OPINION: A reflection on boys’ disengagement from school

Philip Geldenhuys explores how we might shift relationships between boy learners and the adults in their lives, and in doing so, support boys to stay in school.

By Philip Geldenhuys, Co-founder and former CEO of Community Keepers

After more than a decade of working with schoolboys, I’ve learnt that mutual trust lies at the heart of whether boys stay in, and are enabled to succeed at, school. Between 2008 and 2017, I served as CEO of Community Keepers, a non-profit organisation offering therapeutic counselling and psychosocial support in 29 schools across Cape Town. Boys could report to our offices themselves, or be referred by teachers or parents. It became apparent that the young boys walking into our therapy rooms simply did not trust adults because of their past experiences. And who can blame them?

Too often, we heard about actions committed against boys by the adults in their lives, including verbal and physical abuse and harsh discipline. We also heard about the actions withheld by the adults in their lives – support, empathy, attention and interest. In cases of repeated exposure to one or a combination of these acts, whether aggression or neglect, boys were less likely to trust adults to care for, or guide, them. And boys who did not trust adults, were less likely to engage, learn and progress in school.

In my experience, mutual trust between learners, parents and teachers is fundamental to building the type of support systems that would keep boys engaged in school. Too many boys (and learners in general) experience neglect and abuse at home, often coupled with absent caregivers. Many of these boys are then triggered through exposure to similar treatment at school: harsh discipline, verbal abuse, hostility, bullying and scapegoating. The combination of these factors and experiences create a school culture in which boys tend to anticipate harm (whether physical or emotional) and feel physically unsafe and unwelcome at school.

John*, for example, was 16 years old and in Grade 8 when he was referred to one of our school-based therapy offices after swearing at an older male teacher. During the assessment, it emerged that John’s alcoholic grandfather verbally and physically abused him from an early age. He had a tense relationship with his grandfather and had even started physically resisting him. Meanwhile, John’s teacher felt that the teenager was disrespectful, as he often arrived late for class and never apologised. This led to the teacher talking down to him in a similar way that his grandfather did. It even reached the point where John began mocking this teacher, stepping forwards as if wanting to hit him. John was sent home several times for bad behaviour. At some stage, he never returned.

Without the restoration of trust among our learners, we will struggle to prevent school dropout. In other words, the speed it takes to rebuild trust (and address the country’s dropout crisis) is also the speed at which more boys will flourish at school. But how do we build trust in a country where adults have let children down?

Things we can do to rebuild trust

  • Teachers can offer learners the opportunity to get to know them by being vulnerable about their personal fears, mistakes and dreams. They can also involve parents and caregivers to act as family liaisons between the school and the community.
  • Parents/caregivers can show positive interest in education at home by asking learners questions about activities and progress at school. They can also look for volunteer opportunities at their child’s school, like supervising when there is teacher absenteeism. Healthy, trusting families will lead to healthy, trusting communities and schools.
  • Principals can spend more time outside of the office, making themselves visible to learners. This will help them build positive relationships with at-risk boys, rather than only seeing them when they are in trouble. Another practical step is to formally establish an Early Warning System (tracking absenteeism, academic struggles, and behaviour as signs of school disengagement). Through effective tracking, schools can start showing positive interest in learner engagement, getting involved in the lives of at-risk boys and their families before it’s too late. 
  • School Governing Bodies are best positioned to promote parent engagement. Parenting committees can further build trust among community stakeholders.
  • Government can collect and interpret data on school dropout statistics and keep district and school management accountable to this. This can indirectly build trust by showing government’s intention to address dropout. Collaboration with provincial departments of health, housing and social development can help build trust between government departments, as well as between schools and government institutions. Using the school as a base from which these departments can serve the community could publicly show this partnership.

(* Name has been changed)

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