The Times


Who'd be a boy?

The Times

The veteran feminist Doris Lessing says she feels sorry for men. So should we all. With no male role models, boys are already at the margins of society by the time they reach primary school

There they are, every evening, when I walk through the local park. A dozen teenage boys mooching round the kids’ playground: hoods up; faces clenched in sullen scowls; eyes hostile; fists thrust moodily into trouser pockets; gangsta-rap misogyny pounding incessantly through their skulls.

What is their purpose in life? At present, it’s to terrorise younger kids into handing over £5, £10 — or perhaps their mobile phones. Someone in the gang will know someone else who will exchange such plunder for drugs: no questions asked. In our part of North London every ten-year-old knows what’s going on.

But in the future? What does life hold for these boys? Many are already excluded from school. Next week’s GCSE results will hold no joy or anguish for them. Inarticulate except in F-words and C-words, illiterate except in comic strips, unemployable except by dealers in need of street-corner pushers, unloved even in their own broken homes, they have no “stake in society”. And they know it.

Sooner or later they will get caught doing bad things, and be incarcerated in one of Britain’s hellish youth jails. There they will survive by learning to do worse things. Or they won’t survive. Statistics suggest that quite a lot of them will end up dead before they are 25, either by their own volition or somebody else’s. They are Britain’s lost boys. Every town has them. There must be hundreds of thousands scattered across the country.

The “problem with boys” is not a new topic. Indeed, it has become one of the great middle-class frets, especially in August when exam angst hits its melodramatic zenith among the chattering classes. At the Edinburgh Festival this week, even that veteran feminist Doris Lessing felt she had to denounce the New Inequality, in which boys are made to “apologise for their existence” at school, while girls are given every chance to blossom and flourish. And in the next few days we can expect a clutch of headlines proclaiming an ever-widening “gender gap” between the nation’s soaraway, superconfident girls and its loutish, lagging lads.

This imbalance in achievement, apparent for years at primary-school and GCSE level, now seems to have worked its way into higher education as well. The ratio of female students to males in British universities is fast approaching three to two. That isn’t surprising. If you believe the mountain of telling comments collected in Adrienne Katz’s recent study, What Sons Say (published by Young Voice), the notion of learning is now perceived by boys of all social classes to be wimpish and uncool.

But the real “problem boys” are not the scions of the middle classes. Even if the latter do “underperform” at school, the system will usually carry them inexorably onwards and upwards. Most will still end up earning more than their studious sisters.

No, the real problem lies lower down the male heap. Somehow we have created an underclass of untouchables: large numbers of disaffected boys with time and testosterone to burn and no incentive to conform to decent standards of behaviour.

That’s bad for them, and bad for us. We can see the results all around: in the thuggery of English football fans; in some of the most notorious murders of recent years; in the Bradford and Oldham riots; in the endemic bullying apparent even in primary-school playgrounds; in the horrifying spread of killer drugs on inner-city housing estates; and even in the casual aura of menace lurking in the parks and shopping malls of leafy suburbs like mine.

Preoccupied with the task of creating a “level playing-field” for girls, we have fatally ignored the problem boys. And “fatal” is not too dramatic a word in this context. In the 15-to-24 age group, males are five times more likely to attempt suicide than females, four times more likely to be addicted to drugs or alcohol, and nine times more likely to be sleeping rough on the streets.

If they also happen to be black, badly educated and from poor homes, the scales of life are weighed even more cruelly against them. In ostensibly egalitarian 21st-century Britain, a white middle-class girl can expect to live 15 years longer than a black working-class boy. Much of that discrepancy is explained by the number of young men who die violently before they have reached their mid-twenties.

What has caused this dangerous imbalance in the life prospects of different children? If you subscribe to the hypothesis of Anthony Clare’s recent doomladen tome On Men: Masculinity in Crisis, you will regard the boy problem as merely a by-product of a wider “meltdown” afflicting all males, young and old, as they discover that they have been washed up like debris by a tidal wave of social change. And in Edinburgh this week Doris Lessing expressed herself “shocked” at the “unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed”. Perhaps that is too sweeping a generalisation. Nevertheless, many technological, educational and industrial trends in the past two decades have clearly worked to the disadvantage of boys. Most obviously, the sweaty manual-labour factories have largely disappeared. In the old days they used to provide steady work for millions of boys who left school without paper qualifications — work which, by its very physical nature, only males could do. The certainty of such employment gave boys a reason for keeping out of trouble.

Now they have no such reason. If you know at the age of 12 that you are heading for the unemployment scrapheap (as, for instance, many Asian boys in Bradford suspect), you have little incentive to treat schoolteachers — or any other authority figures — with respect.

