Speech on Violence in Schools

Here's the speech I'd intended to deliver in Parliament's debate on violence in schools. I only managed to get part of the way through due to Tory MSPs intervening in response to what I was saying about the experience of LGBTQ young people. Their outrage when I raised the experiences of queer young people was quite revealing.

Thank you Presiding Officer,


I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see the Conservatives break from their tradition for opposition education debates and propose something today which is genuinely constructive –

And which gives Parliament an important opportunity to discuss a really serious issue.


As today’s motion says, every young person and member of school staff has the right to a school day uninterrupted by violence and disruption.

But clearly that isn’t the reality for everyone.

Last year’s report on Life in Scotland for LGBT young people certainly confirmed that.

Seven in ten gay and lesbian young people have been bullied at school.

For bisexual and trans young people it is just under six in ten.

The percentage of queer young people who feel confident reporting this bullying in schools has plummeted in the last decade to just one in four.

One in five trans young people surveyed was forced to leave school, college or university as a result of the bullying and bigotry they faced.


It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the situation for many trans pupils in our schools is getting worse rather than better.

Some Members of this Parliament, including those condemning bullying in our schools, need to seriously re-examine your own conduct over the last few years and consider the consequences when you dehumanise trans people and question the very validity of their existence.

What did you think was going to happen?

This is the result.


There are wider lessons to learn from the progress which has been made towards our schools being LGBTQ-inclusive though.

The motion and government amendment both mention the importance of recording instances of violence and disruption.

Importantly, the Cabinet Secretary’s amendment specifically mentions the need to accurately report these instances.

The Time for Inclusive Education campaign brought the issue of reporting to the fore when they made the point that the number of recorded instances which mentioned a protected characteristic like sexuality was far lower than the number of instances which queer young people were reporting to them.

It was clear that schools were reporting instances of bullying and violence where bigotry was the motivating factor without including that key information.

I suspect that this is the case with misogynistic violence against young women and girls as well, where a report of any kind has even been made – and I’ll come back to that point in a moment.


I believe that Fife Council have developed a robust system for accurately reporting instances of bullying and harassment in their schools and would encourage the government and COSLA to engage with them on what the rest of the country could learn from this approach.

This may well make for an appropriate agenda item at the upcoming summit.


Given the consensus today about the importance of collecting accurate data, I again have to ask MSPs who spent months undermining the pupil Health & Wellbeing census to take a moment to think about the impact their opportunism has had.

Last year’s census was undoubtedly badly impacted, and the response rate lowered as a result of the manufactured culture war nonsense pushed by those who should absolutely know better.

Leaving us with less of exactly the kind of data we need to tackle this problem.

Glasgow Health & Wellbeing Census report shows that around 12% of P5-S3 pupils have been physically hurt by a bully in the last year –

But the city only had a 51% response rate.

Valuable data on the experiences of our children and young people was lost to political opportunism last year.

I hope those responsible will reflect on that.



We all received a briefing from Zero Tolerance Scotland ahead of this debate, reminding us of how horrifyingly commonplace it is for young women and girls to be survivors of sexual violence at school.

Two in three have experienced sexual harassment in school in the last year.

A third know another girl who has experienced rape or sexual assault.

And one in five do not feel safe in school.


This by no means explains all of it, but one of the causes of violence against women and girls in schools is that generation after generation of boys and men have received some kind of sex and relationship education which did not focus on the principle of consent –

And in many cases did not include education on consent at all.

Last session’s education committee inquiry into Personal and Social Education in schools was the very first thing I proposed when I was first elected.

Our report concluded that consent is clearly not covered consistently in PSE.

If we want to eradicate rape culture from our schools, it is essential that every young person learns about the principle of consent.

I’m glad that in response to that report the Scottish Government initiated its own review and is now almost finished producing refreshed guidance for the delivery of Relationships and Sexual Health Education – which I expect will centre consent in all RSHE teaching.


A zero-tolerance approach to violence in schools, especially gender-based violence and bigoted attacks – is not mutually exclusive with recognising that the children and young people responsible for these attacks are often in desperate need of help themselves.

We know the link between adverse childhood experiences and social, emotional and behavioural issues.

And we recognise that precarious housing situations, living with adults suffering from addiction issues, experiencing poverty and plenty of other situations in childhood are an adverse experience.

So it would be wrong to pretend that we can tackle the issue of violence in schools without tackling the much wider challenges which so many children are facing.

Stronger punishments – much as they may be appropriate – are not a solution.

One area where I’m glad we are making progress and which will have a positive knock-on effect to this issue is in the provision of mental health counselling in schools.

Every child experiencing problems with their mental health isn’t going to lash out physically but again, we recognise the link.

With those services expanding the last three six-monthly reports have seen ten thousand, then twelve thousand, then fourteen and a half thousand pupils accessing the service.

The demand was always there, it is just finally being met.


Before finishing I need to point out that the Conservatives’ motion, well intentioned as it is, does not mention young people as one of the groups to work with to tackle violence in our schools.

I’m sure it was just an oversight, but it is essential that young people are active participants in these discussions, not just the topic of conversation.

A point I am glad to say is reflected in the government’s amendment.