Secret social worker: on failing boys

Lila Halliday on how and why we are failing boys

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Since the 1980s boys from lower income families have been under-performing in education compared with every other group and are over-represented in many of the worst statistics: homelessness, prison population, drug addiction, suicide and more. But we seem to have missed the point – we are failing to identify and act on the problem.

The problem is prejudice, discrimination and multiple disadvantages. Boys with certain names, from certain areas, who wear certain clothes get labelled quickly by society and those who are supposed to care. They get labelled “naughty” and are considered a problem early on in their school careers and that sticks.

Boys are taught not to show their feelings and are often not gifted with the language of emotion, and this seems to be more prevalent where other disadvantages are present within the family and the community. When these boys are anxious, upset or just want their mum they don’t have the skills or permission to communicate this effectively. The manifestation of their pain is often rage and destruction, which reinforces their identity as “bad”, means they don’t get their needs met and they are often punished for their feelings.

Having worked with young adults who have experienced childhood adversity in many forms, the difference in literacy skills between the genders is stark. I am yet to come across a young woman who cannot read or write but I meet young men who don’t possess these skills frequently.

From listening to their stories it seems that when a child struggles in school they often act out in a way that masks the difficulties they encounter. The behaviour is not expected of girls so the issue is identified and they are given the support they need. For boys displaying the same behaviour the behaviour is seen as the actual issue and the underlying academic problems are not identified or worked through. This leads to more frustration and disruption, the child disengaging completely from education and often finding sanctuary in damaging circles.

Recent Children’s Commissioner data shows that a child who is educated in a pupil referral unit (PRUs) is 200 times more likely to be involved in gang crimes. And most children in PRUs are working-class males. Education is the celebrated route out of poverty but what if education has rejected you?

The same prejudice is played out in the criminal justice system. I’ve seen young women and middle-class adolescents who commit multiple offences and are given chance after chance, while their male working-class counterparts are facing prison time. Boys are labelled as criminals early on in their mischief making, where girls are vulnerable and troubled. Meanwhile, boys from privileged backgrounds are labelled brats and their parents are left to deal with them. This result? Working-class boys resigning themselves to a life of low aspiration and intermittent prison stays.

Do we as social workers exacerbate the problem or attempt to solve it? In my experience it’s both. We are part of a society that holds this view of working-class boys and it will affect our practice. It is our job to reflect on our internal prejudice and seek to understand and support all the young people we work with. Social work, like many other public services, is about levelling the playing field and we have to understand both the sport and the players to do that.

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