Emerging Leaders – Dr Alex Blower: Working Class Boys

Resource type:

In this episode of our Emerging Leaders podcast, we speak to founder of Boys’ Impact and Cumberland Lodge Fellowship alum Dr Alex Blower. We discuss his background, the obstacles he had to overcome, and his work now, empowering working class boys.

You can find out more about our work to help young people develop ethical leadership skills here.

You can subscribe to Cumberland Lodge’s podcasts on Apple PodcastsSpotifySoundCloud, and other major podcast platforms.

Episode transcript

00:00 – 00:32

Munny Purba (MP)

How can we empower young men from working class backgrounds to be more involved in campaigns for change? In this episode, Dr Alex Blower, founder of Boys’ Impact, considers the structural barriers at play, particularly around educational opportunity.

Prof Melissa Butcher (MB)

Alex, thank you so much for your time today.

Dr Alex Blower (AB)

No problem. Thank you for having me.

MB

Alex, what was your motivation for becoming involved in these debates around the educational outcomes for boys in the UK?

00:32 – 01:04

AB

To be honest, Melissa, a lot of it was due to… initially due to my own experiences. I’m from a town originally in the West Midlands that doesn’t have too much in the way of educational opportunities. I had a bit of a bumpy ride in compulsory education myself for a lot of reasons and through more luck than anything else, I ended up in a position where at eighteen years old I attended university to study drama and there were lots of people in my local area for whom that that wasn’t the case.

01:04 – 01:39

AB

And a lot of them were young men who encountered a range of different challenges and barriers to accessing educational opportunity and through working firstly in a hostel for homeless young people when I left university, but then later for universities and educational outreach teams slowly I developed more and more of an understanding surrounding why that might be the case and also the deep seated structural issues that were related to those challenges being entrenched and reproduced across generations.

01:39 – 02:13

AB

So in 2016, I was lucky enough to start my doctoral research, which was in education and inequality, with a specific view to how those structural conditions can influence boys future in education and work.

MB

What are some of those structural barriers that young people face in this country, Alex?

AB

So socio-economic inequality is a significant one at that is incredibly well documented in regards to a lot of outcomes, not just related to education, but also health, employment and a whole host besides.

02:13 – 02:40

AB

But what I was particularly interested in was that the intersections with gender within that as well, and the role that masculinity and perhaps masculine expectations played to influence or shape the ways that young men interacted with each other, but also how they engaged with education and their future past that in terms of their lives and relationships.

MB

And you mentioned that, you know, you faced some of those barriers yourself.

02:40 – 03:05

MB

How did you overcome them?

AB

I was incredibly lucky. I think I was speaking to my mum a few weeks ago, actually, and she said to me, Alex, the best thing that ever happened to you was getting kicked out of school. The reason being that when I moved schools that the institution that I moved to was about six miles down the road in a very, very different area to my hometown.

03:05 – 03:27

AB

So one of the things that I did when I started working in widening participation and university outreach was using a government postcode profiler to look at higher education participation rates in my home postcode and the postcode of the school that I moved to. But my home town, the participation rates were about 18% of young people. And for the school that I moved to is about 64%.

03:27 – 03:51

AB

So arguably, you know, in a very basic way of looking at and I appreciate that, but I was over four times, three times sorry more likely to enter into higher education. Being at the school that I was at after I left my first school than the one in the home town that my friends continued to go to. And that just struck me as really, really unfair and made me quite angry, to be honest with you.

03:51 – 04:13

MB

So it really is still a postcode lottery in terms of educational outcomes?

AB

Yeah, absolutely. And I think with results of recent years with the pandemic, the cost of living crisis, then a lot of the issues related to socio-economic inequality that might be specific to certain geographic areas or postcode areas are becoming even more entrenched than they ever have been.

04:14 – 04:34

MB

How do you think more young men, particularly young men from lower socio-economic backgrounds, the young men that you work with, how can they be supported, do you think, to become more involved in leadership or in campaigns for change?

AB

I think for the young people and I’m reflecting on a project that we run at the university that I work at at the moment Arts University Bournemouth.

04:34 – 04:57

AB

And we run a project called Being a Boy. And the premise behind the project is that we use the tools at the university’s disposal, which are all of our creative subjects, for young men to engage in reflections about their own negotiations of identity and masculinity, both inside and outside of education. We do creative writing, we do dance, drama.

04:57 – 05:48

AB

There’s a fashion workshop as well. Where I’ve seen the most powerful impact on the young people or the most important conversations and reflections being unlocked has been in a space where the young man felt safe to express thoughts and opinions that perhaps in other spaces might elicit a negative reaction from peers or those that inhabited the space, but also within a space where their experiences as young men from their particular socio-economic circumstances, geographic areas were valued and celebrated in a real strengths-based approach that allowed them to articulate what parts of they in them they love and were particularly proud of.

