Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Committee for Education, meeting on Wednesday, 12 May 2021
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Chris Lyttle (Chairperson)
Mr Pat Sheehan (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Maurice Bradley
Miss Nicola Brogan
Mr Robbie Butler
Mr William Humphrey
Mr Justin McNulty
Mr Robin Newton
Witnesses:Mrs Julie Humphries, Department of Education
Mr Ricky Irwin, Department of Education
Ms Renee McDowell, Department of Education
Ms Shauna Collinson, Education Authority
Ms Gillian Cuthbert, Education Authority
Addressing Bullying in Schools (2016 Act) (Commencement) Order (Northern Ireland) 2021: Department of Education, Education Authority
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I welcome from the Department of Education Ricky Irwin, director of inclusion and well-being; Julie Humphries, head of the additional educational needs team; and Renee McDowell from the additional educational needs team. I have a list of names here, but there are only three people in the audience. I will keep going in case they are there. I also welcome Gillian Cuthbert, interim head of service at post-primary behavioural support and provisions at the Education Authority (EA); and Shauna Collinson, interim assistant director of pupil inclusion, well-being and protection at the Education Authority. You are all very welcome. Have I covered everyone?
Mr Ricky Irwin (Department of Education): Yes, that is us all, Chair.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): That is great. Officials, the Committee will be able to give you 10 minutes to make an opening statement, and that will be followed by questions from members. Do you want to make a start? Thank you.
Mr Irwin: Thanks, Chair, and thanks for inviting us today to provide an update to the Committee on the introduction of the bullying in schools legislation. Bullying is a complex problem that changes and evolves over time, finding new means to manifest itself. That can be seen in the increasing use of technology such as mobile phones, computers, tablets and social media websites, which add to the complexity, subtlety and insidious nature of the problem. That does not mean that bullying should ever be considered an inevitable or acceptable part of school life for any pupil. It has a damaging effect on the well-being of our children and young people, and we must do all we can to tackle it.
In September 2013, at the request of the then Minister of Education, John O'Dowd MLA, the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum undertook a review of anti-bullying policies and practices in our schools. That review concluded that, while all schools were aware of their responsibilities to tackle bullying, there was still a wide variation in the quality of schools' anti-bullying policies and procedures. It found that policies were not always applied consistently, that schools were sometimes too slow to react to bullying incidents and that some schools' policies were rarely updated, allowing them to become dated and less effective. It also found that there were many examples of good practice across our schools. That is why legislation was seen as the best way to ensure that all schools brought renewed focus and effort to the problem.
As is outlined in your briefing paper, a public consultation launched on 5 January 2015 and ran for an eight-week period until 27 February 2015. Just under 5,000 responses were formally submitted to the consultation. The Addressing Bullying in Schools Bill was introduced to the Assembly on 30 November 2015. It received cross-party support and progressed through the Assembly. It received Royal Assent on 12 May 2016 and became the Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (NI) 2016.
That legislation was introduced to provide a clear and consistent framework for all schools to follow and, in doing so, to ensure that all pupils are protected to the same high standards. By providing an inclusive definition of bullying, introducing a duty for schools to record all incidents of bullying and strengthening the role of boards of governors in ensuring that effective policies are followed, we believe that it will achieve that objective. Schools have and will retain the freedom to develop flexible responses to disciplinary issues tailored to the needs of the school, its pupils, and their wider community.
Following a period of working with stakeholders to develop the necessary guidance and recording system, it was the intention to introduce the Act for the start of the 2019 academic year. However, the teaching unions raised some issues, and the Department agreed to a pause in the commencement of the legislation to allow for further engagement. Our intention to introduce the Act for September 2020 was then impacted by COVID. We believe that requiring schools to implement new legislation and put new processes in place at a time when there was ongoing disruption to learning and reduced resources was seen as adding unnecessary pressure to teacher workloads. We engaged further with the teaching unions more recently and have agreed to commence the legislation at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. We have introduced a commencement order to bring the Act into operation from 1 September.
Training and guidance has been provided for schools and boards of governors. Schools now have some time to prepare, to update their anti-bullying policies to align with the requirements of the Act and to consult parents, carers, pupils and staff, if they have not already done so. It is our intention to monitor implementation of the Act through ongoing engagement with stakeholders and by seeking feedback from schools. The Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) will also have a role.
Chair, I am happy to take any questions from you and members on the issue.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that, Ricky. I will start by asking the obvious question: why has it taken since 2015 to implement the Act?
Mr Irwin: 2015 was when the consultation was carried out on the policy proposals for the legislation.
