Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
School Bullying and the Impact on Mental Health: Discussion (Resumed)
On behalf of the committee, I give a warm welcome to the following witnesses from the Department of Education: Mr. Paraic Joyce, principal officer; Ms Yvonne Keating, deputy chief inspector; Ms Anne Tansey, director of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS; Ms Anne Murray, principal officer; and Ms Chris Kelly, principal officer.
They are here to brief the committee on the current initiatives and future plans regarding school bullying and the impact on mental health. The format of the meeting is I will invite Mr. Joyce to make an opening statement, to be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has five minutes for questions and responses. The witnesses are probably aware that the committee will publish the opening statement on the website following the meeting.
Before proceeding, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect of they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does. Witnesses have already been advised of this issue and they may believe it appropriate to take legal advice on same. I remind witnesses of the long-standing 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 or her 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 regarding an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by me to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
Mr. Paraic Joyce:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the invitation to officials from the Department of Education to contribute to the work that the committee is undertaking in the area of anti-bullying and mental health. Bullying is a complex and difficult issue that can occur in many different settings, including schools. Bullying, by its nature, transcends boundaries and places. It can occur in school, our homes, wider family circles, social groups youth clubs and sporting activities.
Schools can play a transformative role in the lives of young people. The Department's well-being policy statement and framework for practice seeks to promote the mental health and well-being of all children and young people. It is largely preventative in focus and seeks to reduce the risk factors and promote the protective factors for well-being in the school community. The provision of a positive school culture where children and young people experience a sense of safety, belonging and connectedness is a key protective factor, as is the opportunity to experience positive and respectful relationships across the entire school community. These preventative approaches provide an essential environmental context to raising awareness among the entire school community that bullying is unacceptable behaviour, regardless of where it occurs, and is central to a coherent, school-wide approach to tackling bullying.
The anti-bullying procedures for schools were developed in consultation with education partners in response to the National Action Plan on Bullying in 2013. They are designed to give direction and guidance to school personnel in preventing and tackling school-based bullying by promoting a positive school culture and climate that is welcoming of difference and diversity and based on inclusivity and respect. By implementing effective preventative strategies and reducing risk factors, the opportunities and instances of bullying can be greatly reduced, thereby impacting positively on mental health.
Under the anti-bullying procedures, every school is required to formally adopt and have in place a published, readily accessible anti-bullying policy. Schools must set out in their policy the procedures for investigating and dealing with bullying and the school’s procedures for the formal noting and recording of bullying behaviour. Where bullying occurs, the key focus is to resolve issues and work to restore as far as is practicable the relationships of the parties involved.
The anti-bullying procedures contain important oversight measures to strengthen accountability within schools for both preventing and dealing with bullying behaviour. The school principal must report regularly to the board of management, setting out the overall number of bullying cases and confirmation that all of these cases have been, or are being, dealt with. Boards of management must also undertake an annual review of the school's anti-bullying policy and its implementation.
An important part of the overarching oversight measures is the range of inspections types carried out by the Department’s inspectorate. Inspection models have been adapted to include more evidence gathering concerning the effectiveness of the school's actions to create a positive school culture and to prevent and tackle bullying. The Department's inspectorate is currently reviewing how it evaluates the implementation by schools of anti-bullying measures with a view to developing further how such evaluation can be carried out in an in-depth and focused way. This includes carrying out research in this area, involving consultation with parents, students and other stakeholders.
Bullying behaviour can also be influenced in a positive manner through a range of curricular initiatives such as social, personal, health education, SPHE. The SPHE curriculum includes the resource, Growing Up LGBT, and by participating in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, awareness events, schools can address homophobic and transphobic bullying. In addition, an annual grant has been provided by the Department to BeLonGTo youth services to support delivery of the Stand Up! campaign to address homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and the serious impact it can have on the mental health of LGBTI+ students.
At primary level, the Stay Safe programme is a personal safety skills programme that seeks to enhance children’s self-protection skills, including their ability to recognise and cope with bullying. The relationship and sexuality education, RSE, programme at post-primary level provides opportunities to explore and discuss areas such as human sexuality and relationships, which have particular relevance to identity-based bullying. The wider curriculum provides space and opportunities to foster 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.
There are extensive training and curricular supports available to schools in this area. The professional development service for teachers has a dedicated health and well-being team that supports schools and teachers to create a positive school culture. The continuing professional development support range includes SPHE, child protection, Stay Safe programme workshops and the RSE curriculum. There is also anti-bullying, personal safety, Internet safety and teacher well-being support. Individualised bespoke school support in the area of anti-bullying is also available.
The Department’s National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, also supports the well-being, as well as the academic, social and emotional development of all children and young people, through the provision of its casework service and a range of teacher professional learning opportunities. Funding is also provided annually to the National Parents Council for the delivery of anti-bullying training workshops for parents, including cyberbullying. The Department also provides annual funding to the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, ABC, in Dublin City University towards its research and training programmes. I am aware that representatives from the centre have already briefed the committee on their activities.
The safe use of the Internet and preventing cyberbullying is of critical importance.Webwise.ie, which is funded by the Department of Education, is an important resource in this area. However, online safety involves a whole-of-government response. The 2018 Government's Action Plan for Online Safety involves six Departments working in partnership to deliver on actions impacting on online safety for every user of the Internet. Of particular note was the establishment in 2018 of the National Advisory Council for Online Safety, NACOS, whose role includes providing advice to the Government on online safety issues. In addition, the online safety and media regulation Bill is currently at pre-legislative scrutiny stage and is expected to be enacted later this year.
The committee will be aware that the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 is currently awaiting an Order for Second Stage in the Dáil. The overall aim of this legislation is to foster a more inclusive culture in all schools by improving the level of engagement between the school community and by developing a listening culture in the school which is important in this area.
The Department understands that the committee, following on from its meetings and research in this area intends to publish a report on anti-bullying and mental health. It is hoped that the Department will be able to assist the committee in its work today.
I thank the witnesses for their detailed submissions, as well as their opening statements. It is good to see so much happening and the proactive approach that the Department is taking many areas of which we may not have been aware. I commend the Department on the preventive measures.
There will be a national roll-out of CPD, continuing professional development, training for well-being for every teacher starting this year for three years. I take it then that every teacher will have the opportunity to avail of that training. I am glad to see that the two-year pilot programme on restorative justice, about which we heard quite a bit in our past eight sessions, will be rolled out in 2021. Teachers and principals have told me that it is a good programme and I think it will be a great asset.
It is up to individual boards of management to set mobile phone policies for students. Has the Department a view on this? Does it give advice on this?
When will the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019 be enacted? The voice of the student is hugely important. The collaboration between school, parent and student is essential in terms of tackling bullying in any school situation. Several witnesses and stakeholders spoke to the committee about a roadmap of supports being needed. It was clear from various school bodies and patrons that they have different ways of dealing with bullying and preventive measures. Has the Department got a roadmap of all of the different types of measures that would help schools?
It was interesting to note that the relationships and sexuality education, RSE, programme was not within the remit of the review to set out what students should learn about in an updated version. I would have thought that it would have been something. The witnesses spoke about the public and stakeholder engagement. When will that be in place because we absolutely need to have an updated RSE curriculum in schools?
There have been numerous calls that emotional and therapeutic supports should be provided in every school. I agree with that. Does the Department envisage these being provided in schools? Apart from what teachers do, they need that access to professional supports. I accept the Minister sets policy. Is that something, however, that the Department would support?
Ms Yvonne Keating:
Currently in primary schools and in junior cycle, RSE is delivered as an integral part of the mandatory social, personal and health education, SPHE, programme. In senior cycle, while SPHE is not mandatory, there is a requirement to provide six sessions of RSE each year.
The Senator may be aware of the report on the review of RSE in primary and post-primary schools which was published by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, in 2019. As part of the work arising from this report, a redevelopment and updating of the RSE curriculum is being undertaken within the curriculum development structures in the NCCA. The NCCA has established two development groups, one for primary and one for post-primary, to oversee the work in this area and to support guidance material for schools.
Both the primary and post-primary SPHE and RSE development groups have been meeting virtually on a monthly basis since the groups were convened in October of last year. The immediate focus of the work is to create support materials for teachers for publication online as part of the interim guidance toolkit. This work is progressing well and sections of the toolkit have already been published. In tandem, and in preparation for the broader redevelopment and updating of the SPHE curriculum, as recommended by the NCCA in that report, the initial focus on the redevelopment of the junior cycle SPHE curriculum is under way.
