A lot has happened since I last wrote about the girls, but the biggest changes have been for Girl #1, who has officially withdrawn from her school and will be taking her O levels as a private candidate next year. The primary reason for us withdrawing her from school was her being bullied by a group of girls she thought were her squad.

Having a squad is a big thing when you’re in a girls’ school. All the girls belong to one squad or another in their class. Without a squad, a girl is rudderless and becomes a prime target for bullying. But bullying happens within squads as well. Girl #1’s squad had six girls, three of whom decided earlier this year to start bullying Girl #1. At first, it was jokes at her expense. Then, it became gossiping and exclusion. While all this was going on, the other two girls in the group did nothing. When it escalated to physical bullying, Girl #1 decided she’d had enough and came to us for help.

We alerted the school. The teachers responded very promptly and validated Girl #1’s claim of being bullied as they had noticed the three girls’ behaviour. (One wonders why the teacher who saw this happening didn’t do anything to stop it.) After having put up with the bullying for nearly 10 months, Girl #1  insisted that she no longer wanted to be in school. It was enlightening for us to learn that the reason for all the episodes of self harm that she had had from the beginning of the year were due to her not being able to cope with the bullying, and not because of her OCD. It was equally illuminating for us to realise that sometimes, it’s hard to draw the line between normal joking around between friends and bullying. We scheduled a session with a counsellor for Girl #1. She felt better after talking through her feelings, but remained adamant about wanting to leave school.

After some research, we offered Girl #1 the option of taking her O levels as a private candidate. You may wonder why we didn’t just transfer her to another school. For one, transferring to a new school in Secondary 4 is almost unheard of. We would have to find a school willing to take her, and that offers the subject combination she is doing. She would have to adapt to a completely new environment, with new rules and routines. In a meeting with Girl #1’s school administrators, they admitted that this would be a challenging thing to attempt. We also asked people we know who are teachers for advice, and all felt that going the private route would be preferable to switching schools at this point.

It’s not a path that’s well-trodden or one that we know others around us to have taken. It’s also challenging because it’s a jump from the Secondary 3 Normal Academic syllabus to O levels next year. But we feel reasonably sure that Girl #1 will be OK as she is a self-motivated and independent learner. She will be offering five subjects at next year’s O levels – English, Mathematics, Geography, Science (Biology, Chemistry) and Literature – and attending a preparatory course at a private school. She is definitely not going to junior college, so she only needs five subjects for polytechnic admission. The bonus is that she no longer needs to do Chinese.

Between now and the end of the year, her job is to catch up on the Sec 3 Express syllabus. After comparing the Normal Academic and the Express syllabi, we realised that she has to learn a couple of new topics, and some additional content on topics she has already covered in school. For Literature, she has to start on the drama text. She’s chosen to read Julius Caesar – not the easiest, but the one she likes most. She has created a daily timetable for herself and is going through the content, and we’re enrolling her in intensive revision courses for Geography and Science to help her get a firm grounding in the Secondary 3 work before the prep course starts in January. Since she’s not strong in Math, we’ve also hired a retired MOE teacher to tutor her once a week at home.

I recognise that we are privileged to be able to provide Girl #1 with this option. It’s not cheap, but it’s what we can do to ensure she continues to receive an education without the added stress of bullying.

The school, meanwhile, has been taking steps to address the bullies’ behaviour. I don’t know what those are, but I hope the girls stop bullying the other girl, and learn the error of their ways. None of the girls has attempted to keep in touch with Girl #1 after her last day in school – not even the two bystanders who were actually good friends with Girl #1. So much for friendship.

It was recently reported that Singapore has the third-highest rate of bullying globally, though the Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng downplayed the scale of the problem. It’s easy to reduce the issue to statistics. The reality is that children’s lives and futures are at stake. Not every family is able to put their kids in a private school if the mainstream school doesn’t work out. Bullying leaves lasting damage on a child’s psyche, and the education ministry needs to do a lot more than lip service to prevent it from happening.