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Television: Boys and girls

We've all seen those nature films in which slavering lions rip hunks off terrified antelopes, or penguins perform elegant territorial rituals with their friends and neighbours. We are less likely to see the scary and elaborate anthropological ceremonies that children execute every day - or rather, we see them but we don't really look at them. Two films to be shown on Channel 4 over the next two Sundays encourage us to do just that.

Boys and Girls (March 17 and 24, 8pm) gives a glimpse into the complex texture of two young, inner-city lives. Filmed in and around Kingsmead primary school in the London borough of Hackney, the programmes reveal much more about primary children than many pundits and policy-makers know or wish to know.

The camera is discreet and intimate; it swoops into close-ups, veers across spaces, pans candidly from glaring or averted eyes to twitching fingers. The scenes are unrehearsed, and are all the more expressive in that their language is not so much heard as overheard.

The subject of the first film is Carla, in Year 6 at the time of filming, from a family known to social services. Girls of her age, teetering on the brink of adolescence, form forceful posses; their shifting rivalries, volatile friendships and powerful sense of hierarchy are often more absorbing than the contents of the national curriculum.

For Carla, with a worrying recurrent skin infection and a troubled sense of who she really is, they can be all-important. We catch her trying out many ways to fit in and many counterploys, from name-calling to fighting, to deal with the devastating hurt of not belonging.

Jordan, the boy in the second film, has previously been excluded from school for violent behaviour and is now trying to control his aggression, although, he says, "I can feel it inside me". We see him at home - he's often there when he shouldn't be - and meet his mother and hear her pungent descriptions of her ex-partner and his threats.

Two teachers play significant parts. The headteacher, Tricia Okoruwa, shows great patience and understanding in negotiating with Carla about what's acceptable. At the same time, she knows that school is a place where children go to learn and not an alternative therapy centre.

Jordan says about his teacher, Lisa Stapleton, that she's "good because she's strict", but we can see that she's much more than that. She needs to calm him when his aggression erupts, but she also has to think of the right of the other children in the class to be free from disruption.

  • Picture: Carla, subject of the first film
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's Friday magazine

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