15 March 2021

The Monday Briefing: Boys

The Monday Briefing: Boys

Having joined the College six and a half years ago, a characteristic of the institution has always been that, in terms of the demographic of the student body, boys slightly outnumber girls. There could be several explanations for this: perhaps parents feel that their male offspring need more monitoring and encouragement than their female counterparts; boys seem more likely to enrol on our intensive course, having underperformed at the first attempt; those young males who are more distracted in the mainstream setting tend to find their motivation when immersed in an environment of small classes and higher levels of teacher support. Whatever the reason, it requires all teachers at the College to be armed with strategies to get the best out of them. The underachievement of boys, white or any other ethnicity, isn’t exactly breaking news within the profession. In fact, there are several studies and one particularly excellent book devoted to the issue - I can thoroughly recommend ‘Boys Don’t Try? - Rethinking Masculinity in Schools’ by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts.

On Thursday last, a minor incident within the College summed our male cohort up almost too well. One of our less headlining Covid rules has been restricting access to the toilet facilities for both boys and girls. In order to guard against potential crowding in these rooms, they were fitted with locks, and require the students to sign out a key, sanitised between uses. They can still visit when they wish, but they need to be more responsible with regards to its use. This simple system has been adopted seamlessly by the girls, who have treated their area with respect, but their male counterparts just can’t seem to uphold the standards required of them. The boys’ indifference even sparked an appropriately barbed article in the College magazine by the editor decrying their blasé attitude and imploring that they spare a thought for those who have to clean it. We’ve had issues with a lack of care taken over toilet rolls, carelessness with failing to close the door after themselves and, to crown it all off, two lost keys in the last week. A frantic search ensued, and within a few hours, both were found. Infuriatingly, they were located in the pockets of those students who had been entrusted with them. It would be easy to fall into the trap here of stereotypes: girls are obedient and hardworking; boys are flippant and disrespectful - but it’s not that simple.

I saw a poignant post on LinkedIn during the week which brought sharply into focus the duty of any school or college towards the males within their care. The image displayed a simple message: the words ‘Protect your daughter’ were struck through in red. Below them, the words ‘Educate your son’ remained prominent. Following the death of Sarah Everard, an outpouring of emotion has sparked a national debate about male violence and the safety of women. The tragic events have, personally, been deeply affecting, and have evoked within me a sense, put very well in a Guardian article entitled ‘Always with keys out’ that ‘this violence could have happened to our sister, our daughter, our colleague or our friend.’ I simply can not bear the thought of my own two-year-old growing up in a world where women continue to be scared to walk home alone, having no choice but to take steps to adapt in order to safeguard their lives because of the threat of intimidation, assault or worse. The reprehensible scenes at the vigil for Miss Everard only served to prove the point of the protestors themselves: that personal safety for women remains elusive and that significant societal change is imperative. 

Statistics on this issue in the UK are shameful: one in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime; one in five will be victims of sexual assault; rape prosecutions are falling despite a rise in the number of cases being reported. There can be little doubt that a long standing problem in our society is not being eradicated any time soon. I couldn’t agree strongly enough when singer Nadine Shah tweeted ‘the solution begins with respecting women’, having documented her past travails in trying to get home safely.

So how can we ‘educate our sons’ in ‘respecting women’ moving forward?

This does not look to be an easy fix: boys underperform in comparison to girls at every key stage; they are more likely to be excluded from school; they are less likely to go to university; they are three times more likely to commit suicide by the time they reach their twenties. An inferiority complex initially appears difficult to overcome.

It’s important to state, as a caveat, that women are more likely in the UK to be illiterate and poor, underlining the inequalities which persist here and now.

Perhaps the foremost barrier to overcome is that of an embedded acceptance of an adherence to a goal of becoming a certain kind of man, often described as ‘toxic masculinity’. This means displaying the following characteristics:

  • Toughness: The notion that men should be physically strong, emotionally callous, and behaviourally aggressive.
  • Antifeminity: The idea that men should reject anything that is considered to be feminine, such as showing emotion or accepting help.
  • Power: The assumption that men must work toward obtaining power and status, both social and financial, so they can gain the respect of others.

Until the hell-bent pursuit of these qualities is no longer fashionable, change will be an uphill struggle. Boys need to understand that, in the words of the American Psychological Association, ‘traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful. Socialising boys to suppress their emotions creates damage, both inwardly and outwardly.’ Researchers in several studies have found that when stereotypes and cultural expectations are stripped away, there are few differences in the basic behaviors between men and women.

A radical rethink needs to occur with regards to this area of connecting with boys. The education of male students should be rooted the concept of ‘tender masculinity’, a concept best explained in a tremendous article written by Canadian feminist Terra Loire. Simply put, the following questions should be asked of boys at every opportunity, with the hope that they can respond in the affirmative:

  • Is he invested in all of his relationships, not just romantic ones?
  • Does he express his emotions in a healthy way?
  • Is self-awareness a concept he’s comfortable with?
  • Does he commit to personal growth?
  • Are boundaries something he is aware of and respects?
  • Is he unafraid of male intimacy — for instance, can he express affection for male friends without joking about it?

The more a boy understands these and seeks to master them, the further maturity, self-confidence and an appreciation of others can grow. Ensuring that boys consider what this means first, discussing it and understanding why it matters is critical to their development and wellbeing, as well as that of others.

So, how does this look in a practical sense in classrooms and in schools?

This requires behaviour modelling, consistency and relationship building above all. Pinkett and Roberts offer a practical set of directions for teachers, coined as ‘Militant tenderness’:

  • Relentless politeness at all times
  • Relentless honesty at all times
  • Relentless critique of negative aspects of masculinity
  • Relentless attention to language being used
  • Relentless acknowledgement of own faults
  • Relentless challenging of negative masculine behaviours

You’ll notice that none of these rules discuss wearing uniforms appropriately or calling their teacher ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. This code of conduct focuses far more on student actions rather than general rules and regulations - and it is why we think the balance is right at Ealing Independent College. It is a system immersed in dignity for oneself and respect for others.

These are not particularly new ideas, and are rooted in a common sense approach. They won’t eradicate the wider societal issue but the more we adhere to an approach where we seek to encourage boys to be more considerate, reflective and respectful of others can only be a step in the right direction. 

And the younger they begin to have an awareness of this, the better.

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