The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Andrew Hampton

Working with boys

Supporting boys in being dignified and respectful to each other, girls and women can be a difficult topic. Andrew Hampton discusses an innovative raft of strategies which have a track record of success.

In the depths of the pandemic, I administered Covid-19 tests to a queue of Year 9 boys. Two boys called Harry came forward for their test, one after the other. 

I greeted them both in turn as I had greeted all the other pupils that day. 'Hi Harry, how are things with you? First, do you feel well today?' The first Harry smiled and replied, 'I am doing well thanks, Mr Hampton, I had a great weekend and yes I am feeling fit and well today.' 

However, the second Harry just grunted, 'Hur…' 'Sorry, Harry, I need to know if you are feeling fit and well today?' Harry grunted again: 'Yeah, I’m all right.'

It got me thinking about why there was such a contrast in the two Harrys’ responses to the same, simple questions. Why did Harry ‘two’ find it so hard to engage with me and make himself clearly understood? I knew them both well and there was nothing dramatically different about their backgrounds or performances in school. 

It seems Harry ‘two’ lost the confidence to communicate effectively with adults with anything approaching charm. Whereas Harry ‘one’ had continued to develop those skills, much to his advantage in terms of his reputation amongst teachers.  

Recognising communication challenges

During my 18 years as Headship, I noticed that a significant proportion of boys, aged 13 to 17, faced challenges in effective communication. This issue affected around one-third of the cohorts passing through the school. Repeatedly, I observed that behind the glum expression of these boys, who struggled to engage in conversation, lay a profound sense of unhappiness.

Initially, like many teachers, I was inclined to attribute this to the typical trials and tribulations of adolescence. However, I realized that such an explanation fell short, prompting me to embark on a journey to discover how I could positively impact the boys in my school.

In what year group are boys last unconditionally enthusiastic at school?

It struck me that if I had been talking to the two Harrys when they were in Year 7, I would certainly have been greeted by both with the same level of engagement and enthusiasm. The first year of secondary is when boys are forming their identities as boys into men. It is when they decide what version of masculinity they will adopt, both as individuals and as a group of boys at school. 

They must decide whether they will be gentle, mutually supportive, and protective of each other or harsh, abusive, spiteful, and belligerent. 

The choice is theirs and theirs alone, and as they form ideas they look across at their peers and the older boys in the school and make decisions. 

Moments of dilemma arise which define their choice. A boy scores his own goal in the last minute of the semi-final of the cup and the school team is knocked out. Do the boys in the team gather around him in support to spare his feelings and show solidarity, or do they swear at him and shun him for several days? 

Top influencers 

In those moments, it is often the boy or boys at the top of the social hierarchy that set the tone. If the top influencer of the group is positive, then he will set an example with an arm around the shoulder of the unfortunate own-goal scorer. 

If he chooses to be negative in his approach, then he will lead the chorus of disapproval and even abuse. 

Hierarchy and humiliation 

In my experience, there is typically a prevalent social hierarchy among cohorts of boys in school. The ranking of boys' social standing is often quite evident, with a few individuals exerting influence, a small number having limited ability to influence, and a significant majority falling in the middle.

When we explore the reasons behind one boy being perceived as more socially influential than another, we consider everyone's capacity to endure humiliation. I believe that boys fear humiliation primarily, and this fear significantly influences their behaviour. The ability to withstand the sting of humiliation is paramount, as the constant presence of banter poses a persistent threat of humiliation to them.


Banter is ingrained in the school culture for boys. I recall that during my teenage years, most of my interactions with peers consisted of banter. However, it is important to distinguish between good banter and bad banter.

Banter is essentially playful teasing but is characterized by its reciprocal nature. It involves both parties teasing each other back and forth. When teasing becomes unidirectional and only flows in one direction, it can cross the line into bullying territory.

Sexualised banter

Where things can go wrong in some cohorts of boys is where their banter becomes sexualised. If most of what they talk about are pornographic in its nature, referring to girls and female teachers in the school in sexually objectified ways, then it is only a short step to acts of sexual abuse. 

It is essential to recognize that if boys primarily engage with each other through conversations that habitually involve sexual objectification of girls and women, and if this pattern persists from Year 8 into Year 10, it is no surprise that some boys become desensitized to the wrongness and abhorrence of sexual abuse.

I argue that the dynamics of how boys interact with one another, rather than solely their interactions with girls and women, contribute to the prevalence of sexual abuse. 

What is the answer?

We need to help boys form relational cultures of mutual respect. We also need to acknowledge that there is a unique and short window of opportunity to work with boys, to guide the journey into their chosen version of masculinity – both as individuals and as a group. 

That window is in the autumn term of Year 7 and represents the end of the age of loss of innocence. The programme of study laid out in the book, Working with Boys, covers 13 topics which include: 

  • masculinity
  • hierarchy
  • influencers
  • fear of humiliation
  • banter
  • sexualised talk.

Style of pedagogy

Adolescents are inherently inclined to challenge and rebel, often displaying an equal likelihood to defy adult commands as they are to obey them. Therefore, the pedagogical style employed to effectively deliver the Working with Boys program must be driven by reflection.

In this context, there is no space for judgment, criticizing boys, or delivering lectures on laws or moral posturing. Instead, every interaction should be framed as a reflection, empowering boys to take ownership of their journey towards cultivating a relational culture that will shape their behaviours and attitudes.


It is crucial to reject the thinking that suggests our attempts to govern the behaviour of adolescent boys have been unsuccessful. Instead, we should embrace the possibility that by adopting a nurturing and common-sense approach, we can finally make a substantial impact on relational cultures, attitudes, behaviours, and the lives of boys in school.

By implementing such an approach, we can expect boys to experience increased happiness, motivation, and overall success. Interestingly, the first to express gratitude for our achievements will be the girls, who will benefit from healthier and more respectful dynamics within these transformed relational cultures.

Child Protection in Education

Our annual Child Protection in Education conference is your opportunity to network with leading educational lawyers, practitioners and experts, unpack the Department for Education advice and guidance and take away proven strategies and resources to implement and evidence compliant child protection procedures and an outstanding schoolwide safeguarding culture.

Find out more.



Similar Posts

Luke Ramsden

Clearing the haze: Combatting vaping in schools

Teen vaping has become an unwelcome phenomenon in schools. Luke Ramsden addresses this burgeoning concern, the insidious marketing that permeates young people’s minds and explores how to mitigate the risks of vaping. Vaping is a growing health concern in schools up and down the country. With more...
Zarina Connolly

Helping pupils detox from social media influencers

In an era dominated by social media influencers and digital distractions, educators face the daunting task of guiding students through the complexities of online content. Zarina Connolly delves into the challenges posed by influential content creators and their impact on students' mental health,...
Ella Savell-Boss

Safeguarding after the summer break

Cultivating a safe and supportive school environment has its challenges. Ella Savell-Boss explores practical strategies to address these challenges effectively, providing the best start to the academic year. As the summer break draws to a close, we are eagerly awaiting the return of students in...