Lord Lucas replied that the latest figures (March 1993) revealed that there were about 10,700 headmistresses in primary schools (50 per cent) and 1, 000 in secondaries (22 per cent). "There is no remaining sexual discrimination in the education service," he told his fellow peers bluntly. "Promotion at all stages throughout the teaching profession gives equal opportunities."
Whether he was right to display such confidence is, however, open to question following the publication of a survey report by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers which suggests that women teachers' career prospects are, if anything, deteriorating.
The survey of 18,000 members, by far the biggest research project the union has ever undertaken, showed that women are suffering most from the casualisation of the teaching profession - 14.25 per cent of responses were from teachers on temporary contracts and 83 per cent of them were women.
It also confirmed that the upper reaches of school management continue to be dominated by men even though the majority of teachers are women (80 per cent in the primary sector and just over half in secondary schools). The dividing line on the salary scale above which men are better represented is between points 9 and 10 in primaries and 11 and 12 in secondaries. As a result, less than 24 per cent of the women who responded were on point 11 or above whereas 44 per cent of the men were.
The report's authors believe that three factors conspire against women's climb up the career ladder: prejudice, structural discrimination and self-elimination.
"Prejudice is still a significant factor," the authors contend. "Men have the dominant influence in such appointments and some men are reluctant to promote women for reasons which have nothing to do with ability or suitability. "
The report, which recognises that some women also discriminate against their own gender, says NASUWT officers still receive complaints from women who are asked questions at job interviews about: arrangements for the care of their children elderly dependants; their intention to get married; any plans to have children; and divorce.
But structural discrimination, defined as prejudice against teachers whose careers have not followed the traditional path, also appears to have a devastating effect. One woman respondent summed up the experiences of many others when she complained: "I was a head of year and then head of department prior to having children. I chose to go part-time in a job share but gave up being head of department after pressure was applied."
The report suggests that, faced with continual discouragement, some women simply stop applying for posts and adds: "This allows the common assertion to be made that women do not apply, which is why they are not promoted." (A 1992 Humberside study also suggested that self-elimination was perhaps the main reason why there were so few women heads, although it showed that women applicants were less likely to obtain the B allowance that is so crucial to further promotion.) The union believes there are two ways of trying to improve women's career prospects. The first is the "equal opportunities" approach which might amount to training courses and other support for women seeking promotion, or even persuading education authorities or individual schools to interview a specific number or percentage of women for particular posts.
The second strategy, which is more radical, is the "collegiate" approach that has long been a dream of the union. As the name suggests, it would involve classroom teachers taking on more management responsibility but having more flexible working lives. Job-sharing and part-time work would become easier and part-time teachers would have the same degree of responsibility and authority as full-timers. Precisely how this utopian approach would operate in practice has not yet been set out, but delegates to last month's NASUWT conference endorsed it in principle, believing it would also enable men to derive more job satisfaction.
In the meantime, however, the union has reasserted its determination to fight discrimination cases through the courts. It will also resist casualisation, and press school governors, LEAs, and the Department for Education to develop equal opportunities policies, and improve training, maternity rights, child care and working hours.
Cynics might say that the union would be in a stronger position to advocate such policies if its own house was in order: although 56 per cent of NASUWT members are women they account for only 9 of the 40 executive members, and 5 of the 15 senior officials. But Mary Howard, the union's principal officer for equal opportunities, is frank about this shortcoming. "It is true we have quite a lot to do ourselves and we know it," she said. "But we are making progress. "
Whether the union will make progress with governors, local authorities and the DFE is questionable, however. There is anecdotal evidence that governors of locally managed schools are more inclined to see headship as a man's job. And as Mary Howard said: "Some governing bodies are not as keen on job shares as LEAs have been. We have two or three tribunal cases of this kind at present. "
Women's career prospects also appear to be of less concern to LEAs than they once were. Humberside, for example, is considered to have an excellent track record in this area. But this week one of its officials admitted that it was not known whether the proposals that emerged from its 1992 equality study had borne fruit. "We have rewritten our equal opportunities policies in the past year. We've also maintained our awareness training for heads and governors, but I am afraid that is about all we have been able to do owing to local government reorganisation," he said.
This is one distraction that the DFE has been spared, but there must be doubts about the Department's commitment to equality too because the First Division Association, the union which represents senior civil servants, recently complained that not one of the top 15 DFE officials was a woman. None the less, the NASUWT will soon be banging on their door again.