Deborah Orr: We will only get more role models when the state stops failing boys

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The Independent Online

Some eminent group appears to submit some report to the Government every minute of every day. A lot of the time, the recommendations in these reports appear to stray far away from addressing any issue over which the Government actually has any direct control. Maybe the only report we really need at the moment is one which clearly outlines what the Government can and should do and what the Government can't and shouldn't.

While this week's Reach report into young black male disaffection accurately pinpointed the aspects of the social and cultural landscape that exacerbate the problems that make young black males so vulnerable to violent street gang life, many of the remedies it prescribes are simply outside the remit of the state.

Sure, music lyrics that glorify misogyny, drugs, violence, guns, nihilism and the "respect" all this deserves reflect and sustain a culture that does the same. Why there even has to be a "debate" about this, I cannot fathom. But stopping people from thinking that way, composing that way, and distributing the fruits of their labours in a multitude of ways just cannot be done that easily in a free and democratic society, even if it were practically or technologically possible.

Sure, the example provided by rap stars, sports personalities and celebrities is limited - and by no means all negative - but calls for the recruitment of "positive black male role models" have been trumpeted for years now, and all that has been proved so far is that it is much, much easier for the state to say "we need more positive role models" than to provide them. Anyway, celebrity culture is driven by business, especially the media, and again in a neo-liberal society these are areas that are powerful enough to shrug off government meddling, for good or for ill.

Sure, there has to be a connection between skewed ideas about what it is to be a man and the absence of a father in nearly 50 per cent of Afro-Caribbean households. Did I say connection? Not being prepared to take responsibility for your children is a negation of what it is to be a mammal, never mind a man. But the Conservatives have been mulling for years over what can be done about family breakdown, and all they can come up with is tax breaks for marriage. It's not going to make much of a dent.

Anyway, this particular aspect of the heightened difficulties that face black families is often quite deeply misunderstood. More black families than white families are regular church-goers and often the discipline that black children receive at home, and the responsibility for themselves and their families that they are expected to shoulder, is firmer and stricter than that in white homes. For good reason. Active black parents are far from unaware of the dangers their sons will face. Mostly, they are terrified for their kids, not disengaged from them. Some teachers suggest that black boys end up misbehaving at school precisely because the boundaries there are so much less clear, just as they do when their single parents are at work. This isn't always the case. But often it is.

School, of course, is an area that the Government does have responsibility for, and it is notable that while all research suggests that black boys are let down particularly badly, all research also recognised that this happens with boys more generally as well. Recently I was discussing this problem with a senior executive at an international charity. She suggested that the relative educational failure of boys compared to girls in British schools was "exactly as it should be", Inevitably, she was a big noise at a children's charity, and the mother of daughters only. The very idea that pouring unskilled young people into a skills-based economy can ever be "exactly as it should be" is certifiable, and that a children's charity worker couldn't see that is appalling.

The truth is that there are deeply worrying ways in which boys are institutionally disadvantaged at school. It is hard for them, at five, to sit in a class for most of the day being formally taught. Sport, music, drama, art, excursions, games, stories, debates and discussions are what they need most until they are about seven. Done well, they can lay a fantastic groundwork for an engaged, active and well-socialised life. Sitting boys down to learn to read and write before they are ready to puts them off education for good. They often spend their first couple of years at school frustrated, bored and scolded. It is where disaffection and alienation begin.

Boys are also disadvantaged for the simple reason, hard evidence tells us again, that they are more susceptible to conditions that hamper learning, such as dyslexia, attention-deficit disorder or autistic spectrum syndromes. There was a flurry of discussion in the wake of the decision of Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, to send her child with a learning disorder to a private school. What emerged from that was a cri de coeur from teachers who admitted that state primaries had no mechanisms whereby they could test even for dyslexia. This is a problem for both sexes, but it is in the nature of these disorders that boys end up suffering more.

Then, of course, there is state school paranoia about hierarchies. I over-generalise here, but what my experience of the world and its workings tell me is that girls will try their best because they like to please and boys will do their best because they like to win. I'm fond of both myself, and no doubt many men are too. But still, competition motivates boys a lot, and it ought to be seen as a useful tool in the educational fix-it kit.

There are plenty of other areas that affect boys, and particularly black boys, that the Government also has responsibility for. In most of those key areas, the Government fails. Only when a whole host of the social problems that do fall within the remit of the state are sorted will those much-needed role models start having a chance of coming through. Recommending better role models is pretty much similar to just recommending a nicer, fairer, better organised and more sensible world. Traditional vernacular used refer to this as "putting the cart before the horse".

Of course, if role models really were so terribly important, it would be rich young white girls rather than poor young black boys that we'd be fretting about now. There is not much to say about Amy Winehouse, pictured, that has not been said many times over the centuries, not least about the hero all the Amy-types cite, Lord Byron.

The young singer and songwriter is abusing alcohol, abusing drugsand generally spending her not-inconsiderable earnings on fostering a lifestyle that many of the near-destitute would find a little too squalid to bear. But unlike Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Pete Doherty et al, the woman at least refrains from getting behind the wheel of motors and driving herself about while she's on her mad little benders.

I can understand just about everything about what motivates rich young guns who go off the rails, except that one thing. Why don't they use their wealth to employ a chauffeur or two when they're on the lash? Why would you even bother to own a car? At least Amy is not too far gone to realise that when you're half-conscious you travel in an ambulance. There's hope for her yet.

Lost luggage with a happy ending

British Airways lost 23 bags for every 1,000 passengers last year, and the number of complaints recorded so far in 2007 suggests that nothing has improved. However, having recently had a bag lost by BA myself, I have to confess that it has not been an altogether disadvantageous experience.

After 10 days my case turned up at my home, intact (including the hefty knot of gold and semi-precious stones I'd foolishly chucked into my unlocked bag on a whim). So I felt much better and was entirely prepared to forgive and forget.

A couple of days after that, a letter of apology also turned up, which was fair enough, although I didn't bother actually reading it, presuming I'd heard all that corporate sorrow claptrap already. Then, a week later, a cheque for £150 arrived, so I fished the letter out of the recycling box and learned that I was being handsomely compensated for my fairly tiny inconvenience. Do they always do this? Shouldn't they just spend the cash on employing a few more baggage handlers?

I'm now wondering if it might be a good idea never to travel without shoving a locked suitcase full of old newspapers in the hold, just on the off-chance ... This kind of trick, played en masse, could be just the incentive BA needs to sort itself right out.

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