difficulties are.
Much of this is about awareness. When I say that we have taken our eye off the ball, I do not mean this in any pejorative sense. It has been a number of years since we have looked at the bullying issue. It is now time to re-engage, to reacquaint ourselves with what is going on and to try help the students as best we can.
I thank Mr. Curtis. I suppose it is about engaging with the victims, the bystanders, the upstanders and the perpetrators. Everybody deals with it as natural because it is happening all the time. It should not be unusual that parents have to engage on this. Could I ask Ms O’Dwyer and Mr. Mulconry to expand on those other two points, if we have time?
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
I would like to pick up on Mr. Curtis's point on the telltale signs. One of them is certainly exclusion. It can happen during the transition from primary to post-primary school. It can also happen later on, when a student thinks they have a group of friends, and next thing they are excluded for whatever reason. This is one of the most subtle and insidious forms of bullying and one of the most difficult and challenging.
I will give an example of what we introduced around 2014, after the anti-bullying guidelines. One of the schools produced a really good piece of theatre. Students discussed it afterwards. We were informed and inspired by the instructional leadership programme, where everything happens in groups. Work is a really good methodology for teaching and learning in both primary and post-primary.
When first years come in to schools, they form what we call a base group. It is usually a heterogeneous group that is formed by the school management. It is not a group of friends, but a group of people who do not know each other. Therefore, in a class of 24, one would have six groups of four. The social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum is taught using the groups of four. The SPHE teacher teaches the SPHE curriculum, which is all about people minding themselves, who they are and their identity, how to be a friend, listening and communication. All the social skills are learned in that group of four. The student learns that they are going to take care of their group of four. For instance, if anyone is away because they are unwell for a day, the other people in that group of four will give them a call or send a text, will send them the homework and when they come back, they will welcome them back. It is about taking care of their group of four.
We have found that it is very unlikely that one group of four will bully another group of four or another individual in another group, because the group of four is learning to mind and support. It is basic human kindness. That is a very good model, based on Roger and David Johnson’s co-operative learning approach.
I thank Ms O'Dwyer. It is crucial that not just the students, but everybody school-wide who students interacts with who should know exactly what their roles are when they see instances like this. Everyone has a role here, including special needs assistants, SNAs, teachers and principals. Would that model include those groups as well?
Ms Ann O'Dwyer:
In that model, the students themselves learn how to take care of each other. They also learn about the signs of bullying and about who to talk to if they are bullied. Do they talk to their class teacher or to their year head? All of that is part of the training, so that students know exactly what to do.
What happens when we have those groups is that others observe it and they say that they have seen something. A number of years ago, I heard that a student came to a teacher and said that somebody in the school had set up an online hate club of another student. The student decided that they were going to have an online hate club, which is an extraordinarily imaginative thing to do. It was students in another group and that got dealt with very quickly.
I thank Senator Dolan.
We will leave it there. I thank everybody for the debate, discussion and reflection on something that is engaging all of us. I have no doubt that we want to ensure that the school environment is a good and positive one for our students, teachers and all those in the school communities.
On behalf of the committee, I extend our gratitude to the witnesses and to those who they represent in school communities for all the incredible work they are doing on the ground, in particular over the last 14 months. It has been a really difficult time.
It is fair to say, and it has been mentioned, that generally speaking schools are positive environments now. There is a level of kindness and respect that maybe had been absent many years ago. It is important that we support that type of positive environment for all of those who work within it. Of course, we have situations where students will be bringing baggage from difficult home and community environments to schools. Insofar as we can, we should try to support our children to manage that and to ensure they have a positive experience within schools that will help them deal with the issues they deal with outside of school.
I thank the three witnesses for sharing their insights, expert knowledge and reflections on this important issue. The discussion itself has been of enormous assistance to us as a committee in our examination of the whole area of bullying and trying to support positive mental health in our schools. We are very grateful. We commend their obvious dedication and commitment to the Irish education system.
This meeting is now adjourned until Tuesday, 1 June 2021 at 3.30 p.m. for a meeting in public session. Go raibh maith agaibh.