Ms Anne Tansey:
On the national roll-out of CPD regarding the implementation of the Department's well-being policy, we conducted an action research project over the past two years with the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST, in order to find the best way of supporting schools in this way. We want to provide a sustained level of support. We want to use a clustering model where schools come together and share best practice. In that way, they learn from one another. From autumn, the PDST will be rolling out a programme of support that will be accessible to all schools over the next three years. It will be a sustained model and clustered arrangement.
In parallel with that, NEPS will be rolling out a national programme to support schools. I have heard other speakers before the committee talk about therapeutically informed practice in schools. Through the provision of a series of workshops and webinars for schools, NEPS will support schools in understanding and learning more about therapeutically informed practice. We will be looking, for example, at the principles of cognitive behaviour therapy and how they can be applied in schools in appropriate and child-friendly ways. We will also be looking at trauma informed practice and what we call attachment aware schools. We will be raising the awareness and knowledge of the schools to ensure they can understand behaviour better and respond to it in what we call a therapeutically appropriate way.
The restorative justice programme will be rolled out by the PDST, starting again this autumn.
I confirm that I am in Leinster House.
I am sure everyone has been following the hearings. which have been enlightening but also upsetting at times. There is some cause for hope. At all times we were aware that we were dealing with a difficult but enormously important topic. Something that has stayed with me is the fact that bullying has always been a major problem but now it follows children home and, in some instances, it follows staff home. This makes it all the more insidious. Nobody wants to see bullying in our schools and I include the Department in that. Good work is ongoing and I want to acknowledge that. I welcome the fact that a pilot programme on restorative justice is to be rolled out and I hope the witnesses can expand on that. Almost every submission we received referred to the importance of restorative justice.
Having said all that, more can be done and I will focus my questions on that. One issue that came up repeatedly was the fact that there is no centralised collection of data. We do not have enough information on how many incidents are arising, whether they are transphobic, racist, anti-Traveller or whether they involve physical violence, for example, and that is holding us back. If we do not fully understand the problem, we are not going to be able to tackle it properly. Are there any proposals to ensure that we can centralise data such as that because that would be of value?
The other issue is the 2013 document, which remains the cornerstone of the Department's policy. The document is eight years old and an awful lot has changed in that time. There was no TikTok then and the social media picture was very different. In so many contexts, circumstances are very different now. We need to update that document and I would like the Department to outline where that stands because things are evolving very quickly.
There is talk of reforming the RSE and SPHE curricula, which is important. I have expressed the view that there are issues with the RSE curriculum that could lend themselves to the othering of students, particularly those in the LGBTQI community. I believe that access to counselling is vitally important but that is a broader issue, which also involves the Department of Health.
My primary questions centre on data, the appropriateness of the Department's policy document and whether it needs to be updated.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
On the data, to date the Department's inspectorate has been collecting data on a number of matters relating to anti-bullying in schools. It has been doing this through two main evaluation models. One is the whole-school evaluation model and the other is a bespoke, in-depth, stand-alone child protection and safeguarding inspection model.
I will deal first with the type of data and information we are collecting through the whole-school evaluation model. During the whole-school evaluation, the inspectorate reviews the school's anti-bullying policy. That policy may also be reviewed in the context of SPHE-focused inspections at primary and post-primary level. If, in the course of these inspections, an inspector finds that a school does not have an anti-bullying policy or is not implementing the policy appropriately, he or she will make recommendations for improvement. While it is the responsibility of the principal and board to implement those recommendations, the inspector keeps a watching brief and follows up as needed. There is another important source of data that the inspectorate gathers through these whole school evaluations, which is surveys of parents, students and teachers. These surveys contain a number of items related to anti-bullying in schools. The data from those surveys is analysed. It is also discussed and shared with the school to enable the school to use it to inform its own anti-bullying measures. It is also used to inform the inspection findings, to advise the school and it may be referenced in the evaluation report that is published. Data collected by the Department's inspectorate through these whole school evaluation surveys is collated and the key insights arising will be updated further and reported on in the chief inspector's report, which is due to be published in the third quarter this year.
The child protection and safeguarding inspections are another important source of data and information on anti-bullying measures in schools. During these inspections, group discussions are held with a random selection of students in primary and post-primary schools. As part of the discussions between the inspectors and primary school pupils, the themes of friendship and bullying are explored to ascertain the depth of understanding of pupils of the various forms of bullying, including exclusion, racist and homophobic bullying, bullying of children with special educational needs and cyberbullying. Similarly, in post-primary schools during these discussions inspectors inquire into the students' knowledge and understanding of issues relating to personal safety, building and maintaining relationships and various kinds of bullying. In the context of these child protection and safeguarding inspections, surveys of parents are carried out and focus groups with parents are also conducted. These focus on a number of anti-bullying items, including the climate in the school, how parents feel about the school and their awareness of the school's child protection procedures, including its anti-bullying policy.
Looking to the future, the inspectorate is working to strengthen its oversight of, and reporting on, the implementation of anti-bullying procedures in schools. In that regard, in the coming school year inspectors will, during incidental inspections in primary and post-primary schools, look at the following areas: the extent to which schools have anti-bullying policies in place; the timely reporting by principals to the board on anti-bullying matters as required under the 2013 procedures; the annual review by boards of management of anti-bullying; the communication of the school's anti-bullying policies to all members of the school community, including parents; and the recording of incidents of bullying behaviour in accordance with the 2013 procedures. The findings on anti-bullying measures in schools will be used to inform a composite report which will, in turn, feed into the way forward at departmental level in respect of anti-bullying.
On the issue of SPHE as raised by the Deputy, the committee should note that the curriculum is due to be reviewed at junior cycle. From 2023, schools will be advised to include the SPHE short course as part of their well-being programme. The brief for the review of the current junior cycle SPHE course has been drafted and will be considered by the board of the NCCA this summer. Following an updated specification at junior cycle, work will begin on updating the senior cycle SPHE curriculum.
I confirm that I am in Leinster House and thank the witnesses for their presentations.
Following on from Deputy Ó Laoghaire's questions about data, I am not utterly convinced that those two fora for collecting the data are going to help us in the long term. The whole-school evaluation only happens every five or six years as I understand it. It is not a regular interaction with schools and, as Ms Keating has described it, it is a mechanism for evaluating policies and procedures. What has been suggested to us by contributors at other meetings is that we do not have data on the age at which bullying starts, whether there is a gender or aggression dynamic, whether physical bullying is more prevalent than isolation-type bullying, whether there is a racial or sexual orientation element or whether it is more prevalent at second level than at primary level. It is not just about how schools are dealing with bullying but also what it is. We need to collect data to find out what bullying in our schools looks like. I ask Ms Keating to speak to that aspect of data collection, as opposed to trying to find out how schools are dealing with bullying by way of their policies and procedures.
My second question is one that was asked previously at this committee. I am interested in the under-representation of minority groups among the teaching body. We do not have a teaching body that is representative of the student body.
How can we find the mechanism to tackle that and ensure we do not have a homogenous teaching profession? I raise that because it is much easier to tackle issues of sexual orientation or racial diversity in the student body if we have a staff body which is reflective of that.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
I will follow up on Deputy Ó Ríordáin's question with regard to whole-school evaluation and data. In terms of whole-school evaluation, not only is the focus on looking at policies, but attention is also given to the gathering of the perspectives of students, teachers and parents on a number of anti-bullying items through online surveys. Deputy Ó Ríordáin mentioned the frequency of whole-school evaluation. It is a whole-school approach which takes a number of days in a school. For that reason, the inspectorate has been and will be focusing, in the new term and during the 2021-22 school year, on conducting incidental inspections which are short and focused forms of inspection and take place over one day. That will allow the inspectorate to gather information on the areas I have alluded to previously. The plan is, from January 2022, to include a number of these checks on anti-bullying in schools through all the evaluation models. A circular with regard to those plans has been issued to all primary and post-primary schools in recent weeks.
