We risk criminalising children

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This summer, two legislative changes have slipped by schools unnoticed which could lead to the criminalisation of vulnerable children. Dr Hilary Emery explains.

In June, two potential legislative changes took place that will directly involve and affect schools and have serious implications for them and their students on many levels – yet amazingly, these were almost unnoticed by school leaders and teachers.

The first was the passing of an amendment to extend injunction powers to headteachers. The second was a proposal to include bullying within the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill guidance. It’s not really surprising schools did not react, as there appears to have been little to no consultation with school leaders or teachers’ unions.

We strongly oppose changes to legislation which are essentially condoning the criminalising of children. These changes run a real, tangible risk of unnecessarily drawing children – many for the first time – into the criminal justice system.

While an injunction alone does not equal a criminal record, breaching an injunction often does; with current statistics showing that seven out of 10 children breach their anti-social behaviour orders, with 40 per cent of these cases resulting in imprisonment.

The proposals appear to overlook the huge effect this will have on vulnerable children, those which statistics demonstrate are regularly given anti-social behaviour orders. Under the proposals, children with mental health problems and learning difficulties, who are often the recipients of, and most susceptible to, bullying run a real danger of being confronted with the criminal justice system without the provision of a health and welfare assessment.

The successful amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill to extend injunction powers to headteachers, was voted through at committee stage with 10 votes to eight, and alarmingly, will remain standing unless an amendment is tabled to exclude it at a later stage.

The implications of this potential change are huge – we will see headteachers gaining powers on par with a chief police officer, local authority or the secretary of state, a power most headteachers will undoubtedly shy away from, as it places them on the front line not only within their school but within the wider community.

There are already laws in place which can be used if deemed necessary. Schools are bound by legislation under the Education and Inspections Act, which states that they must encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying among pupils as part of the school’s behaviour policy, it also gives headteachers the ability to discipline pupils for poor behaviour even when the pupil is not on school premises.

While it is true that bullying in itself is not a specific criminal offence in the UK, it is important to bear in mind that some types of harassing or threatening behaviour – or communications – are. While we must be rigorous in ensuring that schools and public bodies fulfil their legal duty to prevent and respond to bullying – there is already legislation in place and we urge government to use these existing laws when schools fall short of the mark, rather than employing potentially damaging judicial orders.

Bullying cannot be seen as a one-dimensional issue which can be “cured” by making drastic changes to criminalise perpetrators. To treat it as such would be to ignore the complex, subjective nature of bullying behaviour; overlooking factors such as pressure from peer groups, school and social cultures and those vulnerable children who are both subject to bullying behaviour, and bully others.

An investment in evidence-based anti-bullying programmes is essential – programmes which bring about enduring change and work directly with those effected by bullying, young people, families and communities, to confront and combat bullying at the source. We urge government to listen to the voice of the wider anti-bullying sector in this matter, to continue to invest in what works, and not to inadvertently harm the very children they seek to protect.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk


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