What does it mean when a man teaches young children? Can't he get a "proper job"? According to the latest figures, 27,400 (16 per cent) of the 168,400 primary school teachers in England are male. The Teacher Training Agency, the Government's recruitment body, wants to increase the number of men training to be primary teachers by 20 per cent each year.
"Pupils' learning experience is enriched by the experience and contributions of male and female teachers", says Mary Docherty, the agency's head of supply and recruitment. "All teachers bring different perspectives and currently men are under-represented in primary schools," But there remains a stigma attached to the idea of men teaching the very young. The moral panic over children's contact with non-parental adults has complicated the matter, and every male early-years teacher has to grapple with a web of contradictory signals and unspoken codes of practice. To parents, they may be potential child-abusers; to female colleagues, they may be vultures circling the promotion prospects; to society at large, they may be just vaguely "odd", or somehow "unmanly". Their motives are questioned and they may find little in the way of support from any quarter.
"Primary teaching is very low-status in this country," says James Walker, headteacher at Henry Fawcett school in Lambeth. "It's not taken seriously enough, unlike on the continent."
Spearheading the TTA campaign is a series of ads in The Guardian, Independent and London's Evening Standard, not in the education sections but on the sports pages. The copy, stark white lettering on black with no pictures, is written in the language of the New Lad: "Could you be a male model?" or "Are you looking for a transfer? Do well, and progression up the salary league can be quicker than you think."
Andy Bate of the Teacher Training Agency highlights the need for different tactics. "We're using a lively, upbeat approach to communicate to men.
Often they don't know how much you can earn in early years." (The starting salary for an NQT ispound;17,595, pound;20,700 in inner London).
Men are also encouraged to apply earlier: the agency reckons men have a habit of waiting until it is too late, maybe underestimating the competition they face.
The campaign is showing signs of success. The latest figures show that 3,748 men applied for postgraduate places in primary teaching since January this year (compared with 18,021 women), a 16 per cent increase from the first quarter of 2002.
But the slick ads aren't solving the whole problem. Recruitment drives emphasise money, self-interest and career advancement but don't tell you much about the reality of teaching, and may even attract the wrong type of candidates who can't stay the course. As the TTA acknowledges, the drop-out rate for male early years students remains high.
Moinul Islam, 22, is on the early years PGCE at Oxford Brookes University.
He is looking forward to taking his own class. He has done three school stints so far - four weeks of infants and six weeks in a nursery. Each time, he was the only man in the school, which can be a little confusing.
"Occasionally the children call me 'Miss' and I have to correct them," he says. It can take a while to get used to it."
He was drawn to the job while still at infant school. "I was good at maths, so the teacher made me check other pupils' work," he says.
Official policy states that pupils are not allowed to sit on his lap. But they like having a man about the place. He plays football with them at lunchtime, and he's aware of his status as a role model. "It's good for boys age to see a man reading, for example. They realise it's not just a girls' thing," he says.
Issues of gender equality are somewhat fuzzy in one of the few professions dominated by women, at least in terms of numbers. Men are numerically overwhelmed and isolated. Yet it is the men who are more likely to be fast-tracked to promotion or better pay. In primary and early years schools in England, men account for 16 per cent of teachers, but 39 per cent of heads. For those that do stay the course and forge a career in primary teaching, the gender divide becomes even more striking. Research published last year by the Institute of Public Policy Research showed that while half of all male primary teachers with more than 20 years' experience are heads; the figure drops to only 20 per cent of female teachers. Inevitably, more women than men drop off the promotion ladder to have children. And there are psychological obstacles.
"People who would make good heads often do not put themselves forward," says James Walker. "It's the same as politics - they de-select themselves.
Women may be more critical of themselves."
But for many primary and early years teachers, the job is its own reward, so practitioners may not want to chase promotion. Headships are pressurised, time-consuming and ultimately cut teachers off from children.
Primary and early years teachers can indulge in creative, dramatic and musical interests that they would not otherwise.
Chris Gledhill, 20, is in his third year of primary training at York St John school, specialising in key stage 1. This involves teaching for eight weeks a year in nursery and reception. In his last nursery stint, he had one group in the morning and another in the afternoon, which meant dealing with 54 children every day. Unlike PGCE graduates, who get a pound;6,000 bursary for a one-year course, the B.Ed course means four years without any money.
"Yet in school you are supposed to reward the hard workers," says Chris, who works in a chip shop, but lives for the teaching. He prefers the lower end of the school, saying: "It's more fun. There's a lot of play-based activity, whereas KS2 is increasingly exam-based."
While it may be more fun, early years certainly isn't easier, he says.
"Because infants don't write, assessment is more complex. They won't necessarily show their best knowledge to you directly; they may be showing it to classmates, or just keeping it to themselves. So you have to pay attention and make notes all the time. This is where teaching assistants are invaluable."
Perhaps the main prerequisite for the job though is a genuine interest in young children. "The common attitude among the public is,'Oh, kids just wee all the time,'" says Chris. "That's all they see of three to five-year-olds in public, screaming or vomiting. They don't spend time getting to know children as creative, interesting people".