“Black kids are proud to be black, Asian kids are proud to be Indian or Pakistani. There’s not a lot of cultural identity for white Anglo-Saxon males.”
This is a snapshot of how teenage boys live in inner-city Britain. A 14-year-old stands above an underpass and throws stones at the cars below: “Just to get the chase, just to get the thrill.” A 16-year-old with a troubled face says this: “I didn’t like showing I was nice inside because it would make me out to be some soft person. It’s not about being hard, it’s about acting hard.” An 18-year-old has grown up with one overwhelming thought: “You just get into the idea, I’m never going to do nothing in my life, so why should I bother?”
No, these are not middle-class boys who expect to become doctors and lawyers and rich City people, they are boys who failed at school and they hail from deprived areas where the only achievers are drug dealers. They are also white, and while this may confound the middle-class assumption that low achievers are likely to be black, this makes them typical. Overwhelmingly, say Professor Robert Cassen and Dr Geeta Kingdon in their report Tackling Low Educational Achievement, it is white boys who fail in Britain. Remove the middle classes from the equation, look just at children from deprived areas, and more than three-quarters of low achievers are white, British and male.
They are visible at the age of 3, Cassen says. “The child from a professional middle-class home hears 1,500 different words a day. A working-class child hears 500. They don’t recover because we don’t have an equalising education system.”
That is one view. In recent weeks I’ve spoken to 20 white boys aged 13 to 25. All have underachieved, some to the extent that their lives have been at risk, though many are starting to work towards their potential because they are now in a system where support is available. I’ve also spoken to as many professionals who work with them. The questions are obvious: why do these boys fail, and what can be done to help them? How can we interrupt the cycle of deprivation, chaos and despair that is set to brand another generation as no-hopers with no future?
The answer to the first question is hard to pin down without resorting to Little Britain clichés about feckless single mothers, though it is clear that this debate is not about education but rooted in emotional welfare. Let’s start with the view from the street.