Male teachers in nursery or infant schools are becoming an endangered species. Statistics on primary schools show that around 19 per cent of their teachers are male; but talk to educationists and they will agree that the further down the education system you go, the fewer male teachers you'll meet - and the numbers appear to be decreasing.
This is worrying many people. Young children benefit from a mixed-sex teaching workforce, they say. Male teachers can provide positive role models, especially for children who do not have a male parent at home. In an attempt to tackle the under-achievement of boys, Office for Standards in Education research is expected to look at the number of male and female teachers in primary and secondary schools.
The presence of male teachers can challenge stereotypes. "It's good for children to see that men can have a share in the responsibility of caring for children," comments one mother in a recent study by the Thomas Coram Research Unit. The presence of men adds to diversity and balance, providing opportunities, say, to develop sports activities such as football.
The study of parents' views on men working in nursery and infant settings found them broadly in favour; but there is often ambivalence in the attitudes of women staff and parents, and, indeed, society at large, which undoubtedly affects the motivation of men who might be drawn to the work.
There is a fear of abuse. "The growing focus on child abuse is double edged," says Charlie Owen, a research officer at the Institute of Education. "It's good that we know about child abuse and are more open about it, but it has led to men fearing that they will be accused."
"We live in a fear period," commented one father in the Thomas Coram study. "There is a fear of men in any profession that involves young children." Parents did point out that women workers too can abuse children.
Some women teachers can also be suspicious, says Charlie Owen. "They wonder why men take on this low-paid work with young children, work which is still seen as women's work." Male teachers should be aware of and sensitive to this mistrust, he says. "Men who do these jobs are often very confident about themselves. They can't imagine that people will suspect them." They should think about it, he advises.
A male teacher wrote to Talking Shop in The TES's monthly Primary magazine (January 23): he had just been warned by his head that he was too physical with children. "Ask yourself, are your actions sending the wrong messages?" advised former headteacher, Sue Mulvany. "Have you touched any children 'inappropriately', for instance, sat them on your knee when a kind look would have done?" But "don't retreat into cold self-containment," she added. "Teaching does entail giving physical comfort when needed," but "as a male teacher, you're in a powerful position. Take great care to ensure your physical actions are driven by the child's needs, not your own."
Charlie Owen advises:
* Don't be alone with individual children.
* Arrange the classroom so that there are no areas where you can't be seen.
* Physical contact is not necessarily out of bounds but make it a public activity.
There is also evidence of resentment among women teachers who see male teachers as moving into their territory and taking the plum jobs. This is not without basis: government statistics show around 48 per cent of male teachers are heads or deputies while only 16 per cent of female teachers are in similar posts. At a recent union conference a woman delegate spoke of the typical primary school head "sitting in the staffroom like a sultan in his harem".
While some men may feel drawn by the prospects for promotion, it is possible some fear even more being the only male teacher in a school. In a previous issue of First Appointments, (TES, October 24, 1997) Kevin Berry describes his experience of this situation.
When the milkman or gas man visited the school he would often put his head round the staffroom door. "Morning girls!" he'd cry. After a year, says Mr Berry, "I barely noticed."
But he admits that "sometimes the staffroom was a very lonely place. I am hardly a macho male, but I did yearn for the company of other men, just to share in a conversation - any conversation".
However, Kevin Berry's love of the job is obvious and he is adamant that men shouldn't be put off: "Children benefit enormously from having a man on the staff."
"It's a very fulfilling job." agrees ex-teacher Charlie Owen.
A survey last year by a team at Queen's University, Belfast found that primary teachers were far more contented than secondary school teachers. Gender made no difference.