Boys need care, not blame

John Cairney

"Simple soundbites from frustrated politicians" are not the answer to legitimate concerns about antisocial behaviour among young people, especially boys, a former local politician told a conference in Glasgow last week.

Calling for a national debate, Brian Cavanagh, a former social work chair in Edinburgh and now a social policy consultant, said that a "single dimensional approach" was not enough.

The conference was held the day before the Scottish Executive unveiled its controversial package to deal with antisocial behaviour (see below). Mr Cavanagh said: "There is a legitimate concern about what is going on and people have to put up with unacceptable behaviour, but we need a much more multi-layered and complex series of solutions, not just from the Executive but from the public policy network including the National Health Service and the local authorities.

"Young people who are troublesome are also troubled and we can't just polarise the debate into perpetrators and victims."

Mr Cavanagh, now chair of Lothian Health, said that while "soft options" are not the way forward, tougher alternatives "have to be grounded in a new lexicon of care about making sure that if we are talking about citizenship to young people they understand their responsibilities as well as their rights. That is where the debate needs to start."

Chris Holmes, director of children's services with NCH Scotland, which organised the "All About Boys" conference, said: "We need to work constructively with the small minority of young people who are running wild and tell them that they are not getting the soft option of tagging, and that we will address their behaviour."

Lucinda Neall, author of Bringing the Best out in Boys, said: "We are spending too much money at the wrong end - on prisons and tagging - and not enough on support for parents and young people."

She said that boys need to be both accepted and respected as people. "That does not mean that you have to accept all the behaviour - some of the behaviour needs to be limited - but it is important to accept the boy as a person, to accept his experiences, his point of view and his feelings.

"Headlines such as 'Get the louts out', for example, do not say that the boys' behaviour was loutish, but label them as louts. It is much wiser to look at the behaviour of particular boys and say what is not acceptable in a school and have sanctions available for that behaviour. In the end the sanction may be exclusion but you are looking at the behaviour of the boy as opposed to the boy being a lout."

Adrienne Katz, director of the research organisation Young Voice, warned against encouraging "the dignity of victimhood" among young people. "The more we make young people feel that they are victims of the system, of punishment, of the police, of society - the more they will come out fighting. We are boxing them into a corner from which they can only emerge aggressively. We need to leave them a route to come back."

Even when boys erect a "bravado barrier" they are often worried about schoolwork. A survey of more than 2,000 boys in England found that 68 per cent were affected by stress linked to schoolwork and exams. "They often truanted because they did not want to be shown up as not being able to cope in the classroom," Ms Katz said.

Leader, page 18 Opinion, page 19

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John Cairney

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