Rob Jones is that relatively rare creature: a male teacher in an infants' school. In the windy playground at afternoon break, one girl after another runs up and throws her arms around his waist, burying her face in his shirted stomach. A third proffers a bedraggled dandelion, which Rob obligingly puts in his buttonhole. The call for more men in early years teaching has been at least partly prompted by a feeling that boys will benefit from having male role models in school. But at this north London primary it seems to be the girls who are thrilled to have a man about the place.
Rob (not his real name) has taught infants for 11 years. At college, he was one of five male students out of 85. He was the only male who chose to do his teaching practice with infants. Has he met any social disapproval of his chosen role? He thinks not. "But if there had been, I would have ignored it. Even at school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. And at this level, you really do see them coming on in leaps and bounds."
It's close to 15 years since Rob Jones did his training. But according to government figures, there are now fewer male teachers in the early years than there were then. Twenty years ago, some 22 per cent of teachers in primary schools were men. Now the figure has dropped to 18 per cent.
Still, some would quarrel with the standard description of early years teaching as being "female dominated". In the classroom, it is. At management level, things change. Once they do start work in primaries, men quickly clamber up the promotional ladder. Despite the dominance of women teachers, about half of all heads and deputies in primaries are men. Few stay long in the classroom.
Does this matter? The Teacher Training Agency, among others, thinks it does. "Pupils need a balance of experience from different teachers. Having men and women provides that balance," says Trevor Cook of the TTA. Mopping up frantically behind his chief executive Anthea Millett, who suggested recently that men made better advocates for the profession, Mr Cook adds that the agency has "no criticism of the quality of women teachers. It's just a need to get balance."
Bland words. But the call for more male early years teachers is arousing fears that the present imbalance could be exacerbated if the TTA is successful in attracting more men. "More men in the classrooms might be interesting," says Sandy Pepperell, a senior lecturer at Roehampton Institute. "But the evidence is that they won't stay there. Then it becomes almost like a role model for being in charge."
There is confusion over what men are required to be in primary classrooms. The National Association of Head Teachers has added its voice to the call for more men in early years teaching. Why? "The growing child needs to explore as many different personalities as they can," says assistant secretary Jeff Holman. Aren't there many different kinds of personalities among women? "There is this sort of feeling that there are things that men are better at," he says, teetering wildly on the tightrope that is gender sensibility. "I'm not trying to suggest that there are particular fixed roles that men and women will play. But the view of the association is that young children need to have contact with both men and women in a role of looking after them, and caring for them."
It is unclear whether more men are required in primary schools to break down gender stereotypes, and be sensitive nurturing teachers. Or whether they are needed as traditional male role models, to provide discipline and expertise in football and physics. "The two aspects have completely conflated," says Debbie Epstein of the Institute of Education. "But they come from different perspectives. The call for seeing more men in caring roles is also a call for men to change their roles. The call for more men - because they can discipline the boys and because boys can relate to them - is actually a call almost for increasing the gender split. So although they've been mixed up, they're actually coming from entirely opposite directions."
American educational psychologist Spencer Holland, on a recent visit to England, made an overt call for more black men in classrooms as mentors and role models for black boys. The spiralling rate of exclusions, disproportionately high for Afro-Caribbean boys, certainly suggests the need for new approaches in classrooms. But children from all ethnic groups are increasingly likely to live without a father. And many children from two-parent families don't see much of their fathers.
Exactly how important teachers are as role models for children is hard to define, although they will obviously have influence. But, says Debbie Epstein, children will interpret what they see in school in the light of their existing experience. Thus small children tend to be convinced that the schoolkeeper, usually a man, owns the school. Or that the tallest teacher must be the oldest.
Whatever the motives of the individual male teacher, they can find themselves pushed into traditional male roles in schools. John Siraj-Blatchford, now teaching at the University of East London, has taught reception and infant classes. "In every primary school I've gone into," he says, "I've been required to be the technology and science co-ordinator. And I think that is the problem. If the only time girls see somebody working confidently with a computer or a saw or hammer, it is a male, they're not going to believe that it is part of their future."