Can I ask a quick follow-up question? I do apologise. Am I right in saying that there is no requirement on schools to detail the nature of each bullying incident, whether it was racially motivated or whether it involved a seven-year-old, a 12-year-old or a four-year-old? None of that is a requirement of schools, as I understand it
Ms Yvonne Keating:
There are two elements to that. The principal is required to report, at regular intervals, to the school board of management about the types of bullying, especially when bullying crosses a threshold and is considered a child protection issue. There is a specific requirement for that type of bullying to be recorded. In that case, there is a particular role for the designated liaison person, who is the member of staff with responsibility for child protection matters in the school. In such instances, the designated liaison person must provide the board with summary data with regard to the number of child protection concerns arising from bullying behaviour and certain documents relating to each such child protection case file. Those documents are specified in section 9.7.2 of the child protection procedures for primary and post-primary schools 2017.
Ms Chris Kelly:
I will take the question on the teacher workforce. It is known that the teaching workforce is not representative of the student body in the school system. We have been doing considerable work in the context of teacher supply. The Teaching Transforms campaign, which is designed to attract young students into the teaching profession, is under way. This year's campaign, which commenced in December, focused on diversity. The young student teachers and teachers who were involved in that were all from groups which are under-represented in the teaching profession. It is also important to note that path 1, which is an equity of access programme at third level, is working at increasing the number of under-represented groups in the teaching profession. That was reviewed last year and is continuing. With regard to the work involved in that, there are various projects. The higher education institutions, HEIs, are working alongside secondary schools and some primary schools to raise the awareness of teaching and the pathways to teaching, etc. We have more recently been looking at how we may be able to collect data on this question. There are no readily available data but we are looking at that as part of our data collection and teacher supply work.
I welcome the officials presenting from the Department of Education. Our committee is here to help, support and try to drive protection for children and students. That is our ultimate goal. Over the past number of weeks, what we have been hearing has been extremely shocking. I am sure the witnesses have heard a significant amount from many of the committee debates we have been through, with regard to the interviews and witnesses who have come before us.
It is disheartening to think it is one-in-three, globally. Bullying happens. It happens often, but it is about how we tackle it. Our committee is about tackling bullying. Some of my questions have come up through a number of witnesses who have spoken with us over the past number of weeks. I do not know which of our witnesses may be most relevant to respond, but I would like him or her to respond in the spirit of how we will improve the current situation. I would appreciate if he or she would respond in that spirit.
When we had Ombudsman for Children here, there was a question about the youth mental health path finder project. I understand this may be linked with the HSE and the Department of Health as well, but can someone respond on that?
The measurement of bullying, which I know a number of other committee members have mentioned, came up before in terms of it being audited. How we are auditing the action plan on bullying? This was from the anti-bullying centre, ABC, in Dublin City University, DCU, especially from our UNESCO chair on tackling bullying, which is quite an impressive position to have in Ireland and in DCU.
Programmes have come up before. I know the witnesses have mentioned programmes they are rolling out for teachers and teacher training, but it was noted that the FUSE programme was especially impactful. We also heard about the Roots of Empathy early intervention programme in primary schools and how the levels of bullying in primary schools are quite high. How will we support the likes of DCU in rolling out a programme such as FUSE to so many thousands of students? It is incredible. They are doing the best they can, but there is no way they will reach students. We could be waiting for another 25 years and how many students would have gone through the system every five years? What is the Department of Education's engagement with DCU on the FUSE programme and how is it supporting the roll-out of the programme? I may leave it at that with regard to the Roots of Empathy early intervention programme.
One other point was on school inspector reports. When you look up a school on education.ieand you download the report, it speaks about subject matter. Child safeguarding has been mentioned. We have spoken about how a positive school environment around bullying is so important and how some schools may not be as focused on this as others. That is a huge challenge. Should the inspector reports not speak directly about bullying and tackling bullying? If it is not there, why not, considering we know it happens all the time and it is more about the mitigation factors? I went through a couple of reports but they were from 2019 and maybe this has changed since then. There was nothing about tackling bullying. Maybe it was referenced under another term.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
I will pick up briefly on the issue of documenting the findings with regard to bullying. As part of the inspectorate's plans to strengthen its reporting on and evaluation of anti-bullying measures in schools, it has planned that following the incidental inspections, which are due to roll out from September 2022, each school will be provided with a written note on the findings of the inspection with regard to each of the areas of focus. The note can be used by schools to inform their anti-bullying measures and take any necessary actions to strengthen them. Those findings will also be used to feed into a composite report which will be published. The inspectorate is aware of the need to ensure consistency in reporting on anti-bullying matters. From January 2022, the extent to which all schools are implementing the anti-bullying procedures in the five areas of focus will be reported on, not only in all whole-school evaluation reports, but in all other inspection-type models as well.
Ms Anne Murray:
I will come in on the FUSE programme. The Department has been supporting the FUSE programme for three years and it is a successful programme, as the Senator has pointed out. The aim of it is capacity building within schools. We support that approach and will continue to support the DCU anti-bullying centre in the future. We have some information about the efficacy of FUSE so far.
The attitudes of students to online safety are also positive following the FUSE programme engagement and when they have been asked about the programme, they have a very positive outlook on it.
I have a question on how this will be rolled out regionally. How will that be possible? Reference was made to the numbers but we have many thousands of students at both primary and secondary level. How will this be done in a regional way that will have an impact in the next two to three years?
Ms Anne Murray:
I thank the Senator for that. The Department will continue to engage with the DCU anti-bullying centre on the FUSE programme to see how we can address those issues that the Senator raised in the future and to make sure that there is appropriate regional representation of the programme across the country.
It is crucial. What I would like to see from the Department is a target. If I said to Ms Murray there is a target for the roll-out of FUSE, be it at certain levels or certain years at secondary school level, what would that be? Where can we see that we will be able to reach all schools, considering it is continuous as well. That is a question I would like Ms Murray to come back to me on.
I have a question on the Pathfinder project as well, and the inspectorate report. Ms Keating may have answered regarding the latter.
Ms Anne Tansey:
I can come in on Pathfinder. As the Senator will be aware, this was a collaborative project across several Departments to try to align and streamline youth mental health supports. There was a proposal as a result of the work that a cross-government youth mental health Pathfinder unit would be established with the participation of the Departments of Health, Education and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. We have received an update from the Department of Health on this. The Department continues to engage extensively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with the objective of agreeing an implementation option for the Pathfinder project. We have been told that the demands on both Departments as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic have presented challenges and probably have delayed progress in this area.
Because we are waiting on other members to come in, if the Senator wants to continue, I will go back to the other members whose time I curtailed if they want to come back in as well. There are a number of them: Senator O'Loughlin and Deputies Ó Laoghaire and Ó Ríordáin. Senator Dolan has another minute or two and then I will call the other members.
Thank you very much. Ms Keating answered regarding the audit, from what I understand. In the inspectorate reports, should a section on bullying be available? It is up on the website, www.education.ie. When one enters a school name, one gets all the details. Should that inspectorate report include a section on how that school tackles bullying. They talk about child safeguarding but that is a little different; it is about welfare. Can Ms Keating respond to that?
Ms Yvonne Keating:
We are aware of the need to develop and strengthen both our oversight and reporting processes when it comes to anti-bullying. Where there are deficiencies on how a school deals with anti-bullying issues that cross the threshold into child protection issues, for example, there are failures in record keeping or reporting mechanisms, they are always reported clearly in inspectorate's inspection reports and in the child protection and safeguarding inspection reports, which comprise two reports, an initial and a final report. In each case where there are deficiencies in how a school is dealing with anti-bullying cases, they are clearly reported in those child protection and safeguarding inspection reports.
Bullying happens all the time. This is what we have come to learn. It is in every school. My God, it is in a lot of walks of life. Should it not be the fact that there is a section in there that has to be completed for each school and if there have not been issues that they have been dealing with then the question has to be, "Why have they not been dealing with this?" Should that not be the question?
Ms Yvonne Keating:
I alluded to the development of our reporting on anti-bullying in schools. It will become part of all evaluation models from 2022. In that context, those inspection reports will allude to how schools are implementing each of the five areas that I referred to earlier: the extent to which schools have anti-bullying policies in place, the timely reporting by principals to the board of management, annual reviews by the board of management of anti-bullying policies, how schools are communicating for anti-bullying policies and how they are recording incidents of anti-bullying behaviour in accordance with the 2013 procedures. Each of those items will be reported on in all school inspection types. Each will publish a report from January 2022.
I thank Ms Keating. I take it then that, from January 2022, those school inspectorate reports will have a section, according to the headings she mentioned, to include tackling bullying, and it will be a term that is included in that report.
