UAE schools have been urged to do more to protect children after a major international survey found nearly a third are regularly targeted by bullies.
Surveys of thousands of pupils, carried out as part of global research run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, found that 31 per cent of UAE pupils said they were a victim of some form of bullying at least a few times a month – eight points higher than the average across other developed countries.
Meanwhile, just 77 per cent of 15-year-olds in the UAE agreed that it “is a wrong thing to join in bullying”, well below the OECD average of 88 per cent.
Experts said they believed there may well be a link between the above-average bullying figures and other concerning statistics about pupils’ mental health.
One in 10 of the UAE teenagers reported “always feeling sad”, well above the global average of six per cent. Just 61 per cent said they were satisfied with their lives, compared to the global average of 67 per cent.
Policies have been put in place by national education chiefs to clamp down on bullying, Sarah Almarzooqi, a psychologist at Al Jalila Children's Specialty Hospital in Dubai, said. These include the roll-out of a new child protection unit to clamp down on bullying and abuse.
However, she said more should be done to make sure these were enforced consistently at school level and highlighted the devastating impact bullying could have.
“Bullying as a problem does exist,” she said. “Especially if it’s repeated, bullying affects a child’s academic performance, attention during school and also mental health. When they go home, they can isolate themselves and blame themselves for being bullied.
“Kids from a very young age can be taught about bullying, why it is wrong and what to do if they see it happens. So start of the solution is to implement this.
“Schools should be speaking about bullying, identifying it, talking about different types and supporting that with very clear policies, at the same time as emphasising good values like acceptance, tolerance, looking after each other.”
The findings were reported as part of the Pisa research, which analysed the academic abilities and attitudes of more than 600,000 pupils worldwide last year. The findings were published in December.
In a report about what school life means for students lives, the UAE was praised for improving classroom behaviour between 2009, the first year the country took part, and last year.
However, more than one in four UAE pupils (26 per cent) still said there was “noise and disorder” in most or all lessons. Just under one in three said there was never or hardly ever noise and disorder in classes.
A direct link was found across the world between rates of bullying and classroom disorder, so improving discipline could also help improve student happiness and reduce bullying rates, Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said.
“I think the high rates of bullying are directly related to the feelings of dissatisfaction and sadness, so if there are higher incidences of being bullied it does not surprise me that students feel bad,” she said.
“If we can get classrooms under control we can get bullying under control to a degree at least, and thereby hopefully increase students well-being.”
More detailed analysis of the UAE figures that have been published would be useful, she said, but her foundation’s own investigations had detected particular issues in government boys’ schools related to behaviour.
She said ensuring teachers were supported to create “safe and calm” classrooms, and that areas such as toilets were monitored by staff, could help, as well as paying more attention to mental health of students and ensuring staff could spot warning signs by putting them through training programmes.
“In our own research looking at government schools, boys frequently describe lessons where the teacher does not have control of the classroom,” Dr Ridge said. “This is also borne out by teachers who report feeling that they do not have control in the classroom and feel not supported in terms of exercising discipline.
“The boys will be boys mantra is still quite strong within many communities and this leads to more relaxed approach to classroom order in boys’ schools.”
When it announced its child protection unit, the UAE Ministry of Education acknowledged significant bullying rates, saying a quarter of all pupils were bullied, using different data to the Pisa research. It said this was lower than international averages of one in three pupils, but said it would not be complacent in tackling the issue.
Workshops for parents and new training for staff are among other measures designed to deal with the problem.