17 December 1998

Schools have role in preventing bullying by boys

Playground bullying by boys could be reduced if schools placed a greater priority on the their social development, according to a University of Queensland researcher.

Dr Martin Mills believes schools should assume responsibility for programs aimed at breaking down attitudes which have led boys to believe bullying and violence were acceptable.

Dr Mills recently graduated from the University after completing his PhD: Challenging Violence in Schools: Disruptive Moments in the Educational Politics of Masculinity.

He is concerned the recent "what about the boys" debate in education had the potential to shift the focus away from making sure the school environment was equally safe and constructive for both sexes.

"The issues of violence can be side-tracked by this focus on boys as victims. Some boys are victims, but the people who are making them victims tend to be boys," Mr Mills said.

Much of Dr Mills' research was conducted during his participation in programs aimed at tackling the issues of bullying and violence at two high schools, one in Brisbane and the other on the Sunshine Coast hinterland.

The programs involved grade nine and grade 11 classes at the Brisbane school and a grade 12 class at the Sunshine Coast school.

While Education Queensland requires schools to tackle the issues as part of its Human Relationships Education (HRE), many teachers believe that the "core business" of schooling is academic education, Dr Mills found.

"There are a number of ways in which the schools can tackle the problem, and one of those ways has been through the HRE curriculum, which isn't enough," he said.

"Schools have to make it an issue they want to deal with, not just within marginalised parts of the school curriculum, which was what was happening at both the schools. At one of the schools the boys moved to remove it from the HRE framework, with great success.

"It became a whole school thing and I think that's what needs to happen as part of the culture of the schools, you can't lock it away, tick it off, say ?we have done it.'"

Literature about bullying issued by Education Queensland often did not identify bullying as a gender issue, and treated the student responsible as the only problem.

"Clearly, it is a problem, but it's not looking at the wider context of the ways in which particular masculinity's are reinforced and encouraged," he said.

"Boys need to be equipped in a broader sense and if the schools don't do that it has consequences for some boys and for girls," he said.

Dr Mills said schools should not tolerate homophobia, which needed to be seen as a form of sexual harassment. "You need to look at teacher attitudes, it can be a problem when teachers say things to boys like ?don't be a girl,'" he said.

Subjects such as physics, which were seen as highly valued, were most often studied by boys, while girls tended to history, where social issues were examined, he said.

"What happens is that girls tend to be exposed to subjects that see the world in complex ways, whereas boys tend to see things in terms of something being the absolute truth," Dr Mills said.

He said victimisation and bullying was often experienced by boys who excelled in subjects such as English. There was often an attitude that if you liked English you were not masculine, and that needed to be challenged at schools.

The emphasis on sport was another way in which boys were taught inflexible attitudes at school, because it tended to devalue activities such as drama, he said.

"Sport is often good and healthy, but you have to ask why, at mixed schools, have you got the boys' football team parading across the assembly, rather than the girls' netball team."

Dr Mills said one of the dilemmas of a program at one of the schools he studied revolved around whether it was necessary for a male teacher to be involved as a role model for the students.

"In most cases nothing would have happened if women hadn't been involved,
but men do have to take responsibility for being involved in changing boys' attitudes towards violence," he said.

For more information, contact Dr Mills (telephone 07 3365 6484 work, or 3207 0253 home)