Anonymous Headteacher

Unmet needs and The Lord of the Flies


I’m teaching Year 11 English this September, for the first time in a while. This means dusting off and re-reading Lord of the Flies, and it never gets old. I actually worry about texts so perennially on school curricula – Lord of the Flies is one, Of Mice and Men another – that they get so associated with school that everyone forgets they are hugely important works of literature. There’s a reason for their ever-green status. They resonate, deeply, with people today as much as they did when they were written, but the danger when you associate something with school is, as an adult, to file it in the wrong partition of memory – ‘school stuff’, instead of ‘important stuff’.

I mention it because there are some who would benefit greatly from a quick re-read. Since I blogged on the ‘Forgotten Children’ report I’ve been heartened by how seriously people take the issue of exclusion, having followed it on the twitter. A good deal of passionate and reasoned debate, and that is as it should be. Permanent exclusions are disruptive to a child’s education and so it should always be a massive deal. I obviously didn’t think the report struck the right note, but I think it does the profession credit that this is such a discussed issue.

Of course, there are some views I disagreed with, and the most striking of these were the ones characterised by a complete absolution of the child from any responsibility for their actions. I have seen the phrase ‘most vulnerable’ used a few times (about the students being PEXed), I have seen the phrase ‘all behaviour is an attempt to communicate an unmet need’ and then a conclusion that schools shouldn’t exclude but should try to identify the unmet need and meet it. I even saw, in what appeared to be all seriousness, a comparison between exclusions and the cane, which I look forward to using as a case study in faulty logic in my next critical thinking class.

The counters to these views – that they pathologise poor behaviour, and the accusation of virtue-signalling, have been made by others. And, of course, there can be an unmet need behind poor behaviour, but people were asserting this was the case in every case of poor behaviour. And what I would say to these people is: ‘Re-read Lord of the Flies’.

The boys on the island, at the start, are of school age. It’s never made explicit how old they are, but they seem to range from early primary (the ‘little ‘uns’) to early teens. Jack, Ralph and Piggy being amongst the older group.

Golding goes to great lengths to make them typical British boys. Piggy, who speaks with a more working class accent, is a bit of an outsider, but they all start the story with various ciphers for British boyhood. Cartwheels, choir uniforms, they’ve read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘Coral Isalnd’ (Golding just couldn’t resist having one of the boys mention the very novel he was lancing), and, although they have experienced a plane crash, Golding clearly doesn’t want this to be an issue. He doesn’t describe the crash, none of them are upset by it and the novel starts after the crash happened. So – normal, British boys, no hidden trauma, nothing to explain away their actions later in the book. This is crucial if the book’s message is to land. These are your kids. This was you.

As boys of school age, their education is already underway, though incomplete. So their first impulse is to recreate the order of their home society on their new island. There is a recognition of the inherent value of, for example, having a system to ensure everyone gets a turn to speak at meetings, and the need for shelters, and a fire. However, without the wider support of social structures around them, these projects either never get started or deteriorate. The most aggressive children, particularly Jack, begin to dominate meetings, power struggles break out, and soon the micro-society is much more disorganised and basic. Two boys in particular are of great interest to me as a teacher: Roger and Simon.

Roger is one of the more minor characters in some ways – you may well have forgotten him. He has a cruel streak, and winds up with Jack and the hunters. It is he who pushes the rock that does for Piggy. That horrific moment is foreshadowed earlier in the novel, with this little passage:

Roger stooped, picked up a stone, aimed and threw it at Henry- threw it to miss. The stone, that token of preposterous time, bounced five yards to Henry’s right and fell in the water. Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”

And while that invisible diameter exists, Henry is safe. Golding lists the guardians of the diameter, and he’s not wrong. Roger can be cruel. I don’t know why, but he can. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe it’s a side of his personality that has formed through his childhood, various chance occurrences, experiences, ideas. Nothing that you could call trauma, without stretching the word well beyond what its elasticity will allow. Nothing you can cure him of, nothing you can find and cut out, like a tumour. He’s just got a cruel side. And that’s fine. Because society has developed all sorts of structures and conventions and checks to deal with Roger, and those like him. If the crash hadn’t happened, there’s no reason to think Roger would have grown up to be a serial killer, no reason, indeed, to believe he wouldn’t have gone on to be an excellent father, and friend, and boss, or whatever. It is simply a base impulse which society is generally able to help him control. The Rogers in schools today don’t throw stones when they know how seriously the school will take it, when they know it would be a huge deal involving parents and serious consequences. When they don’t believe it will be a big deal, they throw stones.

We, and the law, and the police, and parents, with our imperfect systems of sanctions and rewards, is what maintains the invisible circle – not telling Roger he must have an unmet need, that we want to understand him. Golding’s novel continues to resonate, I believe, because it is founded in a truth. There’s nothing to understand. Roger doesn’t need help. It is a base urge, and he needs society to send him clear signals not to do it.

The other boy worth talking about is Simon. Sensitive, sickly Simon, who first understands that there is no ‘beast’, it’s just them. Simon who wanders into the woods to be away from the other boys, around whom he doesn’t feel safe. Simon who talks to the lord of the flies, a grotesque, rotting pig’s head that Jack leaves to appease the beast. It speaks to him, and says:

“I’m warning you. I’m going to get angry. D’you see? You’re not wanted. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island! So don’t try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else–”

Simon found he was looking into a vast mouth. There was blackness within, a blackness that spread.

“–Or else,” said the Lord of the Flies, “we shall do you, see? Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?”

The pig’s head speaks with the voice of the bully, the voice that does so much damage in schools and streets and workplaces and families around the country, and Simon cowers like many recessive, introverted boys do. He glimpses, in the pig’s head, the same darkness that Conrad saw in ‘Heart of Darkness’, that Stevenson was describing in ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. That is the voice Roger will eventually speak with, the voice that Jack starts to find very quickly when he realises there are no consequences for his actions – that is what happens when people realise they no longer have to take responsibility for what they do, and that is where this idea that there’s no such thing as poor behaviour, just undiscovered trauma, would lead.

There’s not always anything you can do, those who want to believe every bully, every violent or aggressive child is trying to tell you to save them. Some of them are, for sure, but all of them? I’m afraid some of them are just Rogers and Jacks. People can be nasty – AND THAT’S OK – we’ve got all sorts of ways to help them control that. It’s not an illness, it’s just being human. Prison for adults and exclusions for students are deeply imperfect and have limitations, but they are vital tools in the toolbox of maintaining that invisible line in the sand that kept Henry safe. Frankly if, on an open evening, a head teacher said ‘we never permanently exclude, no matter what’, then my kids aren’t going there. I’d be too worried they’d come home one day, their head bleeding, saying they were hit by a rock thrown by this boy called Roger.