There was then the period of bringing the legislation through the Assembly, and, as I said, Royal Assent was obtained in May 2016. The intention after that was always to work with schools and partner organisations to develop the necessary guidance and make sure that schools and boards of governors were trained on the issue. There was also a requirement to bring forward a standardised reporting system. Working groups were set up after the passing of the Act to work on those issues.
The intention was to commence the Act in September 2019, but, as I said, issues were raised by the unions at that time. The unions asked for implementation to be put on hold indefinitely. The Department did not agree to that, but we agreed to a temporary pause to allow for further meaningful dialogue to take place with the unions on the particular issues. COVID in March 2020 then put paid to our plans to implement the Act in September 2020. It was kept under review, however, as the Minister was keen for the legislation to be implemented at the first possible opportunity. We continued to work with the unions on the issues that they had raised. We resolved those issues and updated the guidance. With the ongoing pandemic and the situation in schools, it has been agreed that September 2021 is the ideal time to commence the legislation, in order to give schools time to prepare for it.
Mr Irwin: I would not say that they have been at a disadvantage, Chair. It is not a new issue. The Act builds on the good practices that already exist in schools. It raises the standard by trying to reach a level of consistency in how schools deal with the problem. Schools have always been dealing with bullying; the order is really about ensuring that there is a level of consistency and providing the wee bit of additional support that is needed.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Are you content that schools and unions feel adequately prepared and supported to implement the Act in the new school year?
Mr Irwin: There was a good period of co-design with school leaders, practitioners and others on the resources that have been developed. There was also co-design done on the recording system. There was then an extensive period of training for all schools and boards of governors. All of that has been done. We continue to work with the EA, looking at what additional support may be needed in advance of the commencement of the Act and, indeed, as we go forward after September. That will be an ongoing monitoring requirement for us.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): How exactly will a pupil benefit from the implementation of the Act? What additional protection from bullying will it provide?
Mr Irwin: The Act raises the bar for what schools are expected to do in law. It places duties on boards of governors to ensure that they develop, implement, monitor and review the anti-bullying policies in their school. The statutory guidance that accompanies the legislation provides additional advice to schools about the types of bullying incidents that need to be dealt with, what sort of support is available and how schools can deal with such incidents. Importantly, it will mean that schools must monitor bullying incidents. They must look at the patterns and trends that are emerging. They have to put appropriate policies in place to deal with those. Ultimately, the order will provide better outcomes for children who experience bullying behaviour but also for children who display bullying behaviour.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): I want to ask you what you understand the extent of bullying in schools to be, but I am keen to bring in other members. Perhaps you will refer to that in the course of our discussion.
Mr Sheehan: That is exactly the question that I will ask, Chair. How many bullying incidents are taking place in our schools each year, Ricky? Do you have any idea?
Mr Irwin: Pat, we do not gather stats on that. It is an issue that was raised when the legislation was going through the Assembly in 2015-16. Concerns were raised by Members and schools that, if the Department were to gather and publish statistics, it would result in league tables of bullying in schools.
At this time, no stats on incidents are gathered. The legislation will, however, place a duty on schools to gather that information and to make sure that their boards of governors have put in place appropriate policies to deal with bullying. Once the legislation commences in September, it will be important that the Department have processes in place to look at the effectiveness of the legislation. We will therefore have to commission processes of evaluation and try to look at thematic research. Our work will not stop come September, when the legislation commences. We will have to look at how we are proactive in the area of bullying. For example, what works? What does not work? What can we strengthen? How can we best support schools?
Mr Sheehan: I understand the difficulties that you might face with having league tables, but I do not see the need for any of that information to be published. The Department should be aware of the level of bullying and the number of incidents taking place in schools.
How will the legislation's impact be assessed? How will an assessment be made as to whether it will reduce bullying? That is why the issue is being discussed: there is a problem with bullying. If possible, bullying needs to be eliminated, and, if not eliminated, it needs to be reduced as much as possible. We need to have some evidence to see that happening. In the light of recent reports about achieving value for money in special educational needs (SEN), educational underachievement and so on, there should be clear processes operating in schools, in conjunction with the EA and the Department, to allow us to see what progress or lack of progress is being made. Do you agree with that?
Mr Irwin: I agree that we absolutely need to be able to gather evidence and data on the effectiveness of the legislation. There will be roles for the Department, as there will for the ETI, by way of inspection, making sure that the appropriate policies are in place and making sure that schools have consulted pupils and parents on how they have put policies in place and on how those policies deal with issues in schools. There is also a role for the Education Authority in monitoring the level of support that it is asked for from schools.
At this point, I invite Shauna and Gillian from the EA to give us some insight into and input about their experience at an operational level.
