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Teaching boys about healthy relationships: 'They need it from birth'

“Misogyny is getting worse and it’s toxic for boys to grow up in a society where girls and women are treated poorly,” says Birmingham headteacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson.

Last year, her primary school became the first in the UK to hire community interest company A Call to Men UK to train two male members of staff to talk to boys aged between nine and 11 about what it means to be man.

Surely children don’t need to be taught about these issues at such a young age?

 “They need it from birth,” says Hewitt-Clarkson. “The world bombards us all with dreadful messages about how boys and girls should behave and what they should say and do. This is an essential life lesson for every human being.”

A Call to Men UK has 55 coaches working in schools, youth justice departments and youth centres across Worcestershire. The organisation has one principal aim, explains development manager Michael Conroy: to spark a “cultural shift in the way boys relate to girls”, and through this to prevent violence against women and girls.

The eight-week FreeUp programme is designed to encourage young men to consider respectful and nurturing ways of managing relationships. This in turn can change the way they see the world and their behaviour, both towards women and each other.

A 2009 NSPCC survey found more than a quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 had experienced intimate partner violence; one in nine female respondents had experienced severe physical violence, and almost three-quarters of girls had experienced emotional abuse. A Call to Men UK was founded in 2011 by Kay Clarke, who felt that after working with survivors of domestic abuse for 12 years, “I was putting a band aid over the problem rather than working to prevent the problem in the first place”. It is early education that she believes shapes a boy and his relationships for life.

FreeUp is designed to encourage boys to question the conventional understanding of masculinity they absorb from their peers and the media. It is also a space for them to explore their own use of language in reference to women and girls, and to understand the subtle messages underlying the apparently innocuous terms they may routinely use.

Clarke devised FreeUp originally for schools as she believes there are few places for conversations to take place challenging potentially harmful messages directed at young men. Conroy agrees. When he asks his students what it means to be a man he is frequently met with the same answers: be tough, dominate a space physically or verbally, rein in most emotions except anger, have the last word, be sexually active early and often and deny some creative or emotional influences for fear of being seen as “weak” or “feminine”.

“The programme seeks to equip boys, who themselves do not act in such a way, to express their intolerance of such language and behaviour to others,” says Robert Chadwick, director of The ContinU Trust in north Worcestershire and an FE college governor.

Chadwick was instrumental in getting 25 teachers, teaching assistants and pastoral staff to train with A Call to Men UK. “Within just one hour,” he recalls of a session in his school, “a new emotional and social environment had been built where hand after hand was raised by boys indicating that they too would like to come to the front and explain why they loved their mothers or sisters.”

“It’s the most important thing in the world to teach young men what a healthy relationship is – for the women and girls in their lives, but also for themselves,” says Conroy. “As a culture it’s time that we gave our young men permission to be complex, sensitive and happy human beings who transmit positivity and respect to others.”

As the first primary head delivering the course, Hewitt-Clarkson believes her students will become “kinder, better citizens who will be a positive influence on the world” because of it. 


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