Northern Ireland

Anti-bullying law 'could create league tables among schools'

Stormont Education Committee
Image caption The Stormont Education Committee heard that there are concerns about how figures on bullying incidents would be used

There are concerns new anti-bullying laws could create "league tables" of bullying incidents among schools, a Stormont committee has heard.

The comments were made by Dr Noel Purdy, of the Northern Ireland Anti-Bullying Forum (NIABF), to the education committee.

He was giving evidence on the "Addressing Bullying in Schools" bill.

It gives a legal definition of bullying and requires schools to record all incidents.

It also makes boards of governors responsible for policies.

Many organisations, including NIABF, have welcomed the proposed new laws.

However, there are concerns about some of the implications of the new legislation.

'Unhelpful'

UUP MLA Sandra Overend asked Dr Purdy whether a "league table of schools" could be created if they had to record all bullying incidents.

Dr Purdy said that while the benefits of recording all incidents outweighed the disadvantages, there were concerns about how the information could be used.

Image caption Dr Noel Purdy said that it would be a 'very good thing' if the number of bullying incidents reported went up

"What we wouldn't want to see is unhelpful Freedom of Information requests being granted and league tables appearing in local papers about this," he said.

"I don't think that would be a helpful situation for anybody."

However, Dr Purdy said that pupils should always be encouraged to report incidents of bullying to their teachers.

If that happened, he said, "the official statistics that are being submitted will go up, but in many ways that's a very good thing".

'Responsibility'

While the bill, in its proposed definition, makes reference to bullying through "electronic communication", the statutory guidance is expected to state that the basis for a school to tackle cyber-bullying is limited.

Dr Purdy agreed with that guidance as most incidents take place "out of school hours, at home, at the weekend and so on".

"No school that I'm aware of would want the responsibility of any cyber-bullying incident 24/7," he said.

Dr Purdy also expressed concern that there was no reference to an imbalance of power in the bill's definition of bullying.

The committee also heard evidence from the Children's Law Centre and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) on the proposed legislation.

Education Minister John O'Dowd hopes the bill will become law before the assembly term ends in spring 2016.

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