Opinionista Michael Workman 13 May 2021

The formal and hidden curriculum: Bullying poisons the schooling well and must be addressed

Bullying is always a problem at all ages, from extremely young children to adults. This is a reality, and the fact is that in life there will always be bullies. The real problem is the magnitude and severity of the situation, and how schools deal with it.

As parents we all want our children to feel comfortable and fit in at school. We wish for them to have lots of friends and above all to be kind to everyone. This I believe is fundamental to their wellbeing and happiness. Children need to grow up in schools and homes where they feel safe and are nurtured. This is indicative that real learning is taking place. Happy schools equate to happy parents and teachers and, overall, happy children.

I clearly remember when I was headmaster of a school in Durban, and some of the parents were rather critical. They would often tell me the only good thing about our school was that our children were happy! If only they knew then how important this factor was going to be in moulding their children’s futures.

The children I taught have now grown somewhat. These fairly “youngish” adults recently invited me to a Zoom reunion. It was really fantastic to see them and chat to some of them and, judging from letters I have received, there was not one ex-student that had not already achieved something great in their 30+ years of life. 

Bullying is always a problem at all ages, from extremely young children to adults. This is a reality, and the fact is that in life there will always be bullies. The real problem is the magnitude and severity of the situation. 

When I heard about the tragic death of Grade 10 pupil Lufuno Mavhunga only a few weeks ago because of a bullying incident that led her to take her own life, I was horrified. Without prejudice, I believe there is something radically wrong with the culture of the school she attended. As I am not too familiar with the actual events I do not want to speculate but, suffice to say, it is a great tragedy to lose any life, especially that of a child.  

The culture of a school is formed by both the “formal curriculum” (FC) and the “hidden curriculum” (HC). The way teaching is delivered and the role of the teacher in setting real-life examples of good manners and behaviour are essential. The way children care for each other by being friendly and kind to one another, these are all good values that should echo throughout the school. 

A good school should speak to you and have a presence. It has no secrets. Above all, a great school should be a happy school. 

However, if things go slightly off-key with the FC, such as the negative impact a new enrolment may have in the class, or the way a teacher talks down to a child and believes that he/she is superior to the child, then these issues will start to filter through to the HC. The HC is where your true values are located. Inasmuch as it is always difficult to evaluate the HC because you cannot quantify values such as love or passion, it would be prudent to make regular observations and record these in an incident book. Once documented, this information would certainly assist in identifying possible bullies and victims.

For example, the little girl who sits alone under a tree at break time on her own, or the Grade 7 boy who takes a football from a Grade 3 boy. Simple statistics such as finding the mean, mode and rate of occurrences in a given time would definitely help in identifying bullies.  

Bullying is not new. Adriana Vorster, in her master’s mini dissertation on bullying, says it’s been around for about 250 years. Dan Olweus, the worldwide guru on this subject, argues that bullying is “the poison to the educational environment and affects the learning of every child”.

In 1982 three boys in Norway, aged between 10 and 14, committed suicide because they were allegedly bullied so severely at school. In response to this, Olweus developed the highly successful Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) – 2,500 people took the course and bullying had been reduced by 50% two years later. It was so successful that the UK and America have adopted the OBPP.

The programme claims that “the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program is designed to improve peer relations and make schools safer, more positive places for students to learn and develop”. Goals of the programme include reducing existing bullying problems among students and preventing the development of new bullying problems.

Although I am not an advocate of using foreign policies in education, if they are contextualised for South African schools and implemented appropriately, they might just prevent another child suffering from what appears to be nothing more than the antithesis of what schools are all about: happy places where children can learn and socialise.

We cannot lose the life of another child under such awful and unnecessary circumstances again. DM

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