Seanad debates

Monday, 31 May 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Bullying in Educational Institutions

10:30 am

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan. First, I acknowledge that schools in general are putting a great deal of time and effort into proactive strategies to ensure that school environments are as welcoming and inclusive as possible. We must, however, also acknowledge that bullying exists and is happening in the physical form, although less so now, and in the shape of cyberbullying. Some of the reports we saw during the pandemic have given cause for major concern concerning the rise in cyberbullying and its impact among young people. We must be watchful of this issue as a society. We must work together with school communities to ensure that we are tackling bullying behaviour and encouraging and supporting our young people who are being bullied to enable them to be resilient and to be able to deal with it.Of course, the bystander has a very important role in this. The overall culture of schools is important in terms of their values. It is the case that diversity and respect for all is taught in almost every school, in addition to an understanding of, and addressing and standing up to, prejudice.

The anti-bullying policy in schools was developed eight years ago now and needs to be reviewed. It needs to include particular direction on homophobic and transphobic bullying and racism. The world has changed an awful lot in the past eight years. It is the prerogative of every individual school to have an anti-bullying policy, but it is very important that the Department of Education clearly outlines what that should be. We need to change the language around it, which does not have to be negative such as "anti-bullying". We can use positive language such as "transforming lives', etc. Many good programmes are in place in different schools, which have been rolled out by different patron bodies. If we had a roadmap to different types of strategies, we would go a long way.

We need to take a number of steps. Any approach to bullying has to include the voice of students. It is also important that parents are very actively involved. We need an online safety commissioner. The time for talking about it is over. We need to have one in place and we need to examine digital literacy for our students as well as online safety programmes. The emotional and therapeutic supports that are badly needed in schools need to be rolled out on a more constant basis. Every school should have access to a counsellor or a relevant professional. We all hear about the significant adult in young people's lives, but teachers need to have a lot of extra support to enable them to be that significant person.

There have been issues with data. There are two schools of thought on this, but at the moment the Department does not collect data on bullying incidents, the type of bullying and so on. It is important we do that for monitoring in future.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. She will be aware of the national Action Plan on Bullying published in 2013, which was a number of years ago as she said. We are all aware that bullying is a very complex and difficult issue that can occur in many different settings, including the home, wider family, social groups and during sporting and youth club activities. I note what the Senator said about the different forms of bullying. It is not just specific to physical bullying but can take many different forms, including cyberbullying.

The anti-bullying procedures for schools were developed in response to the national action plan in 2013 and they are aimed at strengthening our approach to preventing and tackling bullying in schools. It is important to note, however, that the anti-bullying procedures for schools are not the whole answer to this complex problem, nor were they intended to be. The anti-bullying procedures for schools are designed to give direction and guidance to school authorities and school personnel in preventing and tackling school-based bullying by promoting a positive school culture and climate that is welcoming, as the Senator said, of difference and diversity and is based on inclusivity and respect.

The procedures for schools also recognise that parents and pupils have a role and responsibility in helping the school to prevent and address school-based bullying behaviour and deal with any negative impact within school of bullying behaviour that occurs elsewhere. The procedures set out the need for schools to encourage and strengthen an open dialogue between all school staff and students to ensure they provide appropriate opportunities for students to raise their concerns in an environment that is comfortable for them.The policy must set out the school's procedures for investigating and dealing with bullying and for the formal noting and recording of bullying behaviours. The policy also requires schools to use established intervention strategies, consistent recording and investigation and, critically, a follow-up of bullying behaviour.

The Senator mentioned support for teachers. There are extensive training and curricular supports available to schools, including through the social, personal and health education, SPHE, curriculum, the professional development service for teachers, webwise.ieand the Department-funded national anti-bullying website to tackle schools in the development of policies and practices on the prevention of bullying and harassment and the safe use of the Internet. Funded by the Department, webwise.ieis an important resource in this area and promotes the autonomous, effective and safe use of the Internet by young people.

I note what the Senator said about the pandemic and the difficulties that children, in particular, faced during that period of time. All boards of management are required to adopt and implement an anti-bullying policy that fully complies with the requirements of these procedures. A template anti-bullying policy which must be used by all schools for this purpose is included in the procedures. The procedures also introduced important oversight arrangements that involve the school principal reporting regularly to the board of management, setting out the overall number of bullying cases reported to the principal since the previous report and confirmation that all of these cases have been dealt with or are being dealt with. In addition, there is a requirement for the board to undertake an annual review of the school's anti-bullying policy and its implementation. Confirmation that the annual review has been completed must be provided to the parents' association and published on the school website. This requirement ensures greater transparency for parents and students as to how schools deal with bullying behaviour.

The Senator mentioned encompassing the voice of the child, which is crucial. The Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill 2019, when enacted, will further support a positive school culture and climate necessary for preventing and tackling bullying. The Bill, as we know, has been passed by the Seanad and is currently awaiting an Order for Second Stage in the Dáil. The overall aim of this legislation is to improve the level of engagement between schools, students and their parents by inviting feedback, comment and observations from students and parents, and by developing a listening culture in the school.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge that the parent and student charter will be welcome. There has been a significant delay in implementing the legislation but I am glad to hear it is approaching Second Stage in the Dáil.

I accept and acknowledge that there are a significant number of supports but more are needed. As time goes on and more research is done, we learn more and need to be able to adapt. For example, the whole area of restorative justice in schools has come to the fore in recent years and it is transformative. I know about this particularly through my acquaintance with the former principal of Scoil Na Naomh Uilig in Newbridge, Ms Noreen Duggan. She found that restorative justice was an incredible tool to reform and change the behaviour of the perpetrators of bullying. It is an approach we definitely need to consider.

The presence in schools of the National Educational Psychological Service, NEPS, is, unfortunately, far too low. I emphasise again that training is still continually needed for teachers and, of course, parents in the school community.

Photo of Josepha MadiganJosepha Madigan (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I note what the Senator has said about restorative justice. It is something in which I believe, even in the criminal justice system and its application to prisoners. In the bullying area, it is definitely worth considering. I will bring that suggestion back to the Minister, Deputy Foley.

Extra NEPS psychologists have been provided for in the budget for this year. We were acutely aware, in particular during Covid, of how difficult it has been for children. It is important that we have adequate resources and psychologists. It is also important to stress the role of the Department's inspectorate in monitoring schools and looking at their anti-bullying measures in primary, post-primary and centres for education, using a number of different inspection types.I am also aware and conscious of the fact the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is engaged in a series of meetings and is listening to a range of stakeholders, including representatives of my Department, on the topic of school bullying and its impact on mental health.

The Minister for Education and I are looking forward to engaging positively with these deliberations. I have noted the Senator's concerns and I will bring them to the attention of the Minister and the Department.