Bullying in schools being monitored closely: MOE

Ms Natalie Chua, 25, remembers being ostracised by her group of six friends after a dispute with one of them in Secondary 1. That episode was one of the reasons why she transferred to another school in Sec 3. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

The Ministry of Education (MOE) will continue to monitor the situation of bullying in schools closely, said Madam Ng Chen Kee, director of the ministry's student development curriculum division.

"MOE does not tolerate bullying," she said in response to queries from The Sunday Times, adding that school personnel have also been alerted to give attention to and address "even small, hurtful behaviours, such as students making fun of or excluding others".

Efforts to heighten awareness of bullying in schools and provide better resources are ongoing, she said. These include providing accessible channels so that students can safely report bullying cases, such as dedicated online platforms, and promptly investigating and following up on reported cases.

An educational approach is also adopted to help all students, including bystanders, learn from bullying incidents and prevent further incidents.

At the same time, Dr Poon Chew Leng, MOE's divisional director of research and management information, noted that the OECD report includes an advisory on the need to exercise caution when interpreting cross-country comparisons based on the scale used in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study.

Specifically, Pisa found that students may have interpreted the questions and corresponding responses differently, and verbal and relational bullying - where harm is caused by name-calling or damaging someone's relationships or social status - are more subjective categories that are dependent on students' perceptions of interpersonal relations.

Cultural differences also play a part, she said. For instance, students from different cultures may or may not see "being left out of things" as a form of bullying.

Still, clinical psychologist Carol Balhetchet said that verbal and relational bullying can have a huge emotional impact on young people.

Being ostracised, in particular, is "one of the worst things" that can happen to teenagers, as the teenage years are vital periods when core social skills are learnt through friendships.

Whether teachers will be able to successfully intervene when there is bullying also boils down to the relationship they have with their students, said Ms Lena Teo, deputy director for therapy and mental wellness services at the Children-At-Risk Empowerment Association.

Ms Natalie Chua, who was ostracised by her group of six friends after a dispute with one of them in Secondary 1, said that the episode was one of the reasons why she transferred to another school in Sec 3.

"I remembered not looking forward to recess because I didn't have any friends to sit with, and I would make up all kinds of excuses to avoid facing the loneliness and shame at school," said the 25-year-old, who is starting a PhD programme in clinical psychology.

She has since patched things up with her old friend, and said that it is important for victims of bullying to have support systems to turn to.

"When bullying takes place verbally and emotionally, it's hard to see it, so it can be hard to truly gauge and understand how much a person is suffering inside," she said.

Yuen Sin

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline Bullying in schools being monitored closely: MOE. Subscribe