Ms Gillian Cuthbert (Education Authority): When we look at bullying behaviour and at what we can do to support schools, it is necessary that we have a firm understanding of its prevalence, nature and extent. Bullying does not take place just in the school environment. It happens on the journey to and from school, in communities and in children's bedrooms by way of online bullying and so on. The data is important. In the Education Authority, we track the data of calls that come to us from parents and schools. We also work with the behaviour support team. Over the past three years, we have had approximately 204 calls from parents and schools looking for support. It will therefore be important that we monitor the implementation of the Act. It is very much about bringing parents on board and having them understand the Act and the impact that it will have on young people. As I said, it will be vital that we continue to monitor the implementation of the Act to ensure that it does what it says and that it is effective on the ground and supports young people dealing with bullying.
Ms Shauna Collinson (Education Authority): It will also be important that, through our referrals to our pupil-based support services, be it our primary or post-primary behaviour support, our educational welfare services or our child protection services, we monitor the nature of the calls and contacts, and, where there are themes of bullying and motivations for bullying, that we respond appropriately through advice and guidance and through putting in place any training or wider support programmes needed, on the basis of the presenting need arising from incidents of bullying reported through referrals and helplines etc.
Mr Sheehan: Thank you for that. One of the points raised was about bullying happening when kids are going to or coming from school. How feasible is it for schools to intervene in bullying that takes place outside of the school setting?
Ms Cuthbert: The journey to and from school is vital in the school day and is a really important part of a young person's day. If a young person experiences bullying on the way to and from school and that has an impact on their emotional health and well-being in school, we need to take action. The Act asks schools to have preventative measures in place to and from school. Schools are already working hard and doing that. For example, at the local shop down the road, schools will have teachers on duty. It is also about creating an ethos in the school that, if young people experience bullying or witness others experiencing bullying, we empower them to seek help and report it to their school. It is up to individual schools to put in place punitive measures or anything along those lines, but the Act encourages the preventative measures that schools can put in place, and the policy should be clear about when action will and will not be taken. Nowadays, we have the issue of young people coming home from school and staying in their uniform into the night. It is down to schools to decide the parameters within which action should be taken. Ultimately, however, it comes down to the welfare of the young person. If that is being impacted on in any way, we have a duty of care to do something to support that young person.
Mr Sheehan: If there is a problem outside of the school setting, are there any special measures or supports that the EA is willing to put in place?
Ms Cuthbert: It is, of course, about looking at each individual case, taking the best and most appropriate action and putting in place the supports that are needed. If bullying happens outside of school and in the community, it is about putting in place strategies that we can control. That may involve looking at young people's drop-off and collection times or having bus monitors on board so that they have a means of support. It is about looking at the individual circumstances and at what support is possible and feasible for a particular situation.
Ms Collinson: Gillian and I are practitioners, as we are both teachers by trade and have been senior leaders in schools and education settings. It is about ensuring that schools and education settings involve their young people, parents, carers and community in the development of their policy approaches. Doing that helps build a culture in which young people can seek help and support in the way in which they need to. The response is then based on the circumstances of the particular incident or situation. That inclusion, through having good communication and working in partnership with parents, carers and young people, is essential.
Mr Newton: I thank the team for joining us again this morning. I have only one question. It is on cyberbullying, which the Deputy Chair has already touched on. The indication is that the Act introduces a new power explicitly permitting boards of governors to include measures in the school's disciplinary policy to address cyberbullying. Can you explain in a bit more detail what the new powers to tackle cyberbullying will be?
Mr Irwin: I will start, Robin, and perhaps EA colleagues will come in behind me, if that is OK.
Mr Irwin: Cyberbullying is a particularly complex problem that seems to have developed in more recent years. It is linked to the increased use of technology, social media and everything else. It is also a complex legal area that probably goes beyond the competence of just the Department of Education in how it is addressed. We also need to be mindful of parents' responsibilities for their children's actions.
The Act places a power in the hands of schools to bring forward reasonable preventative measures to tackle cyberbullying, if that is an issue in their school. It does not explicitly state what those measures should be. We as a Department will probably have to look at that as we go forward. We will try to provide more advice to schools on that. I said that tackling the issue of cyberbullying goes beyond the competence of DE. At the minute, we have an online safety strategy published by the Department of Health, and DE was involved in its development. That safety strategy is a powerful tool for looking at the actions that government in Northern Ireland needs to take to reduce the incidence of cyberbullying and for supporting children who have experienced cyberbullying.
A three-year action plan was published as part of that strategy, and the Department has a number of actions in there. Work on all the actions will be led by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI), and the Department of Health has secured funding for year 1. The Safeguarding Board will take forward the actions. In future years, DE will have a role in working with schools to identify online safety leads in each school. They will be responsible for putting in place the preventative measures at school level and for making sure that those are acted on and kept updated as we deliver the strategy.
