We do make a difference with boys

THE recent Channel 4 programme Boys Alone saw 10 boys aged 11 and 12 and strangers to one another shut up in a suburban villa for five days. The spacious and well-furnished house and garden contained a generous stock of food and plenty of diversions such as toys, games, videos and bikes. The boys were from leafy Hertfordshire and were described by their schools as sensible, balanced and responsible.

The school descriptions were tested immediately. After an initial bout of frantic exploration, popcorn was spilt across the living-room carpet and left for others to trample in. Two boys began to graffiti the wall and when it was clear that adult restraint would not be imposed, the others joined in.

Despite some futile attempts to organise themselves the week went downhill fast. Most boys slept for only a couple of hours each night and made sure that anyone trying to sleep longer was not allowed to. There was one attempt to cook a meal but mostly they lived on cereal, chocolate and fizzy drinks, which fuelled the frenetic activity.

Relationships bounced backwards and forwards, although a quieter boy who could be bullied was identified quickly along with one who could be blamed for everything that went wrong. There was a primitive scene of a group of shirtless boys tying their scapegoat to a chair while one of the captors swung a length of plastic tubing and shouted: "Give him a good whipping."

Two clear groups formed. Four "sensible" boys huddled together in shared misery while the six others formed a loose alliance based on aggression and noise and on the final evening the numerically stronger group attacked the other.

After five days, the house and its contents had been well and truly trashed with each boy making his contribution. The parents applauded their sons as they came out but their attitudes changed when they were taken into the house. "Why did you do that?" asked one shocked mother. Her son replied, "There was nothing else to do", but his embarrassed mumble told us that he didn't believe his own excuse. Some parents were too bewildered to speak and the boys slipped into a guilty silence.

One reviewer described the boys' behaviour as "unpredictable". I would have thought that to anyone who has worked with large groups of 11-year-old boys the behaviour was all too predictable. William Golding got it right with his prep school boys in Lord of the Flies and the Hertfordshire boys confirmed that the veneer of civilised behaviour provided by home and school rubs off easily, when adult influence is removed, to reveal primitive instincts underneath.

The boys in your primary 7 class are not any different from their Hertfordshire contemporaries as a look at some of their playground behaviour will confirm. The Jekyll and Hyde tendency is particularly clear to me when I live under the same roof as 30 primary 7 boys on an outdoor activities week. I find it hard work monitoring their relationships and domestic responsibilities within a freer situation. The instinctive quest for status can readily lead to the humiliation of others while there are always more interesting occupations than washing oneself, changing clothes or eating healthily.

When we return, the boys have hoarse voices, I have a sense of humour failure and their parents have the nerve to ask me: "Did you enjoy your holiday?"

I don't understand why parents allowed their sons to take part in Boys Alone. What did they expect would happen? Or were they blinded by the possibility of fleeting celebrity? The programme did nothing for its young participants, but it reminded its viewers how a large group of boys malfunctions when deprived of adult influence.

As teachers, we should be proud of ourselves. In schools throughout the country, 11 and 12-year-old boys are working happily and in a civilised manner. We do make a difference.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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