05:48 – 06:23

AB

Now, I appreciate that’s a long way from these young men becoming potential leaders of the future. But I think engaging young men in discussions that are important to them, that they care about, that they are invested in, whether that be because it’s linked to their interests or their personal circumstances and empowering them to use their voice and give them confidence that that voice has an impact is something that’s been incredibly powerful.

MB

Alex, you mentioned there about creating spaces where young men can feel safe to talk about some of the issues that are facing them.

06:23 – 06:49

MB

Do you feel that that is a barrier that we still lack those spaces, particularly for young men? There’s still that stereotype that young men can’t talk about their feelings, that they can’t talk about vulnerabilities. Do you think that that’s still a barrier that we have to overcome as a society as a whole?

AB

Yes, absolutely. And interestingly, one of the workshops that we run was a creative writing workshop, and we did some analysis of the poetry pieces that the young men wrote.

06:49 – 07:20

AB

And although they were expressing feelings within the poems, it was dominated by articulations that were related to fear and anger. You know, we didn’t see much that was related to love for hope or joy or care. So even though the young men had engaged with their feelings within the workshop, it certainly wasn’t a broad array of what you would say would be kind of an emotional spectrum or palette they were engaging with more widely.

07:20 – 08:11

AB

I think it’s it’s it’s incredibly difficult and it’s a very challenging area to work within because quite often it can be quite rightly seen as as quite oppositional. If you are a feminist and if you care about gender equity and equality in education, then why would you be saying in that particular context that we should be perhaps offering opportunities or spaces for young men when there is so much data and evidence and history of women being the ones that experience significant structural inequality. Moving to a position, I think where we can be working off the same page and with a shared understanding of the challenges related to masculinity, and that the subsequent kind of issues

08:11 – 08:56

AB

that result from it and how engaging with those is beneficial to young men and women and society as a whole is something that I feel there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. It can be quite contentious ground to tread. My own personal take on it is there’s a brilliant book that was written by JJ Bola called Mask Off and the way that he described the issues that might be particularly pertinent to masculinity and men such as addiction, disparities in educational outcomes, entry into the criminal justice system, homelessness, high rates of suicide, although they are issues that are more present with men and masculinity, to say they’re actually one side of a double

08:56 – 09:24

AB

edged sword and the other side of that sort is what we might see with sexual harassment and domestic violence and gender pay gaps. They are caused by a patriarchal system and a patriarchal society that we all inhabit. And whilst that society might put men in a position of advantage with regards to the labour market, for instance, it’s also doing men significant harm in the process.

09:24 – 09:51

AB

And we need, in my view, to engage with those systems and structures and share a common language about why that’s important, to really move forward with creating spaces that are happening frequently where young men can begin to engage in conversations that might be more geared towards them expressing thoughts and feelings that they otherwise might find difficult because of the world that they live in.

09:51 – 10:13

MB

Yeah, Alex, you mentioned there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done, so maybe that leads into a question about your future plans for Boys Impact. Could you tell us a little bit what you’re planning for the future?

AB

Yeah, absolutely. So, Boys Impact is a network of educators that is national and the educators are based in a range of geographic regions across England.

10:13 – 10:50

AB

It’s still very, very early days. We’ve had a couple of kind of national conferences that have brought together educators and community practitioners and third sector representatives and leaders from charitable organisations that are interesting in addressing issues related to educational inequality and outcomes for young men. So what we are making efforts to do is convey local geographic impact hubs that bring together the stakeholder who are proactively working to address those disparities and issues and working from a place that is very much that shared understanding.

10:50 – 11:21

AB

Like I mentioned, Melissa, about the ways in which these challenges come about in the first place. So in September we had our Manchester conference working with stakeholders and representatives from organisations like Manchester Metropolitan University and the Salford Foundation and a multi-academy trust up there to get the ball rolling with piloting new activity and really building up our bank of evidence surrounding what can be done and what will be impactful to support young men right across the country.

11:21 – 11:38

AB

We’re hoping that the impact hub in Manchester in the one that we’re running endorse at the moment will be the first of many that will see really grown and developing over the coming years.

MB

And we wish you all the best of luck with that, Alex. So Dr Alex Blower, founder of Boys’ Impact, thank you so much for your time today.

11:38 – 11:59

AB

No problem at all. Thanks again.

MP

Thanks for listening. You can find out more about the work we do at Cumberland Lodge with young people and beyond by visiting cumberlandlodge.ac.uk. You can also find us on social media @CumberlandLodge.