At this point, I should mention the legislation that the UK Government announced yesterday to address online harms. The Government intend to bring forward the Online Safety Bill. That again demonstrates that this goes way beyond the competence of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland. We, of course, support that draft legislation, which will place a duty on external companies that have social media sites and online forums to take down any content that is harmful. That includes child sexual exploitation content, suicide material and certain online forums. That work is being led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in Westminster. The link to the Northern Ireland Executive is through the Department of Justice, which will coordinate the Executive's response. We have recently nominated a policy lead in the Department, Angela Kane, who will be the DE link to that work.
In addressing cyberbullying, there are lots of things at play. We need to make sure that they are taken forward and that they all work together, and doing that will hopefully have an impact on reducing cyberbullying.
Mr Newton: It is an extremely complex area, and it is, as you said, a UK-wide issue. A UK-wide response is therefore probably required. You also said that the Department needs to recognise that it is a complex area but that it will be for individual schools to decide what use they make of the new powers. Is it not a contradiction to say that?
Mr Irwin: Yes, Robin. Of the resources that have been developed, the statutory guidance that supports the legislation includes a case study on bullying involving social media. That is an example of how we can support schools in developing their policies to tackle cyberbullying. If we become aware of, for example, evidence of good practice out there that is proving effective, we have a responsibility, along with our partners in the EA, to make sure that it is captured and disseminated across all schools.
That is something that we will have to
[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality.]
Mr Newton: Sorry, the connection broke down, Chair, in the last 30 seconds.
Mr Newton: No. If Ricky could just repeat what he was saying for perhaps the last 15 or 20 seconds, that would be great.
Mr Irwin: I was saying that the Department has a responsibility to capture good practice that, we know, is proving effective in the area of cyberbullying. We want to work with the EA on identifying that good practice and making sure that we disseminate it across all schools.
Mr Butler: Thank you, guys. This is a really important piece of work. Why is it important? It is important to me because I know exactly what it is like to be bullied in school. People are bullied for many reasons. The reason that I was bullied in school was because I was a Christian and had a faith. I can remember what it was like to be physically abused, to be verbally abused, to be spat on and that type of stuff. That was a long time ago. It was 1983 when I went to post-primary school, and it was a lonely place to be. Bullying has existed for a long time and is something that is perpetuated throughout life, sadly. We certainly need to up our game in order to tackle it. It is an incredibly insidious facet of life, and school should not be like that. I know that you guys, from the Department and the EA, agree that we need to do what we can.
You mentioned the work that had been done with the unions and indicated that they perhaps had reservations about the legislation. What are some of the issues that they raised?
Mr Irwin: Concerns were raised about the definition of "bullying" and the requirement for the motivation to be recorded. They also raised issues about boundaries and whether the school day was being extended indefinitely. Cyberbullying issues were raised as well, and there was probably a general concern expressed about whether record-keeping could become onerous for schools. What we had to do was to work with the unions to work through the issues to address them in the guidance that was developed, and we did that. We updated the guidance. When we met the unions recently, they were content with the guidance. That does not mean that the guidance is a final product that will never change again. If other concerns are brought forward, we will have to update the guidance to address those concerns.
That gives you a flavour of some of the concerns that were raised. It was at a time, Robbie, when there was action short of strike as well.
Mr Irwin: We did not have a Minister, an Executive or an Assembly at that time. The unions' request was to stop implementation indefinitely, but the decision by the Department, taken at a senior level, was to pause implementation while we engaged with the unions on the issues.
Mr Butler: You have sort of answered my second question in saying that you believe that the unions were basically on board and committed to the Act's implementation. Are there any reservations, however? Are there any extant issues, things that have been omitted or things that are perhaps still under negotiation?
Mr Irwin: I would not say that there are still things under negotiation. Unions probably still have some residual concerns. Until we get into the implementation period after September, however, we will perhaps not know whether those will materialise.
The issue with record-keeping is probably a legitimate one, because the Act places a duty on schools to make sure that every incident and its motivation are recorded. What we have tried to do with the guidance and with the school information management system (SIMS) on C2k is to provide as much support for schools as possible and to structure in how they capture the information. The ultimate objective is that it will help the school monitor the patterns of behaviour and put in appropriate policies to tackle those. Anything that we have done through the legislation and its supporting guidance has been done to help schools.
Mr Butler: Brilliant. During the previous session, I asked what effective outcomes for a revised relationships and sexuality education (RSE) curriculum would be, so I will ask the same question about monitoring the effectiveness of legislation and what success would look like. Is there a baseline? Is there a target that you can share with us?
