Question Time: Education Tuesday 23 June 2015

New anti-bullying legislation will help address online safety concerns for school age children. That was the message delivered by Education Minister, John O’Dowd, during today’s Question Time. Concerns about cyberbullying and online safety were expressed in light of recent tragedies. The proposed Bill will give a legal definition to bullying for the first time stating that “bullying is the repeated and intentional use of physical, verbal, electronic, written or psychological acts, or omissions, or any combination thereof by one or more pupils against a pupil or group of pupils with the intention of causing hurt, harm, fear, distress or adversely affecting the rights or needs of that pupil or group of pupils.” The legislation will put a duty on boards of governors to have a robust anti-bullying policy in place and take all measures possible to eradicate bullying and support victims. In terms of online safety the Safeguarding Board has been working with a number of Departments and has agreed terms of reference on bringing forward a strategy. Mr O’Dowd added “It is a very difficult area both for schools and parents. As the recent tragic events have shown us, criminals can reach young people from thousands of miles away, with disastrous impacts on children and their families. We will continue to work across a range of agencies and areas to do our best to protect our young people when they are online.”

Joanne Dobson then asked the Minister about his decision to review and overrule his Department’s decision on an application for temporary variation enrolment for St Paul’s school in County Armagh but not on neighbouring Markethill High school. Temporary variations are when a school is permitted to enrol more pupils than is set out by the Department for a grand-aided school in any given year in accordance with the Education Order 1997. Temporary variations may be granted to address short-term demographic pressures in a particular area. The Minister argued that in this particular case he had been “misrepresented in the media” saying “I have set out quite clearly why I approved the places in St Paul's, and there is a clear rationale behind that. I have set out quite clearly where I turned down the places at Markethill High School, and there is a clear rationale behind that as well.” The Minister added “I do not focus my work on orange and green. I focus my work on what the policy dictates, the needs of the children who apply and the impact that that has on the wider area. I am not going to get into a media fight over it. The facts speak for themselves. If people deal with the facts, there is a clear rationale. If people wish to spin those facts, I cannot stop that, but if they sit down and look at the simple facts of the case, they can see that the decisions are defensible. They were the right decisions to make, and if I had to make them again in the morning, I would make the same decisions.”

The Minister also answered questions on primary school new-builds, area based planning, crèche places, the Early Years Fund and the number of teaching posts being suppressed as part of the Voluntary Exit Scheme.

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