If men are in a minority in primaries, they are almost entirely absent from pre-school settings. This is partly because of social attitudes which have - until recently at least - seen looking after babies and small children as a female prerogative. It also reflects the generally abysmal rates of pay for nursery nurses. Prospects in nurseries attached to primary schools - where the officer in charge must be a trained teacher - are particularly poor for nursery nurses. A trained worker has a starting salary of just over Pounds 9,000 and a top salary of under Pounds 11,000. Of the 35,000 UNISON members who are nursery nurses, national officer Christina McAnea doubts that 1 per cent are men.
While low pay must cause both men and women to think twice about careers in nurseries, a further inhibiting factor for men is "intimate contact". Irrational though it may be, there is no doubt that there is popular prejudice against the idea of a man changing nappies or taking small children to the toilet. The fears are more pronounced for girls than boys. "As a society, we distrust caring men," says Diana Leat, visiting senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute. "I encounter that in all sorts of ways, in work with elderly people and work with children. And it has further implications, because the fewer men that take on caring roles the more it confirms that stereotype of women being carers and men not."
Two cases in recent years have highlighted the difficulty early years establishments face in dealing with male workers and their physical contact with children. In Newcastle, trainee nursery nurse Jason Dabbs was convicted of sexually assaulting a series of children in his care. But these assaults took place not behind the door of the lavatory but in the nursery itself, in potential view of other members of staff. In Norfolk, employer Laurie Coppersmith was taken to industrial tribunal by nursery nurse Malcolm Brown over the company's policy of not allowing male staff to take girls to the lavatory. Mr Coppersmith lost his case, and no longer operates the policy or, coincidentally he says, employs any men in his nurseries or creches.
But Peter Elfer of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau has some sympathy with the policy formerly in place at the Flagship creche in Norwich. "My initial instinct was that it was right to try and stop men taking children to the lavatory," he says. "The vast majority of men in early years settings carry out their profession with absolute integrity and respect for children, but in order to avoid that small number of determined abusers - who are likely to be male - it seemed a price worth paying. What the case in Newcastle showed was that it doesn't work. Having simple rules - like that men won't take children to the toilet - isn't going to prevent an abuser."
He believes that a better strategy is to have increased team communication so that worries about staff get aired, and that there should be more comprehensive and up-to-date lists of known offenders. He also thinks we should listen to children more. "We're still absolutely awful as a society at taking proper account of a child's voice," he says.
Although slightly less difficult in primary school, men still have to resolve how to deal physically with tactile small children. "You have to be wary, " says Rob Jones. "I will have children sitting on my knee early in the year. The first few weeks can be a hard time for them, and I'll comfort them. But after that, say when I'm reading a story, it's me on the chair and them down there sitting on the carpet."
Particularly for young children, a strong emotional relationship with a teacher is important but, says Peter Elfer, this can be formed with a man or woman. "For effective learning to take place," he says, "young children need to feel emotionally secure. And that's where that mothering role comes in. It doesn't have to be done by women. But we need adults who are prepared to enter into close relationships with children. We know what the appropriate boundaries are - and it is not to hold them at arm's length. If children don't have a relationship with an adult that's close and strong, then their learning - their ability to feel confident and to think and discuss and engage in co-operative work with other children - will be so much less."
Rob Jones does not define his role in school primarily in terms of his gender. "I've always tried to think of myself as a model," he says. "I hope I'm setting a standard when I stand up in front of the class. All of us on the staff are different. But underneath that I am also a male model, who may be different from a lot of the fathers."
The focus on teachers' gender may be an artificial one. For schools to be truly more "balanced", there would need to be more teachers from ethnic minorities, more working-class teachers and a more proportionate number of women in positions of power.
More men in classrooms might be a start but, says Debbie Epstein, "I don't think you can give men a blanket welcome or a blanket rejection. More of the right kind of men - great. More of men who are concerned to show how masculine and macho they are - no. Please no."
Research is being undertaken at Roehampton Institute London into the experience of male students on the Initial Teacher Education (Primary) programme. Anyone working in this or a related field is invited to contact Sandy Pepperell and Sue Smedley at Roehampton Institute London, Froebel College, Roehampton Lane, London SW15 5PJ