Mr Irwin: There is not necessarily a target, but we share the Committee's vision that we eradicate bullying. I do not think that the legislation is the silver bullet for doing that, but it raises the bar for the quality and standard of our response for tackling it. Come September, our work will not stop. We need to make sure that we have robust monitoring processes in place to measure the effectiveness of the legislation and what is happening in schools. We need to commission further research in that area, and I have mentioned capturing and disseminating good practice. That is just the beginning of what we are doing here. We have much more work to do in the area.
We want to get to the point at which bullying is basically eradicated across our schools, but, as members have mentioned, it is not just a school problem or a childhood problem but a pervasive societal problem that requires collaborative approaches across society and goes way beyond the competence of Departments, including DE. We have a role to play in trying to tackle bullying in the school environment, however, and I hope that members can see that the Act will strengthen the approaches with which schools are armed.
Mr Butler: Thanks for that. I go back to my first point. It is important to say that people are bullied regardless of their difference, whether that is because you are LGBT, because you have a faith or because of a body issue. We need to make sure that we do not neglect the reasons for the bullying.
This is not controversial, but I want to spread this a bit wider, if that is OK. Although the basic tenet of the legislation is to protect children, and rightly so, bullying does not happen just to children. I declare an interest as a member of a board of governors, although this does not relate to my school. Teachers are sometimes perceived to be on the receiving end of bullying. In some instances, they are bullied on social media by parents. There are also instances of teachers being accused of bullying. Is there anything in this legislation or in other legislation that seeks to protect teachers from elements of bullying but also picks up on teachers who are accused of bullying?
Ms Renee McDowell (Department of Education): The Act is specific to children and young people who are being bullied in school. It does not stretch beyond that. Where a teacher is bullying a child or a child is bullying a teacher, it would fall under the disciplinary policy or the conditions of employment, so it would be totally outside the scope of the Act. I am not aware of whether there is legislation for that.
Mr Butler: This is not directed at you guys, but bullying behaviour can be mapped across someone's life, so we need to take a holistic look. In every industry there are instances of it. It happens not just in teaching but in life. I am interested to know whether people who bully when they are younger are likely to bully when they are older.
This is almost a restorative justice piece as well. Although it is right to protect those who are bullied, we need to look into the background of those who are doing the bullying. It is not just about the punishment that everybody would reach for. Do we do enough behind the scenes to find out why someone is bullying? What can we do to help them so that they do not repeat bullying behaviour in school and so that the behaviour does not become part of their being?
Ms McDowell: Support measures should be in place. It is not just the case that bullying is identified, we record it and we know that it is happening. There should also be support right across. There should be counselling for the person who is being bullied and for the person who is showing the bullying behaviour. It is not a case of just writing everybody off. There should be a holistic approach whereby we sit down and find out why it is happening and whether something more important is happening at home that is causing them to be a bully.
There is a restorative justice part in the supporting guidance where they can sit down, talk about it and find out what is happening. It could simply be that the person who is showing bullying behaviour needs extra support with something. They are not necessarily a nasty person who is picking on somebody just for the sake of it, but there may be something that they need support for. We cannot just rule everybody out by saying, "Oh, they are a bully". There has to be more to it than that. Nobody just chooses to be like that.
Mr Irwin: I will come in off the back to that, Robbie. Behaviour is a form of communication. We have talked about that in the context of additional needs and special educational needs. It is important to try to get an understanding of why the behaviour is happening. Is there an unassessed need, as Renee said? Are there other circumstances in the domestic setting? It is also important that pupils who display bullying behaviour understand the impact that that behaviour has on the pupils who experience it and that they try to work through those issues. Those restorative practices are very important in all of that. It comes back to trying to identify what works and what does not work. We need to make sure that we capture all of that and put it out across the schools.
[Inaudible owing to poor sound quality.]
Ms Collinson: Chair, can the Education Authority come in on that?
Ms Collinson: The priority is to ensure that educational settings are safe places for the young people and the staff that work in them, and that both young people and staff can have confidence in the policies, whether that is the anti-bullying policy for young people or the HR policies for staff, to ensure that staff and young people have confidence that they can seek help and that they can make reports, knowing that action will be taken to support them in whatever their circumstances may be. It is important that we bear in mind that educational settings should be safe places where staff and young people can be happy so that they can engage with their learning or their work of delivering the teaching.
Ms Cuthbert: I will add to that. You made a very important point there. If we do not have the early intervention and prevention that is required, then unfortunately that behaviour continues into adult life. For a lot of young people who display bullying behaviour, once it is pointed out to them it can be nipped in the bud quite quickly. That is done through early intervention, relationship development, supporting our young people with their social skills and by realising when something is wrong and calling it out.
