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Boys revert to nature when future looks bleak

The motivation and socialisation of teenage boys and young men has become a serious problem. There is not much dispute about that in any circles, sociological, political or at the school gate. The extent of the problem and how it might be addressed dominated the conference.

Carolyn Dixon of Sheffield University gave the most entertaining exposition of laddishness with here video clips of boys at work and play in the technology workshop. Among the tempting array of tools and equipment, her 13 and 14-year-olds exhibited inventiveness and perseverance well beyond the call of the subject as they flicked dust and wood-shavings, played with knives, teased and provoked each other like a pride of lion clubs. The teacher and the girls in the class were almost invisible as the games boys played ebbed and flowed.

This constant "fighting" behaviour, without much malice or risk of harm, Ms Dixon concluded, was all about masculinity. And in a largely, but not wholly working-class comprehensive, it was all-inclusive. This was what all boys do in most lessons as and when the opportunity arises, she said, regardless of their ability or commitment to the academic aims of the school. Technology lessons were only different in that the environment was unusually rich in opportunities for this type of "play" which often involved images of war and violence, from mock Kung Fu kicks to "sword fights" with pretty well anything "long and straight".

Why do they do it? There are no definitive answers but Ms Dixon concluded that though simple boredom might play a part, there was more to it than that.

These were adolescents deeply confused about their future role in society, she suggested. For them work is a faint prospect. They live in a community where traditional roles have been undermined and their mothers are often the family breadwinners. They feel threatened by the expectations of traditional notion of maleness, where they openly talk about "honour" and "revenge" and sort out hierarchies of control and domination in their play fighting.

That was a diagnosis shared with David Pye and Martin Mac an Ghaill of Birmingham University who had been studying young people in "the new vocational context". They concluded that the transition from school to work has now been so disrupted by unemployment, changes in benefit and housing rules, that white working-class boys aged to 16 to 19 are in state of unprecedented confusion about their roles.

They find themselves in a situation where the old dichotomy between the male breadwinner and the female home-maker has vanished, girls are more likely to be able to find work after school than boys, and deep divisions between the generations have opened up, Mac an Ghaill argues. As a result they were taking refuge in a counter-culture at school, and this was being carried over into training, where trainers were not offering them what they thought was appropriate.

"What boys are looking for is technical skills which prepare them for 'proper jobs'," he said. "In many ways they are hanging on to very traditional view of the division of labour and family life, and they become antagonistic and disruptive when all they are offered in training is "presentational skills".

"One of the lads": Defining moments in the construction of a school-based masculine identity, Carolyn Dixon."Inherent contradiction and the search for an answer: young people in the new vocational context", David Pye and Martin Mac an Ghaill.

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