I have a couple of questions. There are other members who spoke in the past while where I had to curtail their time, if they want to come back in.
Turning to Ms Keating first, the training of teachers comes under her remit and she may be able to answer this. Bullying, be it online bullying, in-class bullying or inside-the-school-gate bullying, has changed over the past number of years. It is getting more complex, year-on-year. Has the curriculum for teacher training changed in any way over the past number of years to cater for the changes in bullying and the complex issue that it is? I refer to training a teacher and trying to equip him or her regarding bullying, which has definitely changed dramatically over the past five, ten or 20 years. Teachers now have to look out for something different. It might come to other complex needs of a pupil. They might be able to outline some of the changes that have occurred in the past number of years.
Ms Chris Kelly:
In the context of initial teacher education, the Teaching Council has recently published a new standards in initial teacher education, ITE, programmes called Céim. That was published in November. As part of the review leading up to that publication, the areas of intercultural, anti-racism and diversity have been given greater prominence in the new standards for ITE and global citizenship education is included as one of the seven core elements of ITE to include education for sustainable development, well-being, both personal and community, social justice, interculturalism. The revised standards define inclusive education as "‘any aspect of teachers’ learning aimed at improving their capacity to address and respond to the diversity of learners’ needs; to enable their participation in learning; and remove barriers to education through the accommodation and provision of appropriate structures and arrangements to enable each learner to achieve the maximum benefit from his /her attendance at school".
As part of the review and accreditation process leading to the publication of Céim, the core elements were explored and examined with student teachers during their ITE programme. It is also envisaged that the revised procedures for review and accreditation will include a thematic review, which will focus on specific areas of the curriculum and ITE programme. All new programmes submitted to the Teaching Council for accreditation must be in alignment with Céim. It is anticipated that existing programmes of ITE will be realigned in accordance with Céim for commencement in September 2022.
In addition to ITE, extensive CPD supports are available for teachers. Particularly, in the online space, we have Webwise. The Webwise programme is a multifaceted programme. It targets a range of people within the system.
It targets schools, teachers and parents, and it has a youth hub for young people. The school and teacher hub contains an extensive range of primary and post-primary curriculum tagged resources to support educators when teaching about the safe and responsible use of the Internet in the classroom and the promotion of student well-being.
Likewise, the parent hub provides practical advice and information to help parents safeguard their children as they use the Internet and helps to forge a link between the school and the home. The hub provides guidance and practical information to parents on key issues such as the use of technology in the home, parental controls, screen time, emerging technologies, respectful online communication, cyberbullying, information around sexting and image sharing, and how to engage positively in their children's online lives.
The youth hub is a proactive and creative hub for young people where young people can get advice on Internet safety and become more involved in making the Internet a better and safer place for all users. It provides advice on issues such as online harassment and how to deal with it.
Many of these programmes will provide advice around online bullying and bullying in general. All of the continuing professional development, CPD, that is provided by the Professional Development Service for Teachers will include positive engagement in the school, respect for each other and respect for community, and these all add to the positivity in the school. We can add to that if the committee wants more information.
Teachers are supported, either in their initial teacher education process or in continuing professional development. Sometimes the CPD is the place for some of the programmes where we can support teachers better once they are in the classroom. As we move forward and as we look at the procedures for anti-bullying, we will also take on board what changes may need to be brought into place for initial teacher education also.
I thank Ms Kelly. I have a question for Ms Tansey on the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, and would like to broaden it out a little. The committee published the report on the impact of Covid-19 on primary and secondary education. The report recommends that emotional and therapeutic supports should be provided in all schools. I have stated to some of the witnesses that perhaps this could be rolled out on a trial basis. Would having access to a professional therapist or counsellor on site help students? Does NEPS have any proposals in this regard?
I will widen the discussion out for other witnesses. I am speaking as a public representative and as a parent, and having spoken to other parents and people who come to me looking for assistance. Covid-19 has had a huge effect on some students, including some students where there may never have been any emotional issues or supports needed or required in the past. I may be totally wrong, and I am referencing anecdotal evidence only, but it appears to be affecting more females than males. They got more attached to their parents because they were at home from March to August, then back to school in September, and then back out of school for the year end again. It was February before they got back going again. Some of these children have never settled back into school. Some of them will not go to school. The parents are having absolutely nightmarish problems with them. These pupils would never, ever have had any problems in the past. Previously they would have gone to school very happily and were very happy students doing very well in school. They have got into the trend of being at home, getting really attached to their parents and losing contact with their friends. They are trying to build that confidence back up again in making friends and getting back into the school cycle and so on. Many of these parents have told me they cannot wait until September comes with some form of normality. This is a huge issue. Is the Department of Education aware of this? The recommendations in our report on the emotional and therapeutic supports are needed now more than ever.
In the past I would have been the person saying that the young people were looking for spoon-feeding, but having listened to the very personal stories from parents, I am convinced of the scale of problem. If I am hearing these stories then I have no doubt other public representatives are hearing them. It is not just where I come from in County Wexford. I have no doubt it is happening throughout the country. Perhaps Ms Tansey would come in on any NEPS proposals for emotional and therapeutic supports. Is NEPS considering it? Could it be rolled out on a trial basis, perhaps to a number of schools throughout the country? Will an official from the Department of Education answer my wider question on the issues happening at the moment and what the Department is hearing from schools across the State?
Ms Anne Tansey:
As the Chairman will be aware, the approach taken by the Department of Education is very much a focus on prevention and early intervention. Our well-being policy statement and framework for practice is very much around that. It is based on best international practice. I am aware the committee has been talking over recent weeks about the important role of schools in supporting well-being. They are supporting and providing children with opportunities to build core social and emotional skills and competencies. They are like coping skills. It is also about providing children and young people with the opportunity to experience strong, supportive relationships in the school setting and to learn through those. It is about providing children and young people with opportunities to be part of a school environment that feels both physically and psychologically safe, an environment to which children and young people feel a sense of belonging, where they feel connected, where they feel their voice is heard, and where they feel supported. While those statements are brief, they are very deep and there is a lot contained within them.
In the approach it takes, the Department of Education encourages schools to use the school self-evaluation process, which is an embedded process within schools. We encourage them to use that process to focus on well-being. We have developed a range of resources to support schools in so doing. We have statements of effective practice. People may ask what a good school looks like. We have a range of statements around what a good school looks like with regard to those three areas. We encourage schools to use questionnaires, focus groups and resources we have developed to reflect on their own needs, to see what they are doing well or where they need to improve, and to put in place a school improvement plan to support that. We know that, internationally, this approach is found to produce a wide range of educational and social benefits for individual children and young people with increased inclusion, social capital and social cohesion. It has benefits for mental health. We strongly take that approach. We recognise, however, that within this there is a continuum of need within schools and that while all of our universal supports will support a lot of our children and young people, there is a need for greater support for some children who need more targeted support.
On the query around school refusal behaviour, in our service we have noticed there has been quite a bit of school refusal behaviour since the schools have reopened. It was not so much the first time the schools reopened but after the second closure and subsequent reopening. NEPS provides a casework service as well as a support and development service for teachers. As part of our casework service we support individual children. Through our consultation service we have been supporting children, their teachers and their parents to support the successful return to school of the many children who have been experiencing school refusal behaviour. We are there with the school on the ground. Covid has allowed us to extend our practice to be a blended model. We use online supports and we consult online with schools, which makes our response probably more immediate. These are the things we have learned from the Covid-19 experience. We have been supporting teachers, parents and young people around school refusal behaviour since March, among other things. It has been part of our casework service.
The other approaches we use are very specific evidence-based approaches and projects. We use the Friends programme, which is an anxiety prevention and resilience-building programme based on the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT. It is a train the trainer programme. We train teachers to deliver the programme within schools, where schools teach children to apply the principles of CBT to allow them to cope and problem solve, and ultimately to reduce anxiety and build resilience. We use the Incredible Years teacher classroom management programme, which targets primary schools and the building of social and emotional competence. It also looks at building resilience.
Specifically within that programme there is a section on bullying and what is called bully-proofing the school, whereby there is an atmosphere of problem-solving in the school and people work together in a non-threatening, non-blaming way. The whole school community works together, including parents, who are a key part of that. Those are two examples of the programmes we use to support the development of social and emotional learning in schools.
