Dáil debates

Thursday, 25 May 2006

Priority Questions.

Bullying in Schools.

2:00 pm

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 1: To ask the Minister for Education and Science the proposals she will bring forward with regard to tackling bullying behaviour at schools; the way in which her Department is dealing with the changing nature of bullying behaviour in schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [20145/06]

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I too am concerned that any child would feel upset in school because of bullying, be it physical, verbal or cyber. I am anxious that all schools have effective practices in place both to prevent bullying and to deal with cases that may arise.

As the Deputy will be aware, each school is required to have in place a policy that includes specific measures to deal with bullying behaviour, within the framework of an overall school code of behaviour and discipline. Such a code, developed through consultation with the whole school community and properly implemented, can be the most influential measure in countering bullying behaviour in schools.

My Department has issued guidelines as an aid to schools in devising measures to prevent and deal with instances of bullying behaviour and to increase awareness among school management authorities of their responsibilities in this regard. These guidelines were drawn up following consultation with representatives of school management, teachers and parents, and are sufficiently flexible to allow each school authority to adapt them to suit the needs of their school. My Department, through the National Centre for Technology in Education, NCTE, has also developed policy guidelines and advisory notes for schools and parents which deal with the issues of Internet and mobile phone bullying.

The National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, is currently developing further guidelines for schools on codes of behaviour, as provided for under section 23 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. The process involves drawing up a draft framework discussion document for the guidelines, which is being used as a basis for consultations with the key stakeholders including school management, teachers, parents, and children. The board has established an expert working group for this purpose. Work on the guidelines is at an advanced stage and it is envisaged that implementation will commence in the next school year.

Once the NEWB guidelines are in place, my Department will commence the process of revising and updating its own guidelines on countering bullying behaviour. This review will take into account issues such as legislative developments, the involvement of the support services available to schools, technological advancements such as the Internet, e-mail, mobile and camera phones and the latest developments in international best practice on dealing with bullying behaviour. These guidelines, on top of those that are already in place, will provide vital guidance for schools in fulfilling their responsibilities in this issue.

The Deputy may also be interested to know that dealing with bullying has been incorporated in training for principals through the leadership development for schools programme. I have also stressed to the teacher unions the importance of not just having a written policy on bullying but of ensuring a climate in which it is not tolerated in any form and in which children know that if they make a teacher aware of bullying that it will be dealt with.

Deputies will also be aware that the education of students in both primary and post-primary schools with regard to anti-bullying behaviour is part of the SPHE curriculum. SPHE is now a compulsory subject both at primary level and in the junior cycle of post-primary schools. Its curriculum provides for the development of personal and social skills including self-awareness, respect for others, self-esteem and communication skills, all of which are important elements in addressing the issue of bullying.

While responsibility for tackling bullying naturally falls to the level of the individual school, a wide range of measures are in place to support schools in this area.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Minister mentioned guidelines, but has she given any further thought to having a national strategy against bullying so that we can ensure it works and that it contains specific aims and targets? I am sure the Minister read the report on the results of a survey carried out in 2004. Some 90% of respondents said their school anti-bullying policy did not refer to lesbian or gay related bullying. Will the Minister send guidelines to schools to deal with homophobic bullying until there is a national strategy in place?

The Minister would agree that the nature of bullying has changed. While we still have traditional bullying, there is now text bullying and bullying on Bebo websites etc. With regard to the guidelines and the consideration of a national strategy, what regard is being given to the changing nature of bullying and to the fact that it is no longer just a schoolyard phenomenon but something that follows children into their homes after school?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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When we take together the work being done by the Department, the NEWB, the NCTE, the leadership development and the curriculum, we could say it is a national strategy. However, it must be implemented at a local school level through all the elements involved and through social, personal and health education.

We can deal with the issue in two ways. We can deal with the bully and, more particularly, with the victim. We must enable victims to have the skills to cope and ensure they do not tolerate bullying behaviour. I am equally conscious that at school level children should feel that if they make a complaint, it will be dealt with and teachers will follow up on it.

With regard to the findings of the survey with regard to homophobic bullying, all bullying is wrong. School policies should be careful to include the issue of homophobic bullying. We are conscious of bullying because of race, size, background, abilities and colour, but should be equally conscious of bullying on account of sexual orientation. All types of bullying must be stamped out in the school context.

There was a time when bullying was more obvious because it was either verbal or physical and therefore it was more easily identified by a teacher. Now, it is more sinister. Young people spend too much time in isolation communicating with others through the Internet, websites and text messaging, without any personal communication. It is much more difficult to tackle bullying in this situation. The website I launched on behalf of the NCTE, www.webwise.ie, is a useful aid for everybody in recognising and dealing with issues concerned with Internet safety.

All these elements will form part of the guidelines being produced by the NEWB and will, consequently, feed into the work of the Department.

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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NEWB officers to whom I have spoken feel that a significant number of children do not attend school because of bullying or fear of it. The Minister mentioned four or five groups, a national strategy would tie their work together. Will she consider that to ensure we have best practice?

Some 90% of respondents said their schools do not have a policy to deal with homophobic bullying. Will the Minister contact the schools to ensure policies contain this in future?

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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The strategy exists in effect, but it must be implemented at school level. We should not lose sight of the fact that a policy on bullying can only work if the children, the teachers, the principal, the parents and the board of management sign up to it. Each of these must be familiar with the terms and sanctions of the policy and of how it will be implemented within the school. There is no point in just writing lofty plans. The guidelines are there, but they must be updated when necessary. The NEWB is doing this. The policy must be implemented at school level.

I am concerned that children should not miss school because of bullying. Televisions programmes aimed at children point out that children should tell and not be afraid to do so. Parents should also encourage children to tell.

Did the Deputy have another question?

Photo of Olwyn EnrightOlwyn Enright (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I asked about homophobic bullying not being part of policy.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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A policy should be all-inclusive. Whether homophobic bullying should be given specific mention is for the school to decide, but it should be clear that no form of bullying will be tolerated within the school community.