Minister, Board Members, ladies and gentlemen I would like to thank Carmel McKinney for her kind words of introduction, and also David Cargo for going out of his way to share the findings of this report with me at an early stage.
I believe the issues raised in this report are fundamental to the welfare of children and young people in Belfast. I welcome the report – I believe it poses challenges for pupils, for parents, for all those working in schools and indeed for the local community as a whole. These are hard challenges but we simply have to rise to meet them.
School is the place where children spend the majority of their time outside the home. School can provide the springboard for career, for developing life skills and gaining cultural and sporting interests that last a lifetime. School teachers can be the key influence in giving young people a glimpse of their potential.
I say school can do these things, because it is obvious that for many young people that is not currently their experience. I was recently chatting with a group of teenagers all of whom had been in trouble with the criminal justice system, many of them had been in care, and a number were still wrestling with drugs. In other words a group of high risk taking young people who definitely feature in some of the tables in this report as being at the serious end of the behaviour continuum.
I asked them how they viewed their school days. The answer was almost universally negative. Some had started off enjoying school, but had particularly struggled when they transferred from primary school. They felt marginalized, bullied, and misunderstood, and felt the curriculum was largely irrelevant. As a result they played up, behaved badly, and ended up with suspensions or exclusions.
Now these young people were not suggesting they had no responsibility for their own actions. Rather they felt that their choices were limited within a downward spiral, and it was very hard to break out and start climbing up again. In many cases attempts by adults to intervene just came too late to make a difference to their school days and they are now having to rebuild their lives.
I would like to highlight a few key messages that as Commissioner for Children and Young People I take from this report:
The first message is that we must intervene early to help children at risk of developing very serious behavioural problems. One of the most shocking statistics in this report is that within nursery schools some 52% of children are already showing mild moderate or serious behavioural problems. That means we need to look at much more effective support for parents through programmes like Sure Start before children go to nursery, and we must provide much greater support and training to nursery teachers in responding to bad behaviour.
My second message is that we must change the culture of schools to being more inclusive. Of course this is not something you can switch on and off like a light. It is not about just announcing one day “No more suspensions or exclusions – schools will just have to grin and bear it”. That is a recipe for disaster, as those pupils with better behaviour will just suffer while those with bad behaviour run riot. No, what we have to do is support schools and teachers so that they can develop new approaches to keep children engaged. This is hard work, but I know the BELB realise that.
I believe inclusion also means a new attitude towards pupils. An attitude that recognises they have a stake in their own education, and need to be given a chance to influence it. There is a lot of evidence that shows the most effective way to eliminate bullying and violence in schools is to work with pupils through approaches like peer mentoring and counselling to help solve the problem.
We need to give pupils the chance to change the environment of their own school. We should ask them what bugs them most about the way the school is run. Ask them what aggravates bad behaviour most. I guarantee responding to the answers you get will make things better. I am personally committed as Children’s Commissioner to helping schools respond more to pupils views.
My third and final message that I take from this report is that the BELB cannot achieve this alone – and the good thing is they recognise that! Bad behaviour is aggravated by deprivation and poverty – as the report says most of the 10 schools with the highest rates of suspension are in the most deprived wards in Northern Ireland. Bad behaviour is an issue for the home and parenting. Bad behaviour is influenced by diet. Children with the most serious behaviour problems are often known to Social Services and the Police. Bad behaviour is not just in school but also in youth clubs, in local shops, and in the community.
So we do need a more comprehensive strategy involving all the different agencies. I was struck by the list in Appendix 11 to this report of all rich and varied work on behaviour problems in school contributed by the voluntary sector to – but much of it is uncoordinated, with limited funding, and working to differing priorities. We cannot afford to waste resources and have young people suffer. We have to work together.
In summary, let’s intervene early, let’s promote genuine inclusion through listening to children and young people, and let’s have a comprehensive strategy. The young people of Belfast deserve no less, and I will be watching closely to see if we as a community can deliver on the recommendations in this landmark report.
For further information and a copy of the report go the Belfast Education and Library Board web site.