Earlier this summer I wrote a column on some of the issues involved in being a man in youth care. I suggested that elements of our sexual selves, however you want to define that term, inevitably creep into the encounters we have with youth. At one level, this is a pretty obvious statement “its something to do with testosterone and with forces deeper than our conscious selves that have an interest in maintaining the human species. So obvious, yet in a climate in which we pathologise sexuality and conflate it with sexual aggression or sexual abuse, it can feel like a difficult and risky thing to say.
A number of people have said to me how much they appreciated that column. It obviously struck a chord with them. They tend to add, though, that it was a pretty brave thing to do (for brave read foolhardy). The power of discourse, that pattern of dominant assumptions and practices that determines what we're allowed to think and say and more importantly, what we're not allowed to think or say. When applied to the area of sexuality, dominant social work discourses around child protection and male aggression risk contributing only to layers of denial and repression that inhibit any search for creative ways to address questions of masculinity.
There are a whole lot of things we're not allowed to think or say around the role which men play in youth care facilities. When I was in The States over the summer, we visited a number of youth care agencies. In one of them, the Director spoke about the rich seam of recruitment he had discovered in the university's (American) football team and how the presence on shift of a couple of hefty quarterbacks worked wonders in maintaining control. I was taken aback by his being so up front in telling us this. However, if the truth be told, I'm sure I'm not the only one responsible for running a shift who's had a look at the rota and breathed a sigh of relief or trepidation based on the presence or otherwise of a couple of hefty men. But of course, it's more complicated than that. The ability to maintain positive control isn't something that can be weighed and measured. It's about self-confidence and a whole range of interpersonal and relational factors. And the best workers, irrespective of tonnage, don't throw their weight about. Perhaps they don't feel they need to, but exude that air of confidence that comes from knowing they will be able to handle any confrontation that arises. And in some cultural settings boys, especially, expect men to be the controlling forces and will accept control more readily from a man than from a woman. Of course there are instances where the reverse is true.
There are then, all sorts of complicated dynamics at play in the kind of power and control relations in youth care settings. We do ourselves no favours when we try to explain these away under what now feel to be pretty hackneyed notions of patriarchy, or gender stereotypes of males being aggressive and females conciliatory. And when we limit discussion of masculinity only to issues of child protection or physical control, as we often appear to do, we miss the point. Having men in child and youth care is fundamentally important, because we need to provide models of a healthy masculinity to the predominantly male population of our services, many of whom have never come across this in their past experience.
In education circles across the developed world, we now identify and are beginning to address problems of boys' academic underachievement and to link this with debates around the lack of men in teaching posts. Thankfully, there are signs that youth care is also beginning to recognise the lack of men in the profession as an issue. I notice that Niall McElwee gave a paper at the recent Victoria conference on difficulties in attracting men into the field. Nearer to home, Kibble Education and Care Centre a youth care facility in Paisley have just found out that they have attracted a substantial grant from the European Social Fund (ESF) to support a programme aimed at recruiting and training men for work in youth care. The grant is under the ESF's Gender Imbalance in the Workforce initiative and as far as staff at Kibble are aware, is the first to be made in respect of a proposal focussing on men as the under-represented gender. The programme, entitled 'Why Men Should Care', involves recruiting around 40 men and developing a training package drawing on ideas from a European social pedagogy model. This is a great development in beginning to ask some of the questions around why men should care, and above I've touched on what for me is the primary reason. The question, Why men should care? perhaps inevitably leads onto the next one, how men should care?
One of the things the men recruited to the Kibble programme will be encouraged to do is to reflect on what it means to be a man in child care. This is an opportunity few men currently in the field have had the opportunity to do. Again, we often get stuck behind assumptions that men aren't expressive and don't talk about their feelings. Some of my own research talking to men as fathers would contradict this. We found at times that giving men the opportunity to talk and to reflect on their experiences of being a man could be like opening the floodgates on a whole load of feelings and insights. I've no doubt that the Kibble project will provide some rich insights into men in child and youth care.
The training component of “Why Men Should Care” will be delivered in conjunction with ourselves at the University of Strathclyde and will be linked in with a national qualifications framework. We will also be involved in evaluating the project. This is a really exciting opportunity to move beyond the assumptions and stereotypes that can dominate discussion around gender in youth care to start to put together some sound data that might inform debate in the area.
Kibble are keen to share ideas and information around the development of “Why Men Should Care.” Anyone wanting to find out more or to contribute any suggestions should contact Neil McMillan who is co-ordinating the project. Neil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com