Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Hollow words: 'Role model'
Inspiring, motivating, buck-passing.

Professional football players who swear or are violent are usually castigated for being bad role models to the nation's youth. Celebrities who don't do drugs in public and resist the temptation of acting in a depraved way are usually embraced as positive role models. As a public figure you do not need to be particularly brilliant at anything to assume the status of an officially sanctioned role model.

In the late Nineties, the New Labour Government was constantly on the look out for willing role models. "Role models are important in the development of teenage girls," declared the then Minister for Women, Baroness Jay, as she sought to rope Spice Girl Geri Halliwell into the planned army of New Labour role models.

Today, disoriented institutions opt for training potential role models.

The Royal Society has published a Role Models Study Guide. "Being a role-model is extremely rewarding," it advises potential recruits. Why? Because "you can help to change the wild hair, white coats and glasses image of scientists."

Once upon a time leadership was part of the job description for teachers; now we train inspirational role models. According to Role Model Programmes for UK Teachers, a role model is a "person who would like to inspire and help motivate pupils from a variety of backgrounds."

The parenting industry is less worried about absent fathers than absent male role models. According to parenting experts, if there is a problem with your boy you should get in a male role model. If that does not work then at least find a picture of an inoffensive sports personality cuddling his son. Passing the buck is another way of saying role model.

First published on The First Post, 9 March 2006