Northern Ireland

Changes to proposed anti-bullying laws put forward by education committee

John O'Dowd
Image caption John O'Dowd wants the new legislation to become law before the assembly term ends in spring 2016

The Northern Ireland Assembly's education committee has recommended some changes to proposed new anti-bullying laws.

The Addressing Bullying in Schools Bill gives a legal definition of bullying.

It requires schools to record all incidents and makes boards of governors responsible for policies.

Education Minister John O'Dowd wants it to become law before the assembly term ends in spring 2016.

In the 2014 Kids Life and Times survey, more than a fifth of Primary 7 pupils said that they had been physically bullied.

Earlier research carried out in 2011 found that four-in-10 Year 6 pupils and three-in-10 Year 9 pupils had been bullied in the previous two months.

In the same study, carried out for the Department of Education, around a fifth of children in both Year 6 and Year 9 admitted they had bullied someone else.

Image caption The committee spent two months taking evidence on the bill from 16 organisations and school focus groups

The committee's report on the bill calls for an amendment to its definition of bullying and new powers for school boards of governors to tackle cyber-bullying in certain circumstances.

Concerns

They spent two months taking evidence on the bill from 16 organisations and school focus groups.

While all broadly welcomed the proposed legislation, many raised concerns about some aspects of it.

The legislation will apply to bullying between pupils only, and includes incidents of bullying:

  • in schools
  • while pupils are travelling to or from school
  • while under the care of school staff
  • when pupils are using school equipment

As a result, the bill does not make provision for a school to get involved in allegations of cyber-bullying between pupils, if it does not take place in school.

However, school pupils who gave evidence to the committee "were particularly concerned about the extent of cyber-bullying, which they thought could be more damaging than other forms, due to the potential for a large number of witnesses and due to its permanence".

Image caption The majority of the committee agreed that boards of governors should be given more powers to tackle cyber-bullying if it was affecting a pupil's education

In their evidence, the Department of Education said cyber-bullying was a "particularly complex legal area" and that "placing specific cyber-bullying requirements on schools... will only serve to increase both the administrative burden on schools and their exposure to legal challenge".

'Emotional harm'

As a result, a majority of the committee agreed that boards of governors should be given more powers to tackle cyber-bullying if it was affecting a pupil's education.

The bill also provides a legal definition of bullying as: "The repeated and intentional use of a verbal, written or electronic communication or a physical act," or a combination of those, "by a pupil or group of pupils, against another pupil or group of pupils, with the intention of causing physical or emotional harm to that pupil or group of pupils."

Image caption The committee said the definition should be amended so that schools could choose to classify one-off incidents as bullying

A number of organisations, including the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People and the National Association of Head Teachers, said the definition should include "single acts" of bullying.

In their report, the committee said the definition should be amended, so that schools could choose to classify one-off incidents as bullying.

'League tables'

Some experts and teaching organisations also expressed concern that the new laws require schools to keep records of all bullying incidents.

They told the committee that this could create "league tables" of bullying incidents among schools.

However, the committee agreed with the Department of Education that this was unlikely, and that "reputational damage to schools was of secondary consideration, compared to the need to address bullying in schools robustly".

The bill now moves on to the consideration stage.