That is okay and I get what Ms Tansey said but this is not just about providing counselling services. This is about having somebody on site. The person does not have to be in the same school. If we take the example of a school in Enniscorthy, this person could be shared between three or four different schools, perhaps one big school and three or four smalls or whatever. Students would then feel they have somebody to go to on a confidential basis who they can absolutely trust. I know they trust the teacher, the principal and so on but teachers and principals are not there for that type of need, even though they are doing that job. The world has moved on and we must move on with it. We need something like what I was talking about where there is somebody on site whom students can trust and who can provide therapeutic supports. The people I am talking about, that is, the children who have not resettled back into school, do not have behavioural problems. If they did their parents might be happy. Instead these children have totally withdrawn into themselves. They do not want to go to school. They have not got the confidence to do it or to reconnect with their friends. They have not got the confidence to go back into the class and reconnect with their teacher. This is a huge problem. The Department can ignore this problem and maybe it will go away, Covid-19 will be blamed and everything like that. However, this problem is not going to go away. It is one that is here to stay and Covid-19 his highlighted this issue. I do not want to get stuck on that but I want to pass on my frustration about how things are with the situation.
Other members can come back in now but just before that I have one question. In previous meetings the committee has heard calls from several witnesses about the need to update the 2013 Action Plan on Bullying and the Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post Primary Schools published the same year. At the meeting on 15 June Professor James O'Higgins Norman of the DCU Anti-Bullying Centre recommended a brief review and audit of both the 2013 action plan and the procedures to ensure they comply with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, recommendations. I know this has been asked before but I must say this is of huge importance. We are talking about 2013. What has happened since 2013 and 2021? The issues have compounded and gotten worse on a year-by-year basis. I therefore plead with the Department to have a look at this issue. It has been answered but does anyone want to come in briefly on that? I am aware Senator Dolan wants to come back in. I am not sure if Deputies Ó Laoighaire and Ó Ríordáin are there. If they are, they can indicate to me. Deputy Ó Laoighaire will come in after Senator Dolan.
I have a question for the principal officers. What does an ideal school environment look like? It is a question I have posed to a number of the witnesses who have presented to us, particularly principals. Can the Department officials name a perfect pilot school or one which they would say is a great environment where the principals, teachers, parents and the board of management are tackling bullying in a very positive way? Is there a school which is very transparent, accountable and very open, where the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders and all those elements are included? What might that look like?
Second, we have had a number of witnesses who have talked about further training for career guidance teachers and for teachers and indeed Mr. Joyce spoke about the Professional Development Service for Teachers, PDST. However, the information we were getting back from principals is that teachers do not feel they have the tools or the skill set to identify bullying. It seems to be cropping up that either the training is not reaching them or being effective or that somehow it is not working on the ground in the classroom. I want to ask about that.
In summary then, what is the officials' ideal anti-bullying model which they would want to see working across all schools in Ireland? Perhaps there would be difference between primary and second levels.
Mr. Paraic Joyce:
I might add something there. If we were looking for an ideal school or one that has the best example of a positive school culture, we would be looking for somewhere where the wider school community is engaged on a regular basis in terms of their communication and respect. We would be looking for a school that places an equal emphasis on the parents' and the students' voice. We would be looking for somewhere with buy-in, in a very collegiate way, across all staff, not just the teaching staff in the school. There would be a shared responsibility around the best ways to watch out for and tackle bullying. One will usually find that a school which is open to various kinds of ideas has an awareness of the things the school must try, as well as the need to bring students with them. Those tend to be the types of schools that are most successful in tackling bullying because they are open to that. Usually the key person is the principal. If there is effective leadership of the school one will find most other things tend to be successful. Maybe some of my colleagues would have examples of that around the country.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
I will add very briefly to that. School culture is key as is willingness on the part of schools to take the appropriate actions to prevent and tackle bullying. Another really important dimension Mr. Joyce alluded to there is involving parents and students and having an appropriate model of engagement. We are all aware the student and parent charter is coming down the tracks and the intention here is very much around enhancing school engagement with parents and students and having a model of engagement for students that really gives them space to have their voice heard, and an audience in the school community that is willing to listen to them. The other part of this is very much connected with the Lundy model of child participation, which is based on article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It consists of ensuring the students themselves can see that if they have issues, those issues are addressed and acted upon in the appropriate way. School culture, in summary, is key, as is ensuring we have the involvement of all, whether it is parents, students, teachers or the broader community, so the school environment and school community is as safe as it can be for students.
It would be great to have some sort of word for our perfect school. I am thinking of a sort of champion school or advocacy school in each of our regional areas. There would be kudos for the school in being open and handling these things well. Sometimes it is unfortunately seen as a stereotypical weakness if this is being talked about. Parents might say they do not want to send their children to that school whereas we really should be embracing that and seeing as a really positive thing that children are feeling confident to speak out, to speak with their teachers and that it is being tackled. My concern would be around when schools do not talk about it and when it is solely about the academic marks children achieve. That is really where I want to get to with these inspectorate reports and this idea of a champion school. Maybe the Department might think about how to recognise and acknowledge schools that are really effective in this way such that it becomes more normal and natural and that we are always talking about tackling bullying because it happens all the time.
I probably do not have any more time. The other question I had was about teacher training.
Ms Anne Tansey:
If I can add something, in the Wellbeing Policy Statement and Framework for Practice we have in the Department, what we call indicators of success are set out. These are concerned with what a successful school looks like. The indicators of success span the culture and environment of the school, the curriculum and the teaching and learning in the school, the policy and planning in place within the school and relationships and partnerships. Very briefly, in terms of the culture and planning of what we say is a really successful school in promoting well-being, it is about children, young people and staff experiencing that sense of belonging and connectedness.
It is about the feeling of being safe, physically and psychologically. It means that systems are in place to hear the voice of the child and the voices of parents so that they are heard. These all lead to improvements in the school community. With regard to the curriculum, it means children and young people have positive learning experiences and high quality teaching, and have opportunities for success within the school. It also means they have access to curricular activities that promote their physical, social and emotional competence to enhance their overall well-being.
In policy and planning it means good, strong policies are in place and schools have evaluations in place to support the work. Relationships and partners are part of what was missed when schools were closed. Schools provide a strong and supportive structure through relationships with adults. Adults can mediate the world for our children and young people. Adults can mediate difficulties and support children through them. Our policy sets out a picture of what a very good school looks like and what we believe would be the indicator of the success of a good school.
At the beginning, I made a point on data. I do not need another response on this and Deputy Ó Ríordáin and Senator Dolan have followed up on it. It does not seem that the data being gathered is adequately dynamic and gives a full picture. Problems probably have to reach a very high threshold before they end up in a whole-school evaluation. I suppose surveys show a particular period and do not necessarily capture the full picture. I do not need a response because Ms Tansey has answered as comprehensively as possible. However, it needs to be improved. Monitoring the implementation of anti-bullying policies is important but this is different from gathering data on incidence of bullying.
Social media is a huge element. Earlier, Mr. Joyce spoke about the online safety Bill, which is very important and will play a key role. I wrote legislation on this issue some time ago. The ASTI made a proposal on a link with the key social media bodies, whereby schools would have a key point person to help them to work through particular problems that arise, particularly complex problems relating to these platforms. Is this something the Department has explored or on which it has contacted the key platforms?
Ms Chris Kelly:
PDST Technology in Education provides extensive support to schools on using digital technology platforms and programmes. It is one point of contact. We have a broadband help desk that assists with technical connectivity. Connectivity of all schools is dealt with through the HEAnet backbone, which provides all levels of content filtering for schools. It has a support service for schools. PDST Technology in Education deals with learning platforms, resources for teaching and the embedding of digital technology, as does PDST overall because all curriculum development incorporates digital elements. There are extensive online and face-to-face supports. In the past year there has not been face-to-face support but PDST has developed a significant portal with resources for school leaders and teachers to develop and ensure safety in the use of digital technology in schools and being online.
With regard to digital technology, schools are required to have an acceptable use policy. This policy is developed with the whole school community. At present, schools are advised to consult the entire school community. The student and parent charter underpins this in legislation. The acceptable use policy provides schools with a framework whereby everybody in the school community understands the limits and sanctions for the misuse of digital technology elements of school activity.
