Adolescent boys have become a key focus of public and political anxiety over the past decade or so. During this period a number of concerns about young men’s behaviour and wellbeing have gained prominence, ranging from worries about their educational under-achievement relative to girls, to an increasing growing awareness of the suicide rate and mental health problems among boys.
Young men have tended to be characterised in media debate and public policy as ‘at risk’, in terms of their own physical and mental wellbeing, and as ‘risky’ in relation to others, in terms of youth crime and anti-social behaviour.
The violent disturbances in some English cities in August 2011 were the latest events to trigger vigorous debate,about the state of British youth in general, but with a particular focus on the so-called ‘problem’ of boys.
Media pundits and politicians have offered a wide range of explanations for the current ‘crisis’ in young masculinity. These have included the decline in traditional masculine occupations and the disappearance of conventional rites of passage, such as apprenticeships, as well as the supposed ‘feminisation’ of schooling and the workplace and the consequent devaluing of ‘male’ skills and aptitudes.
However, one explanation that has gained particular currency - to the extent of becoming a kind of unchallenged ‘common sense’ - is the supposed absence of positive male role models from the lives of today’s young men, especially those perceived to be most vulnerable. This was certainly an argument heard repeatedly from politicians and others in the aftermath of the events of summer 2011.
According to what we might call the ‘male role model’ discourse, many of the problems faced by the current generation of young men can be traced back to an increase in the number of families with absent fathers, and the disappearance of men from professions in regular contact with boys.
With regard to the latter, much of the discussion has centred on education, and particularly primary schools, where there appears to have been a real decline in the proportion of male teachers.
Recent years have also witnessed a series of campaigns to increase men’s representation in services where they have always been a minority, such as earlyyears childcare, children’s nursing, and social work with children and families.
The last Labour government introduced a number policy initiatives aimed at providing positive male role models, particularly for working-class boys, such as the ‘Playing for Success’ programme promoting footballers as role models, and the REACH Programme using mentors to raise the attainment of young black men.
The trend has continued under the Conservative-led Coalition, for example in the ‘Troops for Teachers’ programme which recruits ex-Service personnel to work in schools. An influential report from the Centre for Policy Studies argued that the programme would improve discipline in inner-city schools and that the ‘macho’ image of ex-soldiers would help to engender respect, especially among boys.
But how useful is this emphasis on male role models in addressing the difficult issues faced by today’s young men? Can we really draw a straight line between absent fathers or a lack of male teachers on the one hand, and boys’ under-achievement or anti-social behaviour on the other? How much do we really know about the importance of gender in the care and support of vulnerable young men?
A new research project, based at The Open University and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, plans to explore some of these questions. This two-year study will be working with Action for Children, a national voluntary organisation, to examine the relationships between male and female professionals and teenage boys in contact with welfare services.
Underlying this research project is a concern that the ‘male role model’ argument may be too simple an explanation for the complex web of problems faced by today’s adolescent boys. Do boys really learn to be healthy, well-adjusted men simply by copying ‘positive’ role models, whether at home or in the wider world? What about the part played by mothers, and by female professionals, in boys’ development: isn’t there a danger that a simplistic emphasis on male role models risks undermining the positive role of women in young men’s lives?
The researchers plan to organise one-to-one interviews and focus group discussions with boys, and the professionals in contact with them, in projects in England and Scotland, for young offenders, care leavers and other ‘at risk’ groups.
The focus will be on the extent to which the gender of the professional makes a difference, if any, to the quality and effectiveness of relationships, and how gender interacts with other aspects of identity – such as class and ethnicity, for example.
As well as providing valuable insights into how gender ‘works’ in professional relationships in welfare settings, it’s hoped that the research will help to influence the policy debate about the needs of young men – and at the same time provide guidance that will help to improve services for them.
The new research project referred to above is led by Dr Martin Robb and Professor Brigid Featherstone of the OU’s Faculty of Health and Social Care. The working title for the research study is ‘Do boys need male role models: gender identities and practices in work with young men’. For more information about the project, email Martin Robb.
'Gender' by Martin Robb in 'Understanding youth: perspectives, identities and practice' (edited by M.J. Kehily) Sage/The Open University 2007