In parts of Britain, white males have more chance of going to prison than of entering higher education. Harriet Swain looks at some local responses
A 15-year-old boy stands in a wood. It's dark and he is trying to work out if someone is creeping up on him. Close by, a team from Derby University is hoping the experience might encourage him to think about applying for higher education.
Elsewhere, another boy sits in a classroom in his football kit, wrestling with a maths problem. When he finishes he will be on the football field getting a spot of coaching from a professional footballer. Again, the hope is that the teenager will be being inspired to continue with his studies.
These are both case studies to be included in a publication being produced this summer by Action on Access, the co-ordination team for widening participation in higher education that focuses on activities targeted at white working-class boys.
Bill Jones, the report's compiler and Action on Access's national adviser for adult and community, says he has been unable to find any other initiatives focusing primarily on white boys as a group. This is surprising because white working-class boys are repeatedly identified as less likely to enter higher education than their female and ethnic minority peers.
Latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that more than 59 per cent of UK undergraduates in 2004-05 were female. A report last month by researchers at Bristol University found that all minority ethnic groups made greater progress on average than white pupils at secondary school, particularly in the run-up to GCSEs. And a National Audit Office report in 2002 showed that white men as a group had the lowest proportion of 18 and 19-year-olds entering university. While 59 per cent of girls from ethnic minorities went to university, only per cent of white men did so.
Dave Coppack, East Midlands regional manager for Aimhigher, which helps to widen participation among students from non-traditional backgrounds, says the decline in academic achievement of males has often been masked by the huge success of females. Annual improvements in GCSE results mean that government targets are being met, although thanks only to the girls.
But doing something about this is not simple. For a start, white working-class boys tend to leave school as early as they can. Moreover, as a group, white men are hardly an oppressed minority. Not only are there plenty of them, but they also have plenty of advantages. If they do go to university, they are more likely than their ethnic minority peers to attend a Russell Group institution. The Commission for Racial Equality recently expressed concern that black students were becoming ghettoised in low-status institutions and subjects.
Once they graduate, boys are also likely to earn substantially more on average than their female counterparts. This makes it hard to define them as a group that needs help. "White males are never featured as a particular target," Coppack says. "I've argued for years that they should be, but it isn't seen as politically correct."
Yet failing to offer targeted support to this group means abandoning the large numbers of white boys in the Langley Park area of Sheffield who are six times more likely to go to prison than to university. Or those in Barking and Dagenham, predominantly white areas that have the lowest numbers going into higher education of anywhere in Britain.
Jones says that if the Government solved the problem of getting white working-class males into higher education it would reach its 50 per cent participation target at a stroke.
For these reasons, things are gradually beginning to happen. In the East Midlands, Aimhigher is setting up a regional group, which will hold its first meeting in September, to look at the issue of how to engage this cohort in education and to investigate why they do not tend to progress to univer-sity.
Meanwhile, over the past year, Aimhigher in Derbyshire has begun to take selected boys on two-day residential courses to help them develop their skills and confidence. While the first day focuses on academic work, the second is an outward-bound session. "We try to get them to achieve," says Steve Antrobus, development and activities officer for Aimhigher Derbyshire. "We want them to identify a skill they can be good at and hopefully that skill will be transferable."
One residential course involves taking a group of boys to a Derbyshire woodland for a 24-hour survival exercise. They build their own shelter, make a fire and cook their food as well as taking part in survival-type games. A male undergraduate accompanies the group and, as well as being shown survival skills, the boys are gently told about what they will need to do to get to university and what the benefits are.
The idea of using football - "the single most motivating factor for most of these kids" - to lure them to study seemed an obvious one to Rob Halsall, head of widening participation at Manchester Metropolitan University. His project entices Year 8 to Year 11 children (aged 12 to 16) from 24 UK towns and cities to homework clubs with the promise of football-related activities, from coaching to free match tickets. The project tries to involve parents where possible, and university undergraduates are asked to help out at the clubs and act as role models.
While about 10 per cent of participants are black and Asian and 18 per cent are girls, white boys predominate. The scheme was originally aimed exclusively at boys, but funders were worried about discriminating against girls.
This demonstrates the sensitivity of the issue - and the difficulty in finding the right response. It isn't clear whether poor attainment among white working-class boys should be treated as an issue about gender, class, race, the regions or attitudes.
Halsall says: "There is definitely a boy thing... they don't plug away in the same way as a lot of girls do."
But Jocey Quinn, lecturer in higher education at Exeter University who conducted research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on working-class dropouts, says that while girls may seem to be doing better, the culture of higher education is still male dominated, and white working-class girls are still not entering higher education to the same degree as their middle-class counterparts.
Marian Morris, principal research officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research, has been evaluating the effectiveness of the Aimhigher programme. According to her, another reason for low participation rates among this group is that for many young people there is not only no tradition of going to university in their families, but there is often no local tradition of higher education and perhaps no local higher-education institution. This is especially true in former coalmining and shipbuilding areas where young white men could once expect a job for life with no need for higher qualifications.
Quinn suggests that attitudes also come into it. Her research shows evidence that this group tends to be stereotyped by teachers as unlikely to be clever or creative and, as a result, they are pushed into career and university subject choices that do not interest them. Morris says that there is also a problem with the attitudes of young people themselves. For some - and for boys in particular - education is "just not cool".
Education is also expensive. For Les Back, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, cost is the crucial factor. He says that many of this group are unwilling to have faith in education as a promise of economic advance or security and prefer to take short-term options rather than incur debt. "Personally, I think it's the question of fees that is the big inhibitor here and the risk of the choices made," he says. For him, the introduction of fees and widening participation initiatives simply cancel each other out.
Critical in all this, however, is what is happening to white working-class boys at school. Jane Browne, director of post-16 studies at Greenwood Dale School, Nottingham, says that for her the most important challenge is to get students into the sixth form and then from Year 12 to Year 13. Once that happens, many will have the individual help they need to consider university. And it is at school that pupils develop or lose interest in learning. This is something that university widening-participation schemes, such as the outward-bound and football projects, hope to address.
Andy Weaver, senior sixth-form tutor at the Dukeries College in Nottinghamshire, is confident that things will improve. He says that he has already noticed changes in attitude in his area, as more former students return and tell others that they have enjoyed it and don't feel too crippled by debt, encouraging others to follow suit. "It is a cumulative effect," he says. "It takes years for a community to realise the benefits of higher education."