Wigan via the White House
Wigan: among its more obvious attractions you might list plenty of chippies, long rows of red-brick terraces and the odd pier. Less expected, perhaps, is the chance to meet an international academic and author working with disaffected young boys. Especially when that academic is black and American.
Not that it bothers psychologist Richard Majors, a fellow of Harvard and the University of Michigan, currently employed by Leigh education action zone in Wigan education authority. He may be the only African-American in this particularly grey corner of north-west England, but that hasn't stopped him becoming a friend and mentor to 18 at-risk boys. They are on a unique year-long project designed by Dr Majors to help them navigate the stormy waters of male adolescence.
Dr Majors came to Britain five years ago as a research fellow with the Leverhulme Trust and liked it so much he decided to stay. As a pioneer of the Afrocentric academic movement in the US in the late Eighties and early Nineties, he had explored strategies to save the "endangered species" of young black men caught up in the self-destructive cycle of poverty, drugs and crime, leading to an inability to sustain meaningful relationships and early death.
As part of that, he and colleagues designed "rites of passage" work for African-American boys. Based on the traditional African custom of a village elder teaching adolescent boys the responsibilities of manhood, the work has proved effective in getting black boys to stay in school and out of trouble.
Some of those experiences went into his 1992 book, Cool Pose, which explores the dilemmas of black malehood in the US. He was also closely involved in setting up the National Council for African-American Men, and is founder and editor of the Journal of African American Men.
And now he's a singular black presence in Wigan, running a pilot project for white working-class 11 to 13-year-old boys adapted from his rites of passage work in the US. Up and running since September, the Mantra project is operating in one primary, two secondaries and one school for children with educational and behavioural difficulties.
Like his US projects, the programme uses role-play, games and other activities to focus on self-esteem, anger management and the projection of positive identities as husbands, fathers and members of the community. With small groups of no more than six, some of the sessions are about gender - masculine identity, pub culture, fatherhood, misogynysexist swearing and media representations of maleness. Others cover more general ground, such as saving face and negative peer influences.
Dr Majors and Steve Clarke, senior educational psychologist at Wigan LEA, have produced curriculum materials for the project based on a survey of boys' attitudes. Dr Clarke explains: "While most boys said it was OK for males to do housework, cooking and looking after children, they saw risk-taking, adventurousness and being disruptive in class as something that defines a male - something that's okay for boys to do. What came out strongly in the survey was a negative attitude to school that is endemic among boys."
The reason for this is more intractable than the "feminisation" of schools that can be such a barrier to boys. And more depressing. "Many of the issues surrounding boys' self-destructive behaviour are to do with their dads not being at home," says Dr Majors.
If Dr Majors is taking the role of father figure as part of the project, he is performing a similar function in his community, too. Over the past two weeks, he has been called at 2am after a boy hit his mother on the head with a bottle, and he was asked to help when a girl slashed her arms. "I'm being used as a mentor, surrogate father, counsellor, whatever they need. Back home in black neighbourhoods, people look after each other, living the slogan 'it takes a village to raise a child'. If I do have a personal mantra, it's about defending social justice, whether it's in schools or on the streets."
Dr Majors grew up in the heady era of civil and women's rights. One of nine children whose parents divorced when he was seven, he was raised, with his seven sisters, by his grandmother in upstate New York. Things could have gone disastrously, but they didn't. He embarked on an academic career in psychology which has included fellowships at Harvard Medical School, the universities of Michigan and Wisconsin and Christ Church College in New Zealand. He has been on a presidential advisory group on youth policy under former US president Bill Clinton, and in the UK has sat on a ministerial task force on social inclusion, a Commission for Racial Equality committee on gender and mentoring and a Qualifications and Curriculum Authority working party on graduation ceremonies.
While Dr Majors's contract with Wigan LEA runs until December,the Mantra Project ends in July with a day out doing physical activities, followed by a ceremony in which each boy will receive a certificate and a symbol of his journey over the year. Dr Majors's plan to take the boys to the US for a week's outdoor activities was scuppered when the local press caught wind of it and whipped up a furore about naughty boys being rewarded with fancy trips. Wigan LEA decided that, given the publicity, the trip would be inappropriate.
The LEA will be "looking at the project's sustainability if it's successful" following two rigorous evaluations, according to Gareth Williams, project director of Leigh EAZ. Dr Majors says that if the model is to be sustained, it has to involve careful vetting and training of people to run it, preferably from outside the school, and preferably male. "These boys, many from single-parent families, need a positive male role model, and they need to be able to bond with someone who they can be honest and open with," he says. While his own charisma and rapport with the boys is an obvious plus, he believes others - such as youth workers - can take on the role if they have a positive outlook.
While success is difficult to measure at this point, the acting head of Kingshill EBD school, Michael Myerscough, sees Mantra as one of several initiatives that has helped to turn his school around. "In the past year, there has been improved behaviour, heightened self-esteem, less bullying and more mutual respect among the six boys who have been in the project," he says. "Some of Richard's ideas may be more fitted to an ethnic minority community, but there's a real need to combat macho behaviour in schools."
Steve Clarke hopes the project is widened. "This is about trying to deal with the underlying causes of difficult behaviour rather than about imposing alternative values," he says. "We try to show the boys different ways of looking at things, then they go away and experiment with these alternatives. There aren't many interventions that do that."
Richard Majors says: "We have to look at how to establish positive interactions between teachers and their pupils. It's easier to get a statement and label a child than it is to challenge teachers' culture. But I have no doubt that if you address social justice issues in schools together with gender, we'll see major improvements in behaviour and attainment."
The session I sit in on at Kingshill school is lively, revelatory, at times almost unbearably poignant - and as enjoyably challenging for Richard Majors as it undoubtedly is for the three 14 and 15-year-old boys (there are usually six) who turn up after school for it. The theme is "act like a man". The boys respond as if they've been waiting to talk about it all their lives.
Jason triggers a whole barrage of ideas when he says acting like a man means "when somebody dies, don't be soft and show your feelings. Be hard. Women can show their feelings but men can't." When Dr Majors asks why this is, each offers other examples of boys being forced into "hard behaviour" (smoking, aggressive language, fighting), and what happens when they don't conform.
Their offerings might not always be carefully considered (one boy says you'd get stabbed if you didn't act like a man and, when questioned by Dr Majors about it, gives the example of his mum and dad stabbing each other when they get drunk), but they are clearly engaged with the subject. And no wonder. Acting like a man is an issue that dogs their waking lives, propelling them to behave in certain ways - sometimes against their better judgment - and often getting them into trouble.