I appreciate the answer, which contains some useful information but does not quite answer the question I asked. I will give a hypothetical example and I will not name a particular platform. A principal in a school in County Clare is having a recurring problem with a particular element of a particular platform. Has the Department considered approaching all of the platforms to ask for a point person whom schools could contact if there is an issue? That person could talk the schools through the modalities and answer questions. Obviously a school has to decide how to deal with disciplinary action but it might be a useful resource the platforms might be willing to provide in order to give advice on how the platforms work. It is for the school community to decide on sanctions through restorative approaches or other approaches.
Ms Chris Kelly:
As the Deputy has said, schools are independent and can decide on what platform they use. We do not have a centralised platform as some jurisdictions do. PDST is able to provide support for, and advise schools on, the most commonly used platforms. In the main, schools also receive advice and support from the providers. Very often, this is the source of support if a platform is not doing something it is supposed to do. With regard to sanctions if somebody is misusing a platform, most schools have security built into the platforms. I am not 100% clear on what the Deputy is getting at. Is it a technical question or with regard to misuse?
If a bullying situation reaches the point where one or several social media platforms are the location of a lot of bullying of a child or a member of staff, the staff and school community trying to deal with it may have queries on how elements of a particular platform work with regard to restrictions and sanctions on the website. Is it possible for the school to have a particular point person at the platform? I am not saying it would be in any way outsourced. It would be a source of information and feedback that could be of benefit to schools. Has there been communication between the Department and the social media platforms on a resource that could be provided to schools for ongoing advice and support?
Ms Chris Kelly:
We do not have a centre in the Department. The PDST is our support service for schools when it comes to using the most common social media regardless of platform. This is the point to call for schools. It supports schools with various elements and aspects and with any difficulties they may have. It is able to advise them on where they might need to go depending on the problem. I see where the Deputy is coming from. He is possibly talking about a particular social media mechanism that allows people to put up harmful content. It is important to note that Coco's law, as the Deputy is probably well aware, was commenced in February. This creates a legislative framework and makes it an offence for people to post harmful content. The online safety and media regulation Bill will reinforce safety by requiring online platforms to have in place codes to underpin and allow for the removal of content. These are being developed - perhaps not in the Department of Education - and safeguards are being put in place to deal with what the Deputy is getting at.
Much of today's conversation has been about pupils and students. I fully agree they have to be the priority. From anecdotal evidence, teachers are bullied and the students who see it happening feel that if the staff are doing it, they can also do it. It happens in the school community. Is this an issue for the Department of Education? Is it a matter for the patrons of the school?
Who is responsible for that if there is anecdotal or clear evidence that this is happening within the school? Senator Dolan spoke about the perfect school community. We all want the perfect school community but what if it is not there because of the teachers or principal and there is anecdotal evidence of bullying? I am not sure if the chief inspector or the deputy chief inspector is responsible for this area. This is happening in different schools across the country. It happens in every workplace. I have anecdotal evidence and I have no doubt other people see this happening or hear about it. I can say it here under privilege but there are not many platforms where I can raise this issue because it is very difficult to raise it but it is happening out there. The pupils see it happening on a daily basis and my fear is that if they see that teachers are bullying each other, they will think "why can't I do it against my fellow pupils?"
Mr. Paraic Joyce:
The Department has an occupational health strategy, which is a supportive resource for teachers. The aim is to promote the health and well-being of all employees in the workplace. Part of that is an employee assistance service, which is provided by Spectrum Life. It is a self-referral service where teachers have access to a dedicated free phone line that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year providing advice on a range of issues such as well-being, legal and financial issues, mediation and management support. It is also available on social media platforms like WhatsApp, email and live chat. All contacts on the service are qualified, accredited and experienced mental health professionals. Where required, short-term counselling is available to employees. The employee assistance service also provides advice and supports to managers and delivers interventions to help them deal with health and well-being issues in the workplace.
The bespoke well-being portal app offers access to podcasts, blogs, live chat, all sorts of topics around well-being, mental health, family life and e-learning programmes across mental health, sleep and a range of well-being topics. It is part of the service provided by Spectrum Life and its mental health promotion manager is available to develop and deliver evidence-based mental health and well-being initiatives to reduce mental health problems in teachers and create the conditions whereby these things can be addressed at school level. It is an access point for advice for individual teachers. It is obviously something-----
I understand that assistance is there but this is happening out there. There is very clear evidence. Parents go to the Department, which tells them that it is not its problem. The parents are sent back to the patrons, who tell them that it is not their problem. The parents are then sent between Billy and Jack - the chairman of the board of management and the parents' council. This is happening in a very limited number of schools but nobody seems to take responsibility and the only people suffering are the students. It is a significant problem and parents are pulling their hair out. Nobody is taking responsibility and the only people suffering, and suffering badly in some cases, are the children. They see with their own two eyes. The Department is not taking any responsibility. In fact, it is washing its hands of it and sending parents back to the patrons, who are not taking responsibility. The chairman of the board of management is trying his or her best in very difficult circumstances and the only people suffering are the pupils. The witnesses come in here today and say it is about the pupils, the pupils, the pupils but in respect of taking responsibility for the people they employ, who employs teachers? Is it the patrons or the Department? Someone has to take responsibility for some situations that arise. There is no use in them closing their eyes, washing their hands of it and moving on thinking someone else will sort out the problem. This problem is not going away.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
Oversight with regard to the implementation of anti-bullying measures and ensuring that schools are safe places for all, in particular with regard to the implementation of the 2013 procedures, can be viewed from three related perspectives. The first is at school level. We mentioned the school principal and his or her responsibilities regarding reporting regularly to the board, the annual review of the school's anti-bullying policies and all of its dimensions and reporting to the parents' association when a review of the anti-bullying policy has been undertaken. In addition, the board of management has a particular oversight role in each school regarding how the school deals with child protection concerns arising from bullying.
The role of the Department has a number of dimensions. First, as the Chairman will be aware, the school governance section devised the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools, which inform schools of their responsibilities, including the responsibilities of school principals and boards to ensure schools are safe places for all those in them. As such, the school governance section has overall oversight of the implementation of the 2013 procedures. If parents contact the Department with a complaint relating to the implementation of the procedures, initially they are advised to utilise the agreed complaints procedures at school level. This will involve contacting the school principal initially and thereafter contacting the chairperson of the board of management. If parents contact the Department with a child protection concern arising from alleged bullying behaviour among pupils, the Department official who receives that complaint completes a child protection concern form and forwards this to the Department's parents and learners unit. Under the Department's procedures, that child protection concern form is forwarded to Tusla. As part of the overall oversight responsibilities of the Department, the parents and learners unit also provides summary data relating to the number of child protection concerns, which are submitted to the Department's child protection oversight group and subsequently submitted to the Department's management board. The responsibility to ensure that there is a safe working environment for all staff members would also be covered by various elements of employment law that are beyond my competence to go into here.
Ms Yvonne Keating:
Where a member of staff has an issue, complaint or grievance, he or she should follow the school's grievance procedure and raise it with the board of management in the first instance. Failing that, the member of staff has the option of bringing the issue to the attention of the school patron.
Could this document be circulated to us? The witnesses mentioned a report on whole-school evaluations and said that it was very positive.
I am just really surprised. I am just going through the detail again. How many schools were involved again? There are approximately 3,000 primary and 700 secondary schools. How many schools were involved in this whole-school evaluation?
Ms Yvonne Keating:
The initial data represent thousands of schools and findings from whole-school evaluations undertaken between April 2016 and December 2019. In addition, inspection data are available from child protection and safeguarding inspections. If the Senator wishes, I can give a flavour of some of the findings emerging from those data. For example, during those child protection and safeguarding inspections, more than 2,000 parents completed a survey dealing with several anti-bullying aspects. The main findings regarding anti-bullying were that almost all parents indicated they had been informed of the anti-bullying policy of the school and almost all indicated as well they knew who to approach in their school if their child experienced bullying. Slightly less than one tenth of the parents surveyed reported they were not confident the school would act promptly and effectively if they had a concern about bullying. While most parents indicated their children learned about bullying and about relationships and sexuality education, RSE, in school, nonetheless a significant minority of parents were not aware of their children's learning. For example, almost one fifth of parents did not know or responded "No" when asked if their child had learned about RSE in school. One tenth of the parents also did not know or said "No" when asked if their child had learned about bullying in school, and the same proportion did not know or responded "No" when asked if their child had done the Stay Safe programme in primary school.
