Anti-Bullying Bill introduced

Education Minister, John O’Dowd MLA hopes to pass legislation before the Executive’s mandate expires.

Education Minister, John O’Dowd MLA has introduced a Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly that will attempt to bring about an end to bullying in schools.

The legislation will provide a legal definition of bullying, introduce a requirement for schools to record all incidents of bullying and require every school’s Board of Governors to take direct responsibility for developing and monitoring the effectiveness of Anti-Bullying policy and practice within schools.

 

Definition

The Bill defines bullying as the repeated use of verbal, written or electronic communication or a physical act by a pupil or groups of pupils against another pupil or group of pupils, that is designed to cause physical or emotional harm.

Speaking as he introduced the bill to the Assembly, Minister O’Dowd said: “I am delighted that this Bill is now on the way to becoming law. Addressing bullying in schools is an issue which has always attracted widespread interest and support from MLAs across all parties and I know many of my colleagues, in particular those on the education committee are as pleased as I am to see this Bill come to the floor of the Assembly.”

Whilst the Minister acknowledges that bullying is a commonly understood concept, he claims that having a clear common definition will help schools, parents and pupils to recognise when bullying is occurring and will support more consistent practice across all of our schools.  

The recording of incidents will help schools to monitor the scale of the problem and how effective they are in addressing incidents. Placing a duty of care on each Board of Governors will increase their focus on the issue and encourage the use of best practice within each school. 

“Young people are working hard to achieve their best and it is absolutely wrong when their efforts are undermined by bullying in any of its forms,” said O’Dowd. “Over 4,200 young people chose to share their views on bullying as part of the public consultation on this issue earlier this year. I hope that as the bill makes its passage through the Assembly, I and my Assembly colleagues can demonstrate we have heard what they said and we agree with their unequivocal view that addressing bullying in schools must be a priority.” 

School’s responsibility

The Bill also places an onus on the Board of Governors in grant-aided schools to ensure that policies designed to prevent bullying among pupils registered at the school are pursued at the school; determine the measures to be taken at the school, with a view to preventing bullying involving registered pupils on school premises while travelling to and from school and while the pupil is in the lawful control or charge of a member of staff of the school. 

The Bill also requires each Board of Governors to prepare a written statement detailing such measures and ensure that a copy of the statement is made freely available to parents of all registered pupils at the school, staff of the school and that copies of the statement are available for inspection at the school at all reasonable times.  

Similarly, the Bill requires the Board of Governors of grant-aided schools to ensure that a record is kept of all incidents or alleged incidents of bullying involving a registered pupil at the school while the pupil is traveling to and from school, on school premises and while the pupil is in the lawful control of a member of the school’s staff. 

Important and timely

In September 2013 the Minister invited the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF) to carry out a review of existing legislation, policy, guidance and practice in Northern Ireland in relation to bullying in schools. Speaking following the introduction of the Bill, the Chairman of the NIABF, Noel Purdy welcomed it and praised the department for its work in helping schools tackle this problem area. 

“This comprehensive review was submitted to the Minister in December 2013 and identified four areas most urgently requiring attention,” he said. “First, the need for an agreed definition of bullying that would be the cornerstone of a school’s detailed anti-bullying policy; second, the need for schools to record details of bullying centrally; third, an urgent need for additional training and resources to be made available to schools as they seek to address new and complex forms of bullying in particular; and fourth, there was agreement that an evidence-based approach to addressing bullying must be adopted at all times based on international research and best practice.

“Bullying is not just a problem for a handful of schools in Northern Ireland; it is an issue in every school in every country in the world. NIABF would like to welcome the Bill in broad terms as an important and timely step forward in DE’s work to support schools in their efforts to address bullying. 

“A single, common definition of bullying for use in all schools in Northern Ireland, will help to promote a consistency of understanding, approaching and response to bullying behaviour experienced by pupils.”  

Internationally, there is now widespread agreement that there are three core components to the definition of bullying behaviour which distinguish it from all other forms of aggressive behaviour. These are:

1.   An intention to harm;

2.   A repetition of the behaviour;

3.   There is an imbalance of power as the victim finds it difficult to defend him/herself. 

The Bill introduced to the Assembly does not include a reference to the imbalance of power. The department of education feels that such a reference could make it difficult for schools to determine what is classed as bullying and as such, the department fears, incidents could be missed.  

However, Purdy believes this is a mistake and one he hopes he will be able to convince the Minister to change his mind on. “The proposed Bill doesn’t seem to address the issue of the imbalance of power,” he said. “Whilst we welcome a single, common definition of bullying for use in all schools in Northern Ireland the definition must be robust and include the three key elements that characterise bullying behaviour. I look forward to meeting with Minister in the months ahead to ensure the agreed definition of bullying is robust.”

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