Ready to talk
It starts routinely enough, as each of the boys talks about his week. A couple of sentences from some; "Aw'right" and a shrug from others. After a few minutes, they are sparking up conversations with their neighbour and their teenage banter fills the room. Jack, the 12th and last in the circle, begins to speak above the buzz. "My dad turned up last week." The joshing stops in its tracks. Eyes fix on 14-year-old Jack as they wait for him to continue.
"It was good seeing him, but it didn't feel the same. I still resent him for the way he left," he continues. Then he grins: "Other than that, I'm fine." There's a few seconds of respectful silence, before the conversation turns to their camping trip the previous weekend. "Can we go somewhere else next time?" asks James. "I don't want to be carrying the torch around 247 again."
Circle time and Year 10 boys may not be obvious partners, but they have joined up in response to one of the most significant social phenomena of our times: the rise in the single-parent household. Twenty years ago, about one in seven children lived with a lone parent. By 2006 almost one in four did. To tackle some of the consequences, Tony Thompson, a geography teacher and head of Year 10, set up a group he calls Boyz 2 Men. It's a simple concept, but the results have exceeded expectations.
His school, St Peter's College in Chelmsford, Essex, draws most of its pupils from an area of "significant economic and social deprivation", according to its latest Ofsted report. It operates a "cause for concern" list, where teachers flag up worries about individual pupils. Tony noticed a pattern emerging among many of the names on the list: the majority were boys, and many came from single-parent households.
"It seems like we're stereotyping, but there was this common denominator," says Tony. His approach was to provide some of these boys with a male role model, and to give them space to talk about their feelings.
"I wanted to get them to think, to help them deal with their emotions and direct their energies in a positive way. I wanted to unlock that ability to deal with the issues they're facing."
Tony approached a dozen boys to take part in the group after looking through their personal files. He identified boys who came from single-parent families, and who regularly appeared on the "cause for concern" list, or who had become withdrawn and uncommunicative. He was also careful not to include disruptive pupils or those who didn't mix well with other children.
The first obstacle was to convince parents that it was not a slight on their parenting skills. But the reaction was unanimously positive. "We said we would act as mentors, rather than replacing a parent, and the parents are grateful that we're trying to help the boys," Tony says. Two Year 9 boys subsequently joined the group, after their parents asked Tony to mentor them.
Tony knows he is no psychologist, but his aim was to create an environment where the boys could talk about their feelings without fear of ridicule. This would hopefully provide an outlet for any frustration they felt.
It was a slow start, though. James, 14, admits that for the first three weeks the group didn't really take it seriously. Then one of the boys opened up. "His dad did not want to see him and that tore him up," says James. "Seeing him break down wasn't a nice sight."
Tony agrees that this was a turning point, dispelling his fears that the group would fizzle out. "It was a significant moment," he says. "They realised what the group was all about. They felt safe then and their guard came down."
The group has evolved since it was set up in September, with the boys giving each other advice. And Tony admits that sometimes they have surprised him. "There was one boy whose parents had split and he had been building up to say something for months. One day I said: 'How are you?' and he just burst into tears. He was quite a tough lad and the others were a bit shocked at first, but they just let him cry. You could tell it was therapeutic for him."
It is this trust in their peers, the knowledge that anything they say in the group will go no further, that has proved one of the key factors in its success.
"I felt like I had things trapped inside me and I couldn't say them to my friends," explains Ethan, 15, whose parents separated at Christmas. "It came out when I joined the group. As soon as I said how I was feeling it seemed it would make my life so much better. I know someone knows and I trust them not to tell anyone."
The knowledge that other members of the group have been through the same or similar things has encouraged them to open up. Several boys admit to having broken down during their meetings.
The weekly 40-minute sessions have remained the core of the group's work, with most of the boys attending every week. They also went for a Christmas meal, a day trip to London, and camping in Suffolk. The last involved a trip to a bird-watching sanctuary. Again, not what you might expect of adolescent boys, but the only arguments were over who had the binoculars next.
It's a low-cost approach. The major investment has been in time, from Tony and the other teachers involved. As well as the weekly sessions, Tony also keeps in touch with form tutors and class teachers to keep up with how the boys are doing inside and outside class. A pound;1,000 grant from their extended schools budget has helped with the trips.
