Published independently but commissioned by the Government, the Reach report came out last week. It focuses on the problems faced by some young black boys, and is a welcome piece of research. Among its findings are that black youngsters need a new generation of role models, drawn from the legal profession, business and education, if they are to overcome poor educational attainment and more general underachievement and avoid becoming involved in criminal activity. It proposes to set up a structured national role model programme for black boys.
The problem with this idea is that role models are based on respect, and neither the Government nor anybody else can decide or dictate who young people will respect.
While some people have the force of personality implicitly to command respect, what I have found in my work in north Kensington in London is that role models tend to be local people, "landmarks" in a small community, rather than more remote figures. The idea of setting up a national register for role models, which is what is proposed, may not be workable. Indeed, it smacks slightly of white conscience-salving, and could end up being more use to the people organising it than the young people it is meant to help.
This view has become something of a mantra for me, but what we need in the black community is everyday success, the kind that most young people are routinely exposed to at home. That applies not solely for children, but for adults too. A sense of success, of achievement, is infectious. If more parents get to feel this, it would change what all black people believe is possible, and would be communicated on to their children.
Most of my time is spent working with teenagers and adolescents from inner-city estates, trying to get them off drugs and into something rewarding and fulfilling. One of the things I say to the parents I deal with is, "The best thing for your kids is for you to be in employment." By normalising success, they can demonstrate to their children that living a life of welfare dependency need not be all they can expect.
This is not to say that there is no place for role models from outside a community. There is, but their success would only be limited. The over-emphasis on this one aspect of the problem reminds me of the Government's failure in another area - dealing with poverty. It has misunderstood the problem, and failed to see that poverty is not just about a lack of money. It is also about a lack of hope, of belief in the possibility of social mobility. Showing awareness of poverty and making noises about it is not enough. What the Government has missed is that when you give people help without asking them to take responsibility for themselves, you are taking away something crucial: the right and need to be involved in their own redemption. Handouts are one thing, but a sense of personal responsibility must go with them if the solution is to be sustainable.
To escape poverty, black boys and men must look not only at the help they will be given but also at what's needed in return. You cannot hand success to people on a plate. Without earning it, the word is meaningless.
The Reach report says a lot about education, and everyone agrees that education is vital. But anybody who knows about it will tell you that it starts in the home. A work ethic cannot be given to a child from any external force if isn't started and reinforced within the family. Children's brains are like sponges, so whatever they get up to and are exposed to at home, whether it's MTV excess, computer game overload, books or parents who don't care about education, this will have a big bearing on any push by the Government to elevate standards. …