At the other extreme, a significant number of young people have experienced extreme trauma in their lives and feel out of control. They find that control by exhibiting those behaviours at others. They need support not just in the school environment, but in services. That needs to be marked through the code of practice, because support intervention from psychology and outside agencies is essential if we are to turn the curve at that stage, rather than having to try to fix something later in life.
Mr Humphrey: Thank you all very much for your attendance and your input. I think that bullying is a horrible thing and that bullies are despicable people. It does not matter whether they are at school or in adult life: for anyone who is subject to bullying and has suffered from bullying, it has a hugely negative effect that can be long-lasting. We need to do all that we can to remove bullying, not just in classrooms and schools, but in society. It is a scourge. When pupils and their parents come through the doors of our offices about the issue, they talk about how it not only traumatises the child but has a knock-on effect on their parents, who feel completely powerless when their child is being bullied at school. The child is fearful of going to school, and the parents do not want to send them to school because, frankly, the way that some schools deal with bullying is lamentable. That is something that needs to be sorted out.
I was really interested, Ricky, when you were talking about raising the standard and getting a consistent approach. That is absolutely crucial, folks. Some schools deal with it very effectively. I have seen, in some cases, that other schools either do not take it seriously or do not deal with it at all. That is down to leadership, but it is also down to interpretation of rules and regulations. Therefore, we need consistency, and we need to see the rules being applied consistently and firmly. How do we do that?
Mr Irwin: That is an important point, William. I mentioned the importance of our evaluation of the implementation of the Act. There is a role for the Department and for the EA and, as I mentioned, there is a role for the ETI. We need to be looking at the quality of the policies that are put in place by individual schools. We should also be looking at whether there has been consultation by the schools with pupils and parents to develop those policies. We want to see evidence that boards of governors are considering the issue on a regular basis, that they are looking at the numbers in their schools and that they are taking appropriate action.
In addition, we probably need to commission qualitative research into the impact that bullying has. There have been pieces of research in the past, but we will have to commission research as we go forward once this is implemented to see whether there are particular issues emerging, where the good practice is, whether we can disseminate that and so on. It is important that we do not just sit back, that we are proactive and that we try to gather the evidence of the impact of all of this and respond appropriately going forward.
Mr Humphrey: Getting a clear policy that is applied consistently across schools is hugely important. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of —. I do not have children, but I have a young great-niece who last year, at six years of age, was absolutely traumatised about going into school. Her mother was beside herself and her father was so frustrated because they both felt powerless. I saw close at hand what my family was going through, and I have had people coming into my office who are in exactly the same position. It is incumbent on all of us to get a policy and see that it is being adhered to. The school leadership and governors — I say that as a governor in both a primary and a secondary setting — should ensure that those policies are being applied and that a consistent approach is taken.
The other thing is that it is incumbent on the Department and the EA to police it. It is no use writing a policy and having it in place and not policing it, because that is failing the young people in our classrooms. I am interested in what the EA has to say about it as well.
Ms Cuthbert: I am happy to take that one, if that is OK.
Ms Cuthbert: In relation to consistency, the good thing about the Act is that we will have a common definition. Prior to the Act coming into operation, schools could have a multitude of definitions. The most important point is that we all have a clear understanding of what bullying behaviour is and the difference between that and unacceptable or antisocial behaviour. Dealing with bullying is a complex issue for schools. As you are aware, schools can only deal with the facts that they have in front of them. It is about clarifying those facts and the perceptions of others and about putting that support in. Communication is vital with anybody in such a situation — keeping those lines of communication open. Part of that is about prevention and how a school deals with bullying. It is very important to establish that communication.
The policing of this will ultimately come down to the governors of the school to make sure that they are effectively monitoring and reviewing the anti-bullying policy. That needs to be ongoing, so that the board of governors is aware of the number of bullying incidences or alleged bullying incidences. Is its policy fit for purpose? Prior to this date, as you know, governors will only have been made aware of a bullying situation if it reached the complaints stage. This will give governors a view at their meetings as to how many incidences or alleged incidences of bullying have happened so that they can effectively monitor the policy that is in place and make the necessary changes as the school moves forward.
Mr Humphrey: Yes, but the thing is, say that a child is bullied the day after a governors' meeting. The governors will not meet for another month. If that is escalated only to the governors, essentially, the people who will have to deal with it are the leadership team in the school. There needs to be consistency and clear policy, and it needs to be policed. Up to now, it has not been policed. I am not being critical; I welcome the approach. Bullying is an appalling thing. What new training will be available to make sure that the consistent approach of the new policy is being applied?
