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 gives a rare glimpse into the complex texture of two young, inner-city lives. Filmed in and around Kingsmead primary school in the London borough of Hackney, and on the local estate that covers 17 acres and is home to 3,000 people, the programmes reveal much more about primary school 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.
We also see how annoying she must often seem to others sharing roles in her daily drama. There is painful symbolism in a scene where she dances alone in the hall, and a deeply moving moment when she writes a story about the "Queen of the Land of Miracles", whose loved and happy descendant bears her name. All this happens against the unavoidable background of preparation for the Year 6 national tests and transfer to secondary school.
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.
Some of the film's most telling moments are tiny gestures: Jordan playing alone while the pulsating energy of school life beats elsewhere, his mother's fingers stroking his hair in the midst of her troubled preoccupations.
We also witness a disturbing scene when his control snaps and he begins kicking other children. He, too, is desperate to find a way he can belong. He tries asserting his leadership to a small group on the school journey; this doesn't work because, as another boy says: "I guess he's a nightmare."
When his father doesn't write to him from prison, Jordan says: "It's his loss, not mine."
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. As Carla says, "You don't act like a boss, you act like a teacher - a kind one." Ms Okoruwa is an "open-door" head. "When teachers need support I want them to send for me, not send children to me," she says.
Her own experience as a mother of three adds depth to her understanding of the pressures of family life and helps her realise that some children require more help than others. "Equal opportunities isn't about parcelling time into equal chunks; it's seeing that all children get what they need."
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.
Ms Stapleton has been teaching for four years and is the school's ICT co-ordinator. We don't see this on film, but while teaching Jordan's Year 5 class she was also introducing new schemes of work for computer-related learning and helping devise a website that won a national Becta award.
Having a camera constantly around the school was a major decision for Tricia Okoruwa. She has been in post for only a term when the films open, but the sense of the adults at Kingsmead primary working as a team is palpable and inspiring. Teachers, parents and governors endorsed Ms Okoruwa's decision to expose the school to a watching world. "We were all on board - everyone had to agree."
Paddy Wivell, who directs the films, is a shadowy figure within them. We see him at odd moments being punched by Jordan or interrogated about his love life. He also occasionally takes responsibility for Jordan, escorting him to school, or just talking with him. His commentary is understated and free from value judgments or explicit messages. Here again, reticence is eloquence. Wivell has gained the trust of those he films, so that what we see is true to their experiences.
At one point, Ms Okoruwa worries about whether Carla will be able to "keep herself safe" as a teenager. The films provide no easy answers to such questions. They show that school is only one part, although a hugely important part, of the lives children need to make for themselves. But watching the films is a privilege. They show us that Ms Okoruwa and Ms Stapleton are admirable and highly skilled teachers, but not unique in being so.
And when we see Carla's baffled half-smile or Jordan's angrily retreating back, we realise that what happens in their future is of vital concern to us all.
Tom Deveson taught in south London primary schools for 30 years and is now a freelance writer and teacher