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Looking for Mr Right

We all know that a good man is hard to find, but in primary schools it's almost impossible. However, an Oxford headteacher seems to have the knack. Hilary Wilce finds out how she's attracted eight men, including a former paratrooper and a one-time television researcher, into her classrooms

Want a man? Get an interactive whiteboard. This is Mary Whitlock's "toys for boys" formula for attracting men into primary schools, and although it is said with tongue wedged in cheek, it obviously works. Compared with most schools, hers is male heaven; out of a total staff of about 50, eight are men, seven of them teachers.

And do they like their interactive whiteboards? They certainly do. Dan Sandy, for example, who teaches Year 4, can't stop raving about all the things he can do with his - the audios, the visuals, the whooshings, the spinnings, the downloadings. "I can use it for everything. It completely changes teaching."

Even in the 21st century, men remain pitifully scarce in primary schools. For the past five years, they have made up just 13 per cent of recruits to primary teacher training. Most schools believe they are doing well if they can attract one or two. Yet with the continuing fragmentation of traditional family life, thousands of young children have a crying need for stable male figures in their lives.

Many of the pupils at Mary Whitlock's school, Windale first school in Oxfordshire, are among them. The school is bright and modern and surrounded by new housing, but it sits on the sprawling Blackbird Leys estate on the outskirts of Oxford, well known for its social problems, and it is quickly apparent that the area doesn't offer the most promising start in life. Two mothers outside the school entrance are shouting a conversation made up almost entirely of four-letter words, while a man cuffs a toddler who has failed to keep up with him as he stomps across a road. It is easy to believe the Windale teachers when they say many of their pupils don't want to go home on a Friday, and are eager to come back after the holidays.

So what difference do men make to a school like this? "Some of our children are very damaged," says Ms Whitlock. "They need to see men in positive roles. They need to know that there are men who will treat them kindly, and treat them fairly, and they need to see men teaching and working with women. I've always believed that having men in primary schools is a good thing. It makes things more balanced. And men and women see things in different ways. The give and take is completely different."

When she took over the school in January 2001, there were only two men - the deputy head and a learning support assistant. But she is not one to let the grass grow under her feet - during her family time out from teaching she founded a national charity, Mama (the Meet A Mum Association), to put lonely stay-at-home mothers in touch with each other - and soon began to recruit more men to the school. "When I got the first one, I went round shouting, 'I've got a man! I've got a man!' My deputy, Steve, said, 'Oh. Thank you very much'."

She says heads have to think very carefully about how they market the school, and pay close attention to the wording of job advertisements and how they conduct interviews. It's no use trawling for the usual "enthusiastic, well-motivated" applicants; you take that as read. Instead, you set out to make clear that your school is interested in what individuals think, and what they have to offer as teachers. You also use the internet, "because that's where you're likely to get the most men".

She adds:"We don't have formal interviews; we have a conversation for 45 minutes to an hour. It's very time-intensive. We talk to people about how they manage children. We ask about their teaching philosophy, what they have done in life up to now. We want to know what they can do, and about their take on life. And if it's a bit off the wall, all the better."

Training and housing issues are given attention, and she never misses a chance to sweep up a good person. One part-time teacher landed a job at the school, for example, because she bumped into him one day at Oxford University's Institute of Education. She also avoids a rigid staffing hierarchy, and makes sure the school environment "gives people a chance to fly".

Windale, which is part of the Hamilton Oxford education action zone, is piloting several innovative schemes. For example, the whole school gets Wednesday afternoons off from the national curriculum, during which time her men teachers contribute cookery, skating, music and football sessions to the slate of activities on offer to the children.

The men in her school come in all varieties. Richard Langley is a former paratrooper and chef who now teaches Year 5, and another Year 5 teacher, Ralph Jones was in personnel and leisure management before he retrained as a teacher. The school's one male learning support assistant, David Jones, arrived from industry and has taken responsibility for the school's ICT needs.

Twenty-nine-year-old Dan Sandy started teaching after working as a researcher on the BBC television consumer rights programme Watchdog. "I was in a good job," he says, "doing well, but I wanted to make a difference."

And although he finds teaching far more stressful than his previous job, he believes he is succeeding. "I've never seen so many angry boys. They have no sense of perspective or scale. I probably have eight out of 27 like that in my class. But children respond well to males in the classroom. And you're in such a privileged position as a teacher. Children trust you, they look up to you."

Joseph Rubba, also 29, is in even more of a minority than the other men on the staff, as he teaches reception. A lanky, gentle Canadian, he fell into teaching by chance after studying political science at university, teaching English in Korea, then taking a job as a learning support assistant in a school for the deaf in Devon (both his parents are profoundly deaf and he is a "native signer"). He sees nothing unusual about being a man in his position. "I don't even think about it."

More men gravitate to secondary school teaching, he says, because they believe the pay and career ladder are better, but he loves the nurturing side of his job. "The children here are often anxious and insecure. If I go on an Inset day or I'm off sick, I always have to re-establish myself with them the next day. They need to know where they stand. They need that security." And he is obviously superb at it, having been named outstanding new teacher in a primary school in the south-east in this year's Teaching Awards; he was nominated by parents. Ms Whitlock says: "Parents like having men in school. They think they can handle the discipline."

Deputy head Stephen Passey, 36, who has often found himself the sole man in meetings and staffrooms in the course of his career, also likes it. "It makes it a more real situation. Men often have a different kind of working style to women. Perhaps their approach to the curriculum is slightly different. It certainly feels more satisfactory." Ms Whitlock believes men are more likely to come to a school that already has several men on the staff, and that far more men would be interested in primary teaching if only they knew what modern schools were like.

But it remains an overwhelmingly female environment, which can cause moments of awkwardness. "You can sometimes walk into the staffroom and there'll suddenly be a big hush," acknowledges Joseph Rubba.

Then there is the highly sensitive issue of working with small children. All the men at Windale say they are aware that people outside the profession can eye them suspiciously, while in school they are meticulous about never seeing a child alone, and about drawing boundaries on physical contact, even when this is difficult with affectionate, needy children. "They run up on the playground and want to hug you," says Dan Sandy, "and you have to quickly say, 'Oh, look over thereI ' and distract them." He also gets called Miss a lot, which he finds annoying. "I say, 'You call me that, Jason, and I'll call you Gillian'."

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