Ms Cuthbert: In the implementation of the Act, schools received training in relation to bullying and the Act itself. Prior to that, the schools had been working under the Effective Responses to Bullying Behaviour framework. The priority now needs to be on supporting schools to actively deal with bullying situations and put in the appropriate supports. Effective Responses to Bullying Behaviour is a levelled approach. It works from a low intervention whenever something arises, such as a difficulty in a friendship. That is the time when supports and interventions are most effective. It is about making sure that those are addressed. Further training and support will be provided to schools in the updated version of Effective Responses to Bullying Behaviour in light of the Act.
Mr Humphrey: Thanks very much, everybody. It is a hugely important issue. I suggest, Chair, that we, as a Committee, look at this over a given period to ensure that it is being policed and that the supports are being put in place for teachers — the leadership team in particular — and governors. It would be good as well, as you have said, Ricky — I would be interested in following up on this — if some research were done in order to get a corpus of information on how it is actually being applied.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Thanks for that suggestion, William. I agree: that is definitely a standing priority for the Education Committee to take forward.
Ms Brogan: Thanks, everyone, for your evidence here this morning. This is really positive news. I welcome the legislation; I think that most people will and should. As has been outlined, things have changed so much in the world in the years from when I was at school. We talked about cyberbullying, social media and all of that. It really is time for legislation to be updated. I am pleased about that.
Much of what I wanted to discuss has been discussed, but one thing that I want to pick up on is help for parents and families of children who have been bullied and children who have bullied. What engagement have you had with families around that issue? Is there anything in the legislation to help parents on either side of it?
Mr Irwin: Gillian, I invite you or Shauna to comment initially from an EA perspective, if that is OK.
Ms Cuthbert: It is essential that parents have a full understanding of what the Act means. I go back to what I said previously: they need to understand what the definition of bullying is and how it differs from unacceptable behaviour. If a child is experiencing either, the important thing is that something needs to be done to support or change that. We have created leaflets and information about the Act. We also have a video under way to explain the Act to parents. That will be converted into 11 different languages; we will try to get it spread out there. In addition, we have, through the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum, created a parent toolkit, which is a guide that contains advice and information. It looks at how you can support your young person, how you can communicate with the school and the complaints procedure. It gives practical tools to use at home. I know from the work that we have done, especially through the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum — I speak with parent network groups and do webinars etc — that it is about powerlessness. It is about how we support parents to be proactive and engage with the school, and about how we support both parties to come to a resolution. It is important that we work together. A lot of times it is thought that a punitive response is needed to sort a situation, whereas we are all aware that punitive measures do not change behaviour. It is about supporting the young people with a change in behaviour, understanding how their behaviour has impacted on others so that they can make the change, and then putting in those supports — well-being supports, self-esteem, peer mentoring groups — all those preventative and supportive measures that schools can provide in order to support young people and parents to find a resolution.
Mr Irwin: I will add to what Gillian has said, Nicola, about some of the other support mechanisms that the Department has put in place. Obviously, there is a health and well-being framework for education settings, which has a range of projects, some of which have started and some of which will start later next year. There is the counselling service and the work of the Anti-Bullying Forum and the resources that the Department provides to support that. There is also a safeguarding app that was launched during COVID. We are now working with the company to expand its functionality. That will include resources that parents, as well as pupils and schools, have access to in relation to not just safeguarding but bullying and dealing with bullying. There are a range of measures in place.
Ms Brogan: Thanks for that, Ricky. I am glad to hear that, because it is important that everyone works together and comes together. It is a really difficult time for parents on either side of it, whether they are coping with a child who is being bullied or a child who is bullying. It is really important that the support network is there for them.
Most of what I wanted to ask about has been touched on. The main thing was about training for school staff, which you have touched on. Thanks for the update; I really appreciate it. This is important legislation, and I fully support it.
Mr Irwin: That is right, Chris, yes.
Mr McNulty: Thank you, guys, for your important evidence. I ask very bluntly how many suicides among schoolchildren have been attributable to bullying over the last year. What figures do you have for that over the last year or over the last five years in relation to that horrific impact of bullying? We have had cases locally that have been devastating for the family and community.
Mr Irwin: Justin, I do not have that data with me. I will need to come back to you about that, if that is OK.
Mr McNulty: I appreciate that, Ricky.
Can you explain the discrepancy between the TIMS data and the Education Authority /Department of Education data in terms of the percentage of kids who have experienced bullying ? The TIMS data is around 28%, I believe, whereas the EA is at 42%. Why is there such a discrepancy?
Mr Irwin: Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to that one either, Justin. Do colleagues in the EA have any more information on that issue?
Ms Collinson: I wonder what data is being referred to. I am not aware. Apologies. We can come back to you if there is —.
Mr Irwin: Yes, we will follow up on that.
Ms Collinson: If there is a particular piece of data, we can absolutely come back with a response and clarify what the data refers to.
