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Book of the week: Best Friends, Worst Enemies

The actor Robert Morley once wrote that any adult claiming that their happiest days had been spent at school was either a liar or a bully. This is not quite fair; popular children, who are often quite nice to everyone else, can, indeed, have a very pleasant time.

But they only make up about 60 per cent of the school population. After that, there are around 20 per cent of pupils who are neither particularly popular nor unpopular, about 5 per cent of neglected pupils, who may have just one friend, and around 15 per cent who are lonely and, at worst, suffer persecution.

These categories are not necessarily constant: popular children can go through stages of unpopularity, and previously unpopular children can sometimes come into their own during adolescence. But while school can be a miserable place most of the time for a minority of children, there is often little attempt at any organised level to make things better for them.

Teachers often see that something is going wrong but have no idea what to do about it other than vague classroom exhortation, given that any interference in what goes on in the social life of the school always carries the risk of making a victim's situation worse.

Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill Grace, the authors of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: children's friendships, popularity and social cruelty (Michael Joseph pound;10.99) admit that there are no obvious answers. Even so, some of the strategies suggested in the latter parts of the book are well worth considering, particularly those that involve all pupils in trying to create an atmosphere of social inclusion.

Those difficult pupils who seem to have created their own misfortunes should, the authors suggest, be directed towards social skills training programmes run by school counsellors. While such facilities are common in many US schools, they are rarely available in British schools for children sometimes desperately in need of help.

The authors explain the occasional acts of social cruelty that are such a feature of childhood largely in terms of human biology and evolution. But while other higher mammals regularly side against individual members of a social group for a variety of reasons, human societies have always been influenced by the existence of a particular culture which may be more or less tolerant towards others who are different.

A longer version of this feature appears in this week's Friday magazine

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