The widely held view that boys would benefit from having more male role models in the early years of schooling is challenged by a recently published study, Men and Boys in Primary Schools Network, by Penelope Hartlet of the University of the West of England in Bristol.
She writes: "Contrary to popular belief, there has hardly been a golden age of primary school teaching during which men were plentiful as role models for boys I The current preoccupation with increasing male models begs the question of what male role models do we want?"
I am not sure if there ever was "a golden age", with or without male teachers, but, in my view, Ms Hartlet misses the point.
As a regular visitor to primary schools as an education adviser, many of the pupils know who I am, even if they are unsure what my job is. It is always interesting to go into a P1 class and gauge the reaction to me. Once, having spent part of the morning in one room, I assumed that most of the children had become accustomed to my presence. So I was slightly taken aback when I approached a wee boy in the activity corner. "My mummy told me not to talk to strange men," he said, running away when I spoke to him.
The serious point is that apart from possibly the school janitor, that little fellow is likely to spend seven years without having the opportunity to relate to any man outwith his immediate family.
Some time ago my attention was drawn to an article written by a lecturer in human behaviour. He thought that girls matured more quickly because they learned from their mother and women teachers. Boys, on the other hand, generally saw less of their father and rarely a male teacher in the first years at school.
Little attention has been paid to social and personal development related to formal and informal contact which boys and girls have with men. There could be a danger that many will grow up believing all males, other than siblings or close relatives, are likely to be hostile.
While it must be good advice for youngsters not to talk to strangers, all children should have the chance for positive relationships with adults of both sexes at an early age. Particularly with the increase in one-parent families, there are surely wider issues, too.
In some Scandinavian countries, there has been positive recruitment of male pre-school and primary teachers to ensure a balance. On a visit to Finland a few years ago, I noted that most primary schools had a ratio of at least two:three male to female staff. It was particularly notable in small rural schools, where at least one member of staff was male.
Despite the benefits claimed for the policy, Finland has come up against European Union laws on sex discrimination and has had to abandon it. Nevertheless, I am told that the statistics on male recruitment to the profession remain relatively good.
By comparison, Scotland fares badly. It used to be that primary schools were female dominated and secondary schools male dominated. Recent statistics indicate that the number of men teaching is declining in both sectors.
Under pressure of growing pupil numbers in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there was a drive to recruit more primary teachers, particularly men. Since then, the percentage of men recruited has declined and those appointed at that time are due to retire soon.
Serious consideration has to be given to finding new recruits. We must find out why men are not attracted to primary teaching. In the past, the reasons may have been salary scales, promotion prospects (other than for headteacher) and the general view that it is a woman's job to deal with the younger children.
The dominance of women in primary schools is being increased by the recruitment of classroom assistants. I am not aware that any authority has had many male applicants. This probably reflects the low salaries and limited hours as much as entrenched attitudes, but it is an issue for discussion.
Having more men in primaries will not solve all of the problems related to boys' underachievement but there are clearly good social and developmental reasons for attracting more men to the profession. In the wake of the McCrone settlement, young people have to see that teaching is a worthwhile career for both sexes.
John Muir is an education adviser with Highland Council