Mr McNulty: It is worrying that the international norm seems to be a lot lower than the norm here. That is of huge concern. I would like to understand why there is that discrepancy. I would be grateful if you could come back to me about that.
Which type of bullying do you feel is most prevalent now in schools? Is it physical, psychological, sexual or cyberbullying? What data do you have to support your understanding of that?
Mr Irwin: I invite EA colleagues to see whether they can give us some insight on that on the basis of their engagement with schools.
Ms Cuthbert: The only official data we have is from the 2011 'Nature and Extent of Pupil Bullying in Schools in the North of Ireland' report. At that point, it was still very much physical and verbal. However, we think that cyberbullying is greater. Obviously, name-calling and exclusion — leaving people out — is still one of the biggest challenges that we have. We have seen that extended now across into the cyberworld in the sense of young people being excluded from WhatsApp groups. It is no longer just about birthday parties etc, which we would have heard about; it is now very much online. That just highlights further that we need to have that information on the prevalence, nature and extent of bullying behaviour in Northern Ireland so that we can target those resources.
Mr McNulty: From all of you, I get your passion to address the issue, and I do not envy your task. You mentioned the importance of making educational places safer for staff and pupils so that they feel safe and secure. That is obviously essential, but how will you manage that? Given the prevalence of cybercommunication, trying to navigate that territory to protect all kids will be a total minefield and a major task. I wish you well in your objectives and aims to protect children, staff and parents.
You talked about the Online Safety Bill, which will obviously have to go through Westminster. How much control can be exerted and where does it need to be exerted to ensure the safety of children and young people online? It is well and good that a Bill will be passed by Westminster and carried forward by the Justice Minister here, but the social media companies need to take responsibility. To what extent do you believe that that has to happen?
Mr Irwin: Justin, as I mentioned, I fully support the DCMS Bill in that area. It is designed to tackle the companies that have online forums and social media sites. We clearly know the impact that harmful content has on everyone but on children and young people especially. We will work closely with our Executive colleagues and through the Department of Justice to provide whatever support and advice need to be provided to make sure that that Bill goes through. The online safety strategy that the Department of Health published in February is also important. I talked about that previously.
Culture is also important, and you will be pleased to hear me say the word "culture". It is about how we support schools to embed that culture to eradicate bullying. We know that the evidence shows that collaborative approaches work best: parents, pupils, teachers and boards of governors all working together in the school environment to make sure that there has been consultation on the policies, that the policies are strong and that there is a strong curricular approach. Colleagues who spoke before us talked about the preventative and curriculum aspects, and we fully support them in that. Suzanne Kingon also talked about how those aspects need to work hand in hand. That is also important. Training and development, the prevention strategies and the strategies on reporting and responding to bullying are also important. There is a series of things that need to work together to embed that culture in schools. That is our objective as part of this work.
Mr McNulty: Excellent, Ricky. That is music to my ears. It is a cultural piece, not just in education but in society. There has to be a zero-tolerance approach to bullying in every area of society.
Another interesting statistic that I would like to probe is that cyberbullying is much more likely to impact girls. Have you any data to support that?
Mr Irwin: From recollection, recent work was done by the National Children's Bureau (NCB) that helped to inform our health and well-being framework for schools. I do not want to be 100% on it — I would need to refer back to it — but I think that that work supports what you have just said about cyberbullying. It certainly indicated that cyberbullying was a growing problem for teenagers in schools. Cyberbullying can have a particularly negative impact on aspects of self-esteem for all children and young people, not just for girls. The evidence is there. We just need to make sure that we have the appropriate strategies in place to respond to it.
Mr McNulty: That has to be addressed post-haste.
Ricky, you said that:
"Behaviour is a form of communication".
I do not believe that bullies are inherently bad people, right? They are dealing with issues in their lives that are reflected in how they behave. On that point, schools keep records on every bullying issue, which is now administered essentially legislatively. For how long are those records kept?
Mr Irwin: There is guidance on that. We have child protection circulars, and there is advice out there with schools on how long records should be kept. I do not know the answer, but I am happy to come back to you with it.
Mr McNulty: Thank you very much for your evidence, and best wishes for your endeavours. Everybody is responsible for tackling bullying. I wish you well.
The Chairperson (Mr Lyttle): Is Maurice Bradley there? He is on the screen, but I am not sure whether his audio is working. Maurice, do you need to unmute your audio? If the audio returns, feel free to interrupt me and we will get you in for a final question.
Officials, I thank you for your briefing. As you can see from the discussion, it is an extremely important matter and a priority for the Education Committee. We look forward to staying in contact with you on it, and we wish you well with the long-anticipated implementation of the Act. Thank you.