But this doesn’t explain why boys fall behind girls so early in their lives. Last March a government-funded survey suggested that, even before children step inside a school, girls are way ahead of boys in “communication skills”. It seems that the slippery slope leading boys into gangs, drugs and crime begins virtually in the cradle.

“This is shocking and reflects a bigger picture in society,” said Professor Eric Wilkinson of Glasgow University when the research was published. “Parents need to work harder with their sons to engage them in communication.”

Other educationalists concur. Boys, it seems, are too often shunted into non-cerebral activities that actually stunt the development of their communication skills. What’s more, they are also expected to “bottle up their feelings”, to conceal even their greatest fears beneath a mask of hard-faced indifference. No wonder, the argument goes, that when they are confronted by tasks driven by a high level of selfacknowledged anxiety — such as revising for exams or preparing for a job interview — they are far surpassed by girls.

That hypothesis may be valid, but there is a far more obvious social trend hindering the development of well-balanced teenage boys. For a variety of reasons, positive male role models are largely absent from their lives. And without the guidance of good role models, boys gravitate towards bad ones: the bullies, dealers and gang leaders hanging round school entrances, park playgrounds and amusement arcades.

Too pessimistic? Look at the facts. When we talk about one-parent families, as we do increasingly in 21st-century Britain, what we mostly mean is fatherless families. Only one divorced father in 20 receives custody of his children, and half of all divorced fathers see their children just once a week. In many homes boys have no older male to guide them at all.

Then they go to primary school, and find much the same scenario. Fewer than one in five primary-school teachers is male. In the big primary school down the road from us, the only man on the premises (out of a teaching and support staff of 30) is the caretaker.

True, there are more male teachers in secondary schools. But as Professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University has argued, if boys become disaffected at primary school they are much more likely to play truant or be excluded later. And the likelihood is that young boys easily become disaffected if, for example, they attend a primary school with no organised team sports through which they can channel their physicality — or one in which “rough games” are banned from the playground.

It’s as if the very qualities that differentiate boys from girls are being suppressed by offical diktat.

So in many towns it is left to volunteers, working outside school hours, to provide the positive male leadership that boys desperately need. And one does encounter some admirably generous men who run children’s football teams, gyms, youth theatres, music projects, scout troops and sea cadets with boundless enthusiasm and understanding.

But rather than applauding such vital voluntary work, we have managed to generate a climate of distrust about men who give up their spare time to work with children. The very word “scoutmaster” now carries snide overtones. No wonder that fewer and fewer men are prepared to do this sort of work. Who needs the sniggers? And of course sophisticated modern opinion has turned against “quasi-military” youth organisations like scouts and cadets, or “quasi-religious” organisations such as church youth clubs. Well, fine, let’s indulge our scruples. But what have we supplied instead for the teenagers kicking around the estates? The shameful answer is: zero facilities, zero understanding, zero hope. If a fraction of the lottery money spent on fancy art galleries, ornamental gardens and opera houses for the middle classes had gone into invigorating the lives and imaginations of millions of alienated teenagers, the country would be a brighter and safer place.

It’s a depressing picture, even if it’s not unique to Britain. In the United States, the response has been to treat disaffected boys as a medical problem. American doctors write 11 million Ritalin prescriptions a year for boys said to have “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”. The trouble is that in some American schools more than a third of all boy pupils are now dependent on the drug, and no better focused than before.

Then there’s the Jane Fonda approach. She has donated £9 million to endow a “Centre for Gender and Education” at Harvard University. She argues that after decades in which the main thrust of educational philosophy has been to empower girls with self-belief, it is time to switch the emphasis on to boys. The problem, she says, is that young boys are too conditioned to be “manly and strong” from an early age. If only they could be made to behave more like girls . . .

Hmm. When I walk through my local park, I don’t see teenage boys suffering from an excess of manliness and inner strength. I see lonely and insecure children desperately in need of pride and purpose. I see a huge waste of latent talent. I see a blot on this country’s aspirations to be a civilised, unified nation, and a shirking of our obligation to educate and motivate our young. I see a catastrophe waiting to happen.

We are at a crossroads. We could ignore the “lost boys” and their troublesome behaviour. We could hope they “grow out of it”, whatever “it” is. But the evidence of our overflowing youth jails is that they don’t and won’t.

Or we could reassess the way we organise society. No, we can’t turn back the clock and restore the male-centred world that guaranteed badly educated boys a job for life (provided that women stayed at home, bore children and did the housework). Nor should we.

But leaving a large, dangerous minority of teenage boys out in the cold — jobless, bored and resentful — is a blueprint for social unrest, of which this summer’s riots were but a nasty foretaste. There are no easy answers. Turning a blind eye, however, is no answer at all.

Copyright 2001, Times Newspapers Ltd.