'Youth violence is not about race'

We are failing miserably to provide Britain's teenage boys with meaningful occupations, worthy role

I had not wept in an advice surgery until a few weeks ago, when a distraught mother and father came to see me after learning that their teenage daughter had been subjected to the most brutal assault I have ever heard about. A group of young men had subjected this girl to a violent sexual attack, first raping her, then pouring acid over her body.

It seems futile to try to rationalise this act. How can such disregard for humanity be explained? Almost certainly it cannot. Yet there is something that links this horrifying example of male aggression with so much of the violence that society has witnessed this past year. We are not just seeing young people attack one another on Britain's streets; the common theme is that it is predominantly young men who are doing so. This may be a statement of the obvious, but it is one that we cannot ignore. Had this stream of violence been perpetrated almost exclusively by young women, gender would rightly have been invoked as one of the factors. The same must be done in relation to young men.

Alarm bells have been ringing for some time. In classrooms, boys are being outperformed consistently by girls. Recent results show that girls are overtaking boys by the age of 14, and by 18 are far more likely to achieve an A or B grade at A-level than boys. In adolescence, too many young men develop unhealthy attitudes towards sex, money and violence. In adult life, three-quarters of all suicides are men. The prison population is overwhelmingly male - indeed, men comprise almost 95 per cent of those in custody, and this number continues to increase compared to women. Boys, young men and grown men are struggling to find their place in society. It is time to ask ourselves why.

In recent weeks, politicians have gestured towards this issue. When David Cameron raised the responsibility of some fathers in the black community, he covered no new ground. We know that loving parents and male role models matter. We know that 59 per cent of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. But I winced as another round of banner headlines tarred every father in the black community with the same brush. And, like others, my reaction was that more back-to-basics speeches won't get us very far. The questions that need to be answered for children of all races and social backgrounds are: what can we do when there is no father in a young man's life? And how can society nurture the development and socialisation of young men before a culture of violence robs them of their futures?

Gang culture

The discussion about fatherhood needs to be seen in a wider context: the place of masculinity in modern societies. Because many young men who carry knives or guns do so not because they hope to use them, or even because they fear they might need to. They carry them as symbols of status and power. The issue is one of self-image. In the warped world of gang culture, carrying a weapon has come to be associated with being a man. Rather than being seen as a risk, the knife confers "respect". Understanding the roots of this must be at the heart of any realistic strategy to put an end to the violence.

The reasons are many. Some of the old images and expressions of masculinity are disappearing from society. Most obviously, the relationship between men and their work has undergone a revolution. When coalminers marched against the closure of the pits they were worried for their jobs, but also for their identity and way of life. A model of work built on physical endeavour is slowly being replaced by an emphasis on intellectual and emotional labour. Women are beginning to break through the glass ceiling, displacing men as the principal earners for the first time. Britain is becoming richer and fairer because of these developments, but is also experiencing a big challenge to many traditional notions of masculinity.

In society, the fetishisation of money and the growth of consumerism add new pressures. In a "bling" culture, criminality easily becomes a short cut to symbols of wealth and power that will otherwise take years of hard work to achieve. Inequality plays its part, as young men from poor backgrounds feel they have the least to lose. Why, one boy asked me, was I worried about his grades at school, when he might not live long enough to get a job? This is the world of "get rich or die trying".

In peer groups, interactions between young men in groups are so often based around conflict. Too many boys never learn how to relate positively to other boys, let alone girls. And it starts early. Men make up 44 per cent of secondary school teachers, but fewer than two in ten primary school teachers are men. When I look at my own childhood, I realise that although I grew up without a father, I did have a very responsible elder brother, a local priest, teachers, uncles and youth workers able to fulfil that role. Masculinity is largely made up of learned behaviour and without a model of that behaviour emphasising an ability to express emotions, young boys have to look elsewhere to make what mark they can. Violence - or at least the power to inflict it - becomes a displacement activity. An aggressive street culture replaces success in other spheres of life as an expression of masculinity. Young men become attached to gangs, which reinforce this subculture, rather than families or workplaces, which work against it.

