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Despair beneath the macho surface

Nicholas Pyke on concern over white working-class boys' underachievement

The effigy of Charles Mark Palmer, mayor of Jarrow in 1875 and founder of the Palmer shipbuilding works, has become a riverside landmark. On a bitter, windswept day his statue surveys the Tyne at Jarrow as it sweeps round towards the sea.

The inscription praises a man dedicated to the social advancement of the working classes and the prosperity of Jarrow, but over 100 years later the river is silent and still, Jarrow's shipbuilding prowess largely consigned to the history books.

In a week in which the underachievement of white working-class boys has been described by the chief inspector as one of the most disturbing problems facing our education system, teachers and community workers in Jarrow attributed part of the blame to poor unemployment prospects and a sense of hopelessness among families.

Unemployment in Jarrow currently stands at 14.6 per cent but male unemployment is higher at 21.2 per cent. Paul Stephenson, whose two sons have attended Hedworthfield school, an 11-16 secondary of 650 pupils in the middle of a large housing estate on the edge of Jarrow, believes boys' motivation is affected by poor role models.

"When they see what's happening to their fathers, brothers, extended families, that's bound to affect them. If you're not the brightest and your dad's not even out of bed when you leave for school and you hear the teachers encouraging you to work hard, you're bound to wonder what the point of it is. There's a feeling of hopelessness."

In some boys this feeling exacerbated what Mr Stephenson believes is part of male culture in general "of not wanting to appear to be hard-working". He said: "Boys wish to achieve, but without having done anything much at all."

At Hedworthfield, which has a entirely white, working-class intake, boys have fared worse than girls at GCSE, reflecting national trends. Last year 37 per cent of girls achieved five or more A-C grade GCSEs, compared to only 28 per cent of boys. In 1994, a stronger year, 40 per cent of girls gained five high-grade GCSEs compared to 34 per cent of boys.

Geoffrey Walker, Hedworthfield's headteacher, said: "There is the Geordie culture of the hard man. Working hard in school is not macho, yet in my top history set the reverse is true, the girls are more flippant, the boys hard-working."

He felt that the majority of boys were prepared to work, though they tended to "sit quiet in the classroom" and did not like to be singled out for praise. Boys who were demotivated and disruptive were in the minority.

Eddie McNamee, the school's senior tutor, said teachers had to exercise positive discrimination in some subjects. "In humanities, we could end up with top sets of girls only and we have to manipulate that."

Also, he said, different kinds of teaching suited boys better, he said. "Girls do better in open-ended tasks that require co-operation. Boys like tasks that give quick results and their culture doesn't allow them to volunteer answers. I have never yet come across a pupil who doesn't want to succeed, but boys don't know how to address that."

Mr Walker believed the effect of recession in the area was increasingly affecting pupil morale, especially boys. Philip Stephenson, 16, and Michael Basham, 15, two pupils at the school, agreed. Both work hard and both believe boys can be as academically competitive as girls. Philip, a high achiever, though he doesn't like to be seen to be "putting too much work in" will go on to take A-levels and wants to study medicine. Michael wants to work for a local computing firm. He said: "I will go on to college if I can't get a job, but I would prefer to work." Philip added: "I think schools do all they can to encourage pupils, but they can't make jobs for people when they leave."

Down the road, Bob Perris, the headteacher of Hedworthfield primary school, said he was witnessing a sense of hopelessness among a small minority of young children he "would not have seen 10 years ago." He is increasingly worried by children's expectations of what they can achieve for themselves. Ten and 11-year-olds, he said, were beginning to believe "with some justification" that they were not going to get a job and that "real ambitions are just dreams". He said: "It is better to be famous for being a clown or a toughie than working hard and being a failure. Everyone wants a place in life, but many male adults in the area can only be important by being anti-authoritarian. These role models are set up because adults are so disaffected."

Hedworthfield operates a system of rewards for hard work and good behaviour and children are taken on as many trips as possible "to provide a sense of responsibility and opportunity", but the school, he said, has no control over people's job prospects or parenting skills, which are an issue in a small minority of cases.

Thirsk School in North Yorkshire, which has received Pounds 15,000 from North Yorkshire Training and Enterprise Council over the past two years for research into boys' under-achievement, has consulted pupils extensively about attitudes to work and is now following through recommendations.

Boys, staff have found, prefer active lessons with opportunities for involvement such as role play. "When boys are bored they switch off," said Mike Brown, the deputy head. "When girls are bored they still tend to conform. " The school is looking at the way teachers mark work and investing in "good quality non-fiction" in the library to encourage boys to read independently.

This week Year 11 parents met with teachers to discuss male underachievement. Mike Brown said: "We want to warn them against the danger of boys' believing that everything will be all right on the [exam] day."

Last year the most common GCSE grade among girls at Thirsk was C; among boys the most common grade was D.

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