Findings are also emerging from the whole-school evaluation surveys of parents, teachers and pupils. I do not know if time will permit me to give details. What I have said, however, will give the members of the committee some indication of the types of analysis the inspectorate have been doing regarding these findings. These will be reported on further-----
I ask Ms Keating to forward that information to the secretariat because it is now after 5 p.m, another witness is coming in now and I am conscious of the time. I thank the officials for coming before us and comprehensively briefing us. The briefing has been of enormous assistance to the committee regarding our examination of this issue. I again thank each of the witnesses for giving their time to assist the committee.
I welcome Mr. Hugh Ahern to this session of the meeting. He is a second-year student in the Patrician Academy in County Cork and he is here to brief the committee on school bullying and its impact on mental health. This is a very important day for the committee as Mr. Ahern is the youngest witness ever to appear before it. It is testament to his great enthusiasm for and commitment to educational issues that the committee has chosen to end our examination of this important issue with Mr. Ahern as a voice for young people.
The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Ahern to make his opening statement. I will then invite members to ask questions. Mr. Ahern will be aware that the committee will publish his opening statement following this meeting.
Before I begin, I remind the witness that he is giving evidence remotely from a place outside of the parliamentary precincts, and, as such, may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present. The witness has already been advised of this. I also remind the witness of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that he 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, or otherwise engage in speech which might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. Therefore, if his statements are potentially defamatory regarding an identifiable person or entity, he will be directed by the Chair to discontinue, and it is imperative he comply with this direction.
I call Mr. Ahern now to give his opening statement.
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis an gcoiste as an onóir agus an deis iontach a bheith i láthair os comhair an choiste seo. My name is Hugh Ahern and I am a student of the Patrician Academy in Mallow. I am in second year and I have a keen interest in social and political issues. The definition of bullying is "the repeated use of threats or violence in an attempt to harm or intimidate others". The definition for cyberbullying is “the use of the internet to frighten or upset someone, usually by sending them unpleasant messages”. A nationwide survey of bullying in first and second level schools conducted by Trinity College Dublin estimates that 31% of primary and 16% of secondary school students have been bullied at some time during their school years.
While cyberbullying tends to not take place during the school day, it may be carried out by a student outside of school hours. It is much more difficult for a teacher, fellow student, parent or guardian to spot cyberbullying compared with normal bullying. However, normal bullying has no record of the act, only human reflection. Cyberbullying, though, has a digital footprint and can be traced back to the day it began. Cyberbullying can often be more harmful and threatening than other forms of bullying as it is always with you and there is no getting away from it.
What can the education system do? I will make some recommendations. Each school should be required to have a counselling service for students who need to talk to a professional rather than a teacher. This service could be in the school building or the school could refer students to a counsellor. I recommend the committee advise the Department of Education to look at updating the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary devised in September 2013, as some of the policy may be outdated. It is eight years old and many changes have happened since in respect of cyberbullying. There should also be a full overhaul of the topic of bullying within the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum and the production of a more up-to-date curriculum. I also recommend that teachers should go on a training course about bullying in the school environment, and such a course should confront issues from the points of view of the bully, the victim and the bystanders. In addition, I recommend that it should be mandated that a student representative be present when key decisions pertaining to student issues, such as an anti-bullying policy, are made by school boards of management. Students get little or no say in these policy decisions and they are the ones with the experience. Finally, I believe there should be a well-being day in each school as many students can get overwhelmed by day-to-day interactions.
I thank the committee for this opportunity and welcome any questions or concerns. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
I thank Hugh for giving of his time to come before the committee and for having the confidence to do so at such a young age. I really admire young people who have the confidence to do that. I wish I had had the same confidence when I was the same age. I invite the members of the committee to pose questions.
Thanks very much Hugh. That was an excellent presentation. He is extremely articulate and is a great credit to himself, his family and the Patrician Academy. It is not too far from me, although it is not in my constituency. I am from Togher in Cork city. I believe the Patrician Academy is getting a new refurbished building soon.
I hope that goes well. We really value your insight. It has been some time since those of us on the committee have been in the school system. Many changes have happened in that time, including in respect of anti-bullying policies in recent years. I hope many of them have been beneficial.
I will ask some general questions. Much of what we have been talking about concerns the importance of the bystander effect. I refer to people in a school stopping and intervening among their peers when they feel those peers are being bullied or carrying out bullying behaviour. Do you think your generation feels confident to intervene when they see something happening before them that is wrong and somebody is being bullied?
Even though they might feel it is wrong, will they let it slide or does he think they will intervene?
Many of the recommendations you have put forward are very strong. Some of them are ideas that other organisations have proposed as well, which helps us. It means that when we are formulating our report there is a consensus forming on a few ideas. What does he think about subjects such as social, personal and health education, SPHE, and relationships and sexuality education, RSE? Do they need to be changed significantly? Are students being given enough education on the diversity and differences in society and the different backgrounds students come from?
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
On the Deputy's first question, if students sense that there is bullying taking place inside or outside school, I believe that they would speak up. However, sometimes a student may not speak up for numerous reasons. The student may not remember it or something like that.
On the second question about SPHE and the religion course, the two courses go into where people come from and a person's background. The SPHE curriculum could go more into the background of minorities. In addition, there is not enough in the SPHE curriculum on bullying at present. I and my SPHE teacher were looking through the book in school and it is a very short chapter in the book. It is not concerning, but makes one wonder if bullying is being talked about that much.
I have a final question before Senator Dolan takes over. One of the points that has arisen repeatedly is that schools cannot do everything by themselves. Teachers and boards of management will do their best, but one thing that is needed to tackle bullying is to ensure that schools have enough access to trained counsellors and that child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, are properly resourced to ensure that young people are supported and, indeed, staff as well. This is something Hugh has spoken about too. Is this something he, his friends and his peer group in school talk about much? Would he be of the view that there is a serious need, and that there are inadequate resources at present for CAMHS and for counselling for young people, not just at school but more generally?
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
I would not really talk about the topic of mental health with my peers, but as somebody who has served on an advisory panel for an organisation involved with youth mental health I believe that there is a need for more counselling services in Ireland. Teachers and school staff are not trained. They do not get professional training on how to deal with bullying. How teachers deal with bullying is more from personal experience. I was just looking through the Department of Education's protocol and there is very little in it. It is a sheet of paper that the teacher has to fill out on bullying. The victim should be referred on to a proper counselling service or an in-school counsellor. Bullying is something that lasts for people. It is something that will never really go away. It may remove the moral confidence. In my report of the key results in the submission, I included the effects of bullying. Depression and anxiety is another effect of bullying. There are increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating and permanent loss of interest in activity. Children find that they cannot enjoy activities that much. There is a need for a better service where it is needed.
As Hugh says, it can be absolutely debilitating, crippling and very tough so we need to ensure it is prevented and that it is dealt with when it happens. I thank him for his contribution. Go raibh maith agat agus go n-éirí leat.
I thank Hugh for his submission. We have been going through it. We have been involved in this discussion on tackling bullying for a number of months so it is important that we hear from students about their experiences. He has given us a number of recommendations and I like quite a few of them. We have just finished a session with officials from the Department of Education. I am curious. When he was choosing his secondary school his parents probably spoke to him about the secondary school he would like to attend. Did that conversation ever include an observation that students get on very well there and are happy in the school as well as the academic outcomes?
That was a part of his decision making. I am from the regional area of Roscommon and Galway so sometimes one would have to travel a good distance to get a few different secondary schools. Many students go to the school that is closest to them or based in the same town, so there might not be a big choice.
When we were meeting the departmental officials some of my questions were on the inspector reports the Department does for schools. It does them annually, but there probably has been a delay due to the lockdown and everything else. There should be a section there about how schools tackle bullying. Does Hugh think that this would be important for parents, if they were reviewing that, when they are deciding what school to choose for their children, or that children would be looking at this as well? At a young age it is very difficult, but he had a conversation about the school environment even when he was deciding which school he was going to attend.
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
It would be of value. It would be of value not just to people who experienced bullying but also students who may have concerns.
It would be useful in the inspectorate report. I was reading through an inspectorate report - I think it was last year's report - and there was very little about bullying in schools.
I agree. The inspectorate stated that there would be a new report in January 2022 and that there would be a lot more included on that matter. It referred to five successful indicators for schools. Hopefully there will be more information on how schools are preforming against each of those indicators.