And, in this post-Thatcherite generation more than any other, young men struggle to control their own emotions. An inability to delay gratification - whether with food, alcohol, money or sex - is becoming a hallmark of our age, reinforced by advertising and media (by the age of ten, the average British child recognises nearly 400 brand names). But while materialism and a consumer culture cannot be wished away, its impact on children can be restricted. The centre-left must govern markets in the public interest and it is right to look at advertising and its impact on young people.

Family support

There is a danger that those who cannot discipline their own lifestyles and learning will lose out in future educational success. Yet these things can be learned when young people are given the right structures, support and opportunities. Government and society need to recognise that the most precious resource in this battle is not money, but people's time.

We need to support parents enabling them to spend more time with their children, well beyond maternity and paternity leave. How are we helping families during those tricky times of transition from primary to secondary school, and through later teenage years? While there may be young men on estates missing fathers who left them, there are also children in Middle Britain whose parents become strangers in a culture of long working hours. Where there are no fathers, single mothers should be supported, not demonised. As someone who grew up in a single-parent household, I understand how difficult it can be for a single mother to raise an income and a family at the same time.

While the state must provide financial support, the community must provide male role models for young men to learn from. Corporations should be encouraged to offer mentors to young men, not just sign cheques. One of the best projects I have seen is the City Gateway youth inclusion project in Tower Hamlets, a borough in which almost a quarter of people are deemed to have skills too low for business and where one in five 18- to 25-year-olds claims unemployment benefit, although there are two jobs for every person. The project is run by an Oxbridge graduate who could be earning vastly more in the City, but instead brings volunteers from some of the biggest banks to help develop the skills and job-readiness of young people. We need to find ways to make sure such brilliant projects are more than one-off success stories.

In the US, federal and state governments have used incentives to encourage firms to invest in the inner city. In Kent County in Michigan, a state blighted by some of the worst urban poverty in America, schemes help local businesses offer discounts to people who volunteer as mentors. The Clinton Foundation was established in Harlem as a symbol of solidarity with that area, and in inner-city DC, the Washington Post funds and supports job training for low-income residents.

British workers in the public sector need to be given similar opportunities to become actively involved. Kent County Council, for example, gives its staff two days off every year to engage in voluntary or community activity. We need to decide how we can do this on a much bigger scale.

Strong values

There are other ways we can do more to support the personal development of young men. Addressing youth culture issues must move beyond giving young people "something to do". Young men need something purposeful to do, so that they learn to share, co-operate and produce, not just consume. Youth services, too often an afterthought in the past, must be taken seriously at a local level - whether that is through music, drama or sporting activities such as boxing clubs.

The National Lottery should start delivering projects that are more than the sum of their parts, such as new civic institutions on the scale of the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade, which are grounded in strong values and part of a wider social movement. A national civic service to benefit young people on a personal level and society as a whole is widely supported, but now needs someone to grasp the nettle of compulsion. I am passionate about a universal entitlement to apprenticeships for many of the same reasons. This is about more than learning a skill: the value of apprenticeships is that they establish the routine, structure and contact between generations so often missing.

This list will grow longer and others will add to it, but the crucial point is this: a resilient economy cannot substitute for a good society. And providing young men with the love and opportunities for personal development they need cannot be left to the accident of birth or the whim of charity.

Politicians who grew up enjoying structure, consistency, responsible male role models and an abundance of opportunities for education and enrichment need to do more than lecture others when they reach adult life. The community must play a role in providing those essential ingredients where they are lacking. This takes more than a vague recognition of "society"; it requires an active state. These are ways in which we can act as progressives - and act we must.

Boys under pressure

Research by Adam Lewitt

  • 97% of juvenile offenders aged 15-17 are boys
  • 13% of boys aged 11-15 suffer from a mental disorder, compared with 10% of girls
  • 76% of boys aged 11 achieve government-set literacy levels (85% of girls do)
  • 57% of boys achieved A-C grade GCSEs in 2007, compared with 66% of girls
  • 75% of all suicides occur among young men aged 15-34. Suicide is the second most common way for a male aged 15-34 to die
  • 70%+ of males aged under 18 who are charged for one offence go on to commit further crimes
  • 9 out of 10 gang members are male