Reality check: Are SA pupils the ‘most bullied’ in the world?

Comments 1

South African pupils are “the most bullied kids in the world”, according to the country’s education minister. The Africa Check team sharpened their pencils to verify the claim.

Marking the start of a departmental programme to promote safety in schools, the department of basic education minister, Angie Motshekga, received a symbolic torch of peace from her counterpart in the department of transport, Dipuo Peters.

Speaking to media and delegates, Motshekga said that “we’ve just received our reports of international assessments and those reports tell us that South African kids are the most bullied kids in the world”.

Motshekga added, “studies say kids who are bullied don’t perform well in school because they are depressed, they have low self-esteem and they are just generally unhappy”.

Does the data really show that South African pupils are most bullied? A South African youth advocacy organisation asked us to look into the minister’s statement.

SA’s grade 5 & 9 pupils assessed

Children walking to schools in Lusikisiki, Eastern Cape. Photo: Department of Communications

Motshekga was referring to the findings of the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) from 2015, the department of basic education’s media liaison officer, Elijah Mhlanga, told Africa Check.

The study, conducted every 4 years, provides participating countries with the means to compare pupil performance in maths and science.  

It also collects data on other factors that can affect learning including school resources, student attitudes, teaching methods and support at home.

Tests were given to Grade 4 and Grade 8 pupils in most of the countries that took part in the study. However, Grade 5 pupils were tested in South Africa and Norway, and Grade 9 pupils were tested in Botswana, Norway and South Africa.

‘Made fun of me or called me names’

School safety, including bullying, was measured to help assess school environments.

Pupils were asked how often they experienced certain bullying behaviours on a scale ranging from “never” to “at least once a week”. A bullying scale was then created using the pupils’ responses to how often they encountered the following bullying behaviours:

  • Made fun of me or called me names
  • Left me out of their games or activities
  • Spread lies about me
  • Stole something from me
  • Hit or hurt me
  • Made me do things I didn’t want to do
  • Shared embarrassing information about me
  • Posted embarrassing information about me online
  • Threatened me

Grade 5 pupils report highest occurrence of bullying

Students at work at Ibhongo High School in Soweto in January 2008. Photo: AFP/Alexander Joe

South African Grade 5 pupils reported the highest occurrence of bullying out of the 49 countries surveyed. Most pupils (44%) reported being bullied “about weekly” and 34% reported being bullied “about monthly”.

Of the boys who took part in the study, 47% reported being bullied on a weekly basis. This compares to 40% of girls.

The report also highlights that pupils in South Africa’s public schools are bullied more than those in independent schools. Close to 48% of pupils in no-fee schools reported being bullied “about weekly” compared to about 25% of independent school pupils.

Grade 9 pupils report 3rd highest incidence of bullying

South African Grade 9 pupils reported the third highest incidence of bullying out of 38 countries, behind Botswana and Thailand. The majority of Grade 9 pupils (47%) reported being bullied “about monthly” and 17% reported being bullied “about weekly”.

The TIMSS Grade 9 country report revealed that pupils who reported “almost never” experiencing bullying scored higher for maths and science than pupils who reported experiencing bullying on a weekly basis.

‘Study does not include all countries in the world’

A group of schoolchildren in central Pretoria. Photo: AFP/Alexander Joe

Africa Check spoke to Lolita Winnaar, research specialist in the Human Sciences Research Council’s education and skills development unit, which administered the study in South Africa.

She told us that reporting that South African pupils are the most bullied would be incorrect “as the TIMSS study does not include all countries in the world”.

A more accurate way of reporting on this data would highlight that “of the countries who participated in TIMSS at the Grade 4/5 level, South Africa shows the highest incidences of learners being bullied on a weekly basis (44%). This is more than double the TIMSS international average,” they told us.

Conclusion: Minister wide of the mark about study findings

South Africa’s minister of basic education is rightly worried about bullying in schools.

The country’s Grade 5 pupils reported the highest frequency of bullying among 49 countries that took part in a 2015 survey.

Nearly 50% of its Grade 9 pupils reported being bullied “about monthly”. Of the 38 countries studied, only Thailand and Botswana’s pupils reported being bullied more.

However, the study’s research coordinator in South Africa said that the results don’t show that the country’s pupils are the “most bullied” in the world, as only two age groups were surveyed and fewer than 50 countries took part.


Additional reading

UNESCO school violence and bullying global status report

A previous version of this report incorrectly referred to Lolita Winnaar as chief programmer of the Human Sciences Research Council’s education and skills development unit. She is a research specialist. We have corrected the report and apologise for the error.

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Comments 1

    It’s true that South African students especially those who are in deprived areas are very much bullied. Apart from bullying meted out by friends some teachers, deputy principals and principals alike participate in the bullying of our school kids.
    My story about how the deputy principal of lephatshimile high school now known as letlhogile secondary school bullied students such that most of them have grown timid and get frightened just at a a glance at her. She does not only billy students but teachers and parents alike. Last year the deputy Principal who is a supposed sister to the principal slap three learners for going out to drink water during classes hours. One of the students she slapped was a pregnant student in the final year. In the attempt to slap the pregnant student, she ended up hitting her on the breast with blood oozing from her breast. As poor as the parents are, they couldn’t seek for justice but rather they were compensated with R200.00. Infancy, the deputy principal is not just a bully but a beast that is tormenting students, teachers and parents alike with the assistant of his cousin brother the principal. Our rural students deserve better than they are getting from a cruel and a tyrant leadership of a brother and a sister

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