Find a way out of the maze

Joanna Snicker describes a Europe-wide project to raise adolescent boys' achievement

Sixteen-year-old Jon is ambitious. After sitting his GCSEs at Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham College in south London, he plans to take three A-levels and wants to study business at university.

But there is a stumbling block to his success - like many teenage boys he hates homework and goes out with his friends at every available opportunity.

But at least what he says now to his teachers about his own masculinity might help boys in the future. His thoughts about himself, women, his mother, his father, will be closely analysed as part of a special project on boys called Arianne - the mythical Greek woman who led Theseus out of the maze.

Project Arianne, a European-wide scheme started last year, aims to "broaden adolescent male education" at a time when boys in Britain are consistently getting lower GCSE results than girls, as well as being more inclined to misbehave, take drugs and truant. Afro-Caribbean boys, in particular, seem to be under-achieving, as shown by the findings of a Birmingham local authority report last year in which only 8.6 per cent of Afro-Caribbean boys gained an A to C grade in maths compared with 32.2 per cent of white boys.

Due to be completed next year, Arianne is in its final stage in selected schools in Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Portugal.

It deals with four main areas: academic achievement; domestic life; the masculine experience; and gender relations, using activities such as questionnaires, class discussion, drama and poetry.

The six pilot schools in Britain, which are all based in the south-east, generally represent the education mix of the country: urban and rural; grant-maintained and comprehensive; single-sex and mixed.

Haberdashers' is a city technology college (CTC), with separate boys and girls' sites. Its pupils come from three south London boroughs which guarantees a wide racial mix. Anne-Marie Pitkethly's group of Year 11 pupils at the boys' site is currently covering aggression as part of the theme on the masculine experience. Ms Pitkethly hands out questionnaires. "Fill these in," she says. "Don't think about it too much, just tick the first thing that comes to your mind. It's all confidential."

Kevin lounges at the back of the class, he nonchalantly ticks the boxes and then sits back. Well-dressed, polite and respectful, he has none the less chosen to "approach with violence in mind" the question: "Somebody your size is shouting serious abuse at you in the street to the point that it's getting personal, what do you do?" "I wouldn't walk away, if somebody is abusing me," he says. "I'd hit them".

Junior, another member of her class (known as "Class 11 Pitkethly"), agrees. "I used to let people walk all over me," he says shrugging his shoulders. "I hit back now. It's the only way." The boys sitting at the front of the class all opted for the peaceful options unless their younger siblings were being bullied. "If somebody the same size as me is bothering my little brother I'll thump them," says Jon.

This information will be sent straight to Cambridge University where academics are busy analysing the data from all six British schools involved in the project.

Dr Madeleine Arnot, a sociology lecturer at Cambridge, started the project with other European academics. "Each country was concerned about masculinity for different reasons," she says. "Denmark, for example, is concerned about the rise of anti-social youth cultures. In France they were concerned about racism. They're concerned about the lack of change in concepts of masculinity in countries like Spain and Portugal where there is a lot of change among women but not necessarily among men. Our work was focused on girls and so when we sat down and talked about it we decided that more should be done for boys and what it's like growing up in Europe today as a male."

She says that the UK with its high number of single parents has a particular problem with fatherhood. "There are some schools that are very keen on encouraging boys to think creatively about family life and fatherhood and so they do express an interest in what we can do for boys in that area and think we haven't paid enough attention to it," she says.

Haberdashers', which has more that 1,200 pupils, has a good academic reputation: last year, 60 per cent of pupils achieved A to C grades at GCSE. But the boys are more than 10 per cent behind the girls and the Afro-Caribbean pupils are even further behind.

Ms Pitkelthy, who teaches PSE and religious studies, believes the project has given her some insight into the male psyche.

"What is really interesting was the way the boys revered their mothers, but not their fathers," she says. "We did a questionnaire on who their role models were. Every single one mentioned their mothers but not their fathers. They picked footballer Ian Wright or someone else. I think it's particularly linked to their cultural background - and a lot of them were brought up by single mothers.

"There is a real worry in our school about Afro-Caribbean boys underachieving," she continues. "And it's nothing to do with ability. They just don't seem to feel comfortable in certain subject areas.

"At Year 9 stage they seem to lose interest. They are often adult in their behaviour and their lifestyle outside school. They seem to want to move on and don't realise they are going to need their education outside school."

Meanwhile, 11 Pitkethly has some suggestions. "We should be like Germany, " says Patrick. "We should only take exams when we are ready for them."

Jon explains: "We shouldn't have homework. We should get it all done in school. So we can go out and enjoy ourselves. Girls are better at doing homework. They haven't got such a good social life."

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