But if the budget is small, the impact has been substantial. The three boys in the group with the worst behaviour record have racked up 35 appearances on the on-call register between them since September - but only four since January; the group as a whole recorded 58 incidents since September, but only 14 since January. Attendance is also up, by 80 per cent for one of the boys.
James says he has gone from someone who "didn't give a damn" to now paying attention in class, and from a DEF pupil to all As in his GCSEs.
Simon Carpenter, the headteacher, says that the discussion of boys and their education usually concentrates on tackling under-achievement: boy-friendly texts, playing on their competitive spirit with more quizzes in class, that sort of thing. But family circumstances should never be neglected.
"We wanted to look at the experience boys have in terms of growing up and the family background, and whether there is any way of supporting them to get a more positive experience from education," Simon says.
It's too early to determine if the group has had an impact on the whole school. It's also not an approach that is likely to work on a large scale: part of its success lies in allowing close relationships to form, which is only possible where numbers are small. But the difference it has made to the pupils involved can have a ripple effect throughout the school.
"If you feel OK, you probably behave better; if you feel stressed or anxious then you're probably not going to behave as well," Simon adds.
The boys are keen to testify to how they've changed in the past few months. "I wasn't the best behaved kid and I wasn't the nicest person, but that's all changed," says James. "I can control my anger a lot easier and I give out a lot more respect than I used to. I can't really explain it in words - it has just changed the way I look at things. It has made me feel luckier and appreciate things more."
Tony is hoping to extend the group into other years, as well as setting up an equivalent for girls, although it is unlikely to have the same focus on single-parent families. His dream, though, is for the idea, to spread to schools around the country, and to show that there don't have to be huge fanfares and big budgets to make a difference.
Jack's dad had walked out of the family home, but he rarely spoke about it to his friends. "I've been through some rough times with my dad but I would never show it. People said I was a shell: I had a front, but nothing on the inside," he says.
He admits he was an angry child. He would walk out of lessons and swore at teachers. He ended up in hospital after punching a fence. "I thought I was the only one in my situation," he says.
The 14-year-old was one of the first to join Boyz 2 Men and says it has transformed his life. He has since been accepted for a month-long trip to southern Africa this summer to work with disabled and disadvantaged children with the charity Journey of a Lifetime Trust, and says it was Boyz 2 Men that gave him the confidence to apply.
"It gave me a sense of purpose - it's good to belong to a group like that," Jack says. "I can trust them with anything. I've cried there a few times and I don't feel people are judging me."
The importance of a group experience is sometimes underestimated, but it can play a key role in getting people to open up, says Kairen Cullen, an educational psychologist, The TES Magazine columnist and expert on group behaviour. Peer groups particularly have a shared language and understanding, providing a short cut to better communication.
"If you can talk about what is important to you and there is the perception of a shared history, that helps people drop their defences," she says. Participants are also less likely to pretend to be something they're not if they are working with their peers, she adds.
"If it is done sensitively, running a group like this in school can get to the pupils who would otherwise feel stigmatised. It can normalise their situation, just by its existence."
She warns that it is difficult to attribute changes to one particular approach when there may be other factors at play. It is important for teachers running such groups to have access to educational psychologists if issues arise that cause concern.
Time frames should be realistic - half a term is the minimum to have any significant impact.
And it should also fit in with the school's ethos and approach to behaviour management. But, although one size doesn't fit all, the principles behind the group are sound.
"Bringing together a group of similarly situated people and giving them the time and space to talk through their everyday life, reflect on that and get ideas from each other, can help them make positive changes," she says.
YOU CAN DO IT TOO
- Choose children to take part who are in a similar position, so that they know the others will be able to relate to how they are feeling.
- Keep group numbers small and be careful not to include anyone who may prove disruptive.
- Make sure parents are on board. Emphasise that the group aims to mentor children, rather than provide therapy or implying that the pupils have a problem.
- Set aside a regular weekly slot where you know you will not be disturbed or distracted.
- Avoid setting strict parameters - let the pupils direct what they want to talk about.
- Arrange activities outside school to encourage pupils to bond.
- Be prepared for it to take time for the children to feel comfortable about opening up.