I sit on the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on Mental Health and this is the first year the committee has been in place. There is a dedicated committee for mental health and for education, as well as a few other areas. In his recommendations, Hugh spoke about the importance of having a student advisory committee in the Department of Education to advise on mental health and well-being. He also asked for a well-being day in his recommendations. I liked the idea of that well-being day. There is an anti-bullying week in November. The first UNESCO international day against bullying was held last November. Would it be good to have a well-being day during that week in November?
The other question I have is about - he may not have come across the programme as it has not gone out to a large number of schools - the FUSE anti-bullying programme. FUSE comes out to schools and engages with students and teachers. I was curious whether it had come to Hugh's school yet. There is another group called Soar which is for transition year students so next year he may get involved in it. It is a group that comes out to schools and engages with transition year students about well-being and their school environment. Has he heard of those programmes?
One of the issues that has been discussed at this committee, and which we have done much work on in recent months, is about having an online safety commissioner. All witnesses raised this issue because bullying has changed over the years and it has increasingly gone online. Hugh outlined, from his experience, how bullying can affect a student. Would he welcome having an online safety commissioner? How would it work with all the social media companies that are out there? I have some anecdotal experience of what happens on those platforms.
Are there many students who never admit that they have been bullied? This could be because they do not want to let their guard down, they do not want to admit it. Perhaps they think they are tougher than what they actually are. However, it affects them in later years because they did not seek help when they should have. Can Hugh comment on those two issues?
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
It would be good to put an online safety commissioner in place. I would be curious as to how an online safety commissioner would work in line with the new policies that have been put in place. I know from reading about it that many social media companies have large legal teams and they have a lot of power. They are willing to challenge anything that governments are trying to do. I would be interested to know how that would work. If students do not speak up personally about bullying in schools, it will affect them later in life. They do not speak up fully about it.
The other issue is - I have raised this with a significant number of witnesses recently - about the engagement of parents and how to educate them, because many of them do not understand the dangers of social media. Many of them know their sons or daughters are on social media, but they do not know what activity their sons or daughters are up to on social media. They could be the nicest students face-to-face in school but when they get home, and use their mobile phones and different platforms, they could be the worst bully ever. The witnesses say that it is the same parents who should come to the meetings and those who do not come to the meetings are the parents one would like to reach out to. Does Hugh have any suggestions or ideas on how to interact with parents, or how the schools and the Department engage with parents to try to educate them on the dangers of social media and to let them know what happens on social media?
Yes. The parents one would like to reach out to are typically the parents who do not attend public sessions. Most schools have public meetings to engage with parents. The same parents turn up to these meetings all the time. The parents who need to be engaged with are not turning up.
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
Such an event took place in my former primary school when some parents were speaking about cyberbullying. Perhaps the Department of Education could look at running an information campaign about cyberbullying on social media platforms. It could advertise it in magazines and newspapers. A national media campaign could work very well in that regard. It is such an important topic. Only in the recent years are people starting to take interest in cyberbullying. The Department of Education or the Department with responsibility for communication should look at a media campaign to promote the prevention of cyberbullying.
I know Hugh gave his opinion on the 2013 action plan on bullying and how that needs to be updated. I raised the following issue with the Department of Education today, and it was also raised at today's meeting. Witnesses looked for the provision of emotional and therapeutic supports and someone who the students can trust and go to in the schools. The principal of a school is very busy. He or she may have a large school to run and there are additional pressures added in recent years. Teachers do not have the time to do this as they are involved in the academic education of all the pupils. We are suggesting that emotional and therapeutic support is provided to schools. The role could be similar to a counsellor, but perhaps not as highly qualified. It could be someone who the students can talk to and trust 100%. The service should be discreet. What would Hugh think about that, if it were to be rolled out in schools? As I said to Department officials today, the role does not have to be in every school. It could be shared among schools - one big school and a number of small schools. The person could be in the school at least once or twice a week for pupils to talk to. Pupils should be able to trust the person and it should be done in a discreet manner.
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
I welcome that suggestion very much. There are certain organisations in Ireland that offer these services but many of them are provided by phone whereby a student must ring or text a number. Many others are online whereby a student must log on to a laptop.
Of course, it will be secure, but you may not get the time. The parents may come in on you or something like that. It would be good to have it in schools. It would not have to be based in school, but regionally. Maybe a representative would go to the schools once a week. That person would cover the local electoral areas. The person would be responsible, let us say, for the schools in the municipal district of Kanturk-Mallow. Maybe there could be a representative to cover the Mallow-Kanturk district rather than numerous representatives who would all be spread out. It would be the one professional dealing with that entire area and he or she might know what is happening in that area rather than someone different for a school, for instance, in Kanturk that may have the same issues as Mallow.
I have one last question before I bring back in Senator Dolan. Is a student having the confidence to go to his or her parents if he or she is being bullied in the school an issue? Do many students not have the confidence to go to, or do not feel comfortable in going to, their parents because they do not want to overly worry them? How big a problem is that and how can it be overcome?
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
As I said to Senator Dolan, there is an issue. People are not speaking up that much with the staff and teachers of the school. That confidence needs to be built within the school environment. Teachers should have a more friendly appearance than the teachers of the members' generation who came across as figures of authority. They should still come across to our generation as figures of authority but they should also be welcoming of complaints. Bullying should not be an issue that should be ignored. It should be listened to.
In my school, we fill out a form every month. It has not been happening during the Covid pandemic. Students from each year fill out a form and it is completely anonymous. The students write down, I think, three names - I forget it now because it has been so long since we did it - of people who they think may be being bullied and people they know are being bullied, and someone may speak out. Then, I believe, they approach the students who are on that list and have a conversation with them to make sure that everything is okay. That would be quite a good activity to roll out nationally as I believe students would speak out more if it was anonymous rather speaking to the teacher.
Thanks very much, Hugh.
The Chair has been talking about confidence to engage with teachers or career guidance teacher. I suppose my question is similar. Who would Hugh highlight as people who students would trust? You have a lot of sunshine behind you as well, Hugh. You have a great halo.
You have a great halo. There is a lot of great sunshine down in Cork. It might be a little hard to see you there.
I was asking who would you say the students would trust in school. Would students go to a teacher or a career guidance teacher. They may have a favourite teacher from their first year in school, from their leaving certificate year or from another year. Is it always the teacher? Could it be an SNA? Could it be the school secretary? Could it be the caretaker?
Mr. Hugh Ahern:
In my school, there are a lot of members of staff who are very pleasant to deal with but there are certain teachers who stand out to me. You know who to approach. Maybe the teachers who seem interested. For me, it would be the staff and teachers who seem interested in the students' emotional behaviour along with the students' academic achievements. It is the members of staff and teachers who are the most interested in the student and who want to see the student academically improve, but also it is the people who are most pleasant who recognise the student for who he or she is. It comes with the teacher's name as well. It is the way that the teacher is portrayed around the school as to who you would go to. Our staff are very kind.
I suppose I am curious. Sometimes in drama and such subjects, role-play can be good as a way to get students to open up a little about how they are feeling about things. Would subjects such as drama and more of the arts be worthwhile in school to encourage students to come out of their shell a little and talk more?
Yes. Maybe sports could be a good way to engage. You make me laugh, Hugh, because when I went to school a long while ago the boys used to come to the girls' school for music and the girls would have to go to the boys' school to do physics. I had hoped that things had changed a little since then.
Hugh, I commend you on your eloquent and insightful evidence. Let me say that you are a credit to yourself, to your family and to your school, The Patrician Academy in Mallow in County Cork. The committee is committed to hearing the voices of young people and this afternoon you have articulated the views of young people in a meaningful and substantive way. You have a bright future ahead of you.
As Chair of the committee, I thank you for having the confidence to write to the committee. Not many 15-year-olds take the time to write to a group of politicians. If they say politicians do not listen to young people, you are very much proof of politicians listening to young people. By writing to us, you have had the opportunity to appear before an Oireachtas committee. There are a very limited number of people who have appeared before Oireachtas committees in public session over the years and you are, I would think, the youngest person to appear before an Oireachtas education committee.
It is only right and proper in discussing matters that have major effects on young people that we hear the voices of young people. I thank the witness for giving his time. I hope he enjoys the rest of his summer holidays and gets back to school in September. I hope it will be a full school year and we will not still feel the effects of Covid-19. I hope it will be well behind us because it has had such a significant effect on young people both in primary and secondary school.