A force to be reckoned with

25th March 2011 at 00:00
Women were a sizeable presence in schoolteaching from the start - they already outnumbered men by 1870. But, employers and politicians - and male colleagues - have been slow to accept them as professional equals. And then, as now, the top job was often out of reach

One hundred years ago, the average teacher in Britain was female and white. Today the average teacher is . well, female and white. As a woman, her chance of becoming a head has not changed drastically, either. The major differences are that she is now a middle-class university graduate, and likely to be married with children.

Those who complain about the supposed "feminisation" of the curriculum like to claim it as a product of women's domination of the teaching workforce; that it's an increasingly dangerous and relatively modern phenomenon.

Yet this trend did not start in the 1960s or '70s, nor after the Second or First World Wars. Women have outnumbered men as certified teachers since around 1870. Indeed, the balance reached four to three by 1880. As for the predictions that men might vanish from the profession altogether, they were well rehearsed the century before last.

Looking back at the changing role of teachers over the past 100 years, gender imbalance has been as central to it as arguments over pay or disputes over the curriculum.

"By the end of the (19th) century the prophets were declaring that teaching was a woman's occupation, and that men teachers would eventually disappear - a prophecy which looks like being reversed again in our time," The TES stated in 1930.

Our second issue in October 1910 provides the number of certificated teachers then working in England's elementary schools. The proportion of women was 67 per cent. Today, the figure for qualified women teachers in England's nursery, primary and secondary schools is only a tiny bit higher: 70 per cent.

True, this is not a totally satisfying like-with-like comparison, but 100 years ago a national state system of compulsory secondary education did not exist. The gender balance would also have been more skewed towards women than those figures suggest because four out of the 10 teachers working in schools were not certified, and they were even more likely to be female.

The TES noted then, with anger, that a shortage of teaching jobs meant some of those who had completed teacher training either took jobs as "stenographers, typists and waitresses" or accepted being paid as uncertified teachers, allowing their employers to gloat: "We have picked up Miss A at the educational bargain counter for a song."

It was significantly cheaper to hire female certificated teaching assistants as well: the average annual salary for that job was pound;124 for a man, and pound;89 for a woman.

Flicking through the first issue of The TES, there is a striking difference between how women are referred to in articles and in advertisements. The paper criticises those "practical infidels" who opposed university education for women, but still stresses that "home is a woman's sphere" and uses "schoolmaster" as a synonym for teacher.

However, in the adverts promoting schools it is women's names that dominate. This may have been because the private girls' schools were newer and so had a greater need to promote themselves to parents. But it is still surprising to see 81 headmistresses mentioned by name in the adverts, and only 26 headmasters.

Weirder still is the fact that a greater proportion of schools were led by women in 1927 than in 2000. For much of the century, while women took an increasing share of teaching jobs, they lost ground in gaining headships. The proportion of schools with women heads fell from 57 per cent in 1927 to less than half in 1959, then down to 38 per cent in 1976. It only returned to the levels seen in the 1920s in 2004, a milestone that went unnoticed. Today it stands at 63 per cent.

Part of the reason for this is likely to be the expansion of secondary schools; another was the tendency for women teachers to lose out when boys' and girls' schools were amalgamated or began to teach older pupils.

These trends infuriated the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT), which was set up in 1909 to tackle just such discriminatory practices. At its annual conference in York in 1927, its members heard that "the amalgamation of departments and the consequent displacing of the woman teacher in favour of the man was taking place in various parts of the country - in Kent, in the South West, in Wales, and in York", and that about 170 headships had been "lost" to women between 1920 and 1925.

The TES reported that Miss Neal, the union's president, "urged members in every part of the country to be on the alert and to try to take steps in time to ensure that, if amalgamations must come, men and women should have an equal right to apply for and to obtain the headships".

One delegate suggested institutional sexism was to blame. "The excuse that women could not manage boys over the age of 11 was idle. Women teachers could manage boys much better than men managed girls.

"It was a tradition largely of governing bodies, from the Board of Education downwards, which were largely composed of men, that only men could fill those positions. More women were needed on the education authorities to change those traditions."

Women's opportunities were also reduced because, from 1915 to 1945, nearly all local authorities tried to ban married women staff from teaching. At the NUWT conference, teachers were outraged that local authorities "apparently considered it a crime for a woman teacher to marry and punished her for it by virtually depriving her of her certificate during her married life, restoring it to her again if and when she became a widow".

The union felt this was a peculiarly British mistake. "Some little time ago when parties of French women teachers were visiting this country to observe methods of teaching, one of the things that struck them was the absence of married women teachers in our schools. When they were told that few local authorities allowed married women teachers to be employed, one said: `But why not? What have they done?'"

A counter set of pro-male arguments were made three months later in Bristol at the annual conference of the National Association of Schoolmasters. "One of these essential qualities in the adult male was `manliness' and in the adult woman `womanliness'," the schoolmasters heard.

"No woman could train a boy in habits of manliness. It was true that one occasionally met a woman who could `manage boys as well as any man'. Such a one might be an admirable proprietress of a Wild West saloon, but they had no room for her in our boys schools."

A Mr J Mason from Nottingham successfully moved a resolution that the union "strongly repudiated the suggestion that men and women teachers are interchangeable" and warned that "the disappearance of the man teacher" would inevitably cause "a weakening of the moral fibre of the nation's boys and girls." (The NAS members would likely have been horrified if they had learned they would one day merge with the NUWT and have a female general secretary).

A fellow member, Mr WH Young of Liverpool, explained that men saw teaching as a life profession, but women did not. "Their attitude was that it was a nice profession and well paid. The parents thought it would keep their girls out of the temptations of city life, they would receive a good education and they would get along nicely until the right man came along." This comment was met with approving laughter, the reporter noted.

The ban on married women teachers appears, at first glance, bizarrely sexist and indefensible. Yet there was an altruistic motive behind it: to ensure that the thousands of widows, whose husbands died in the Somme and the other battlefields of the First World War, had a better chance of getting teaching jobs and were not left destitute.

The House of Commons debated a Married Women Employment Bill in 1927 to stop authorities enforcing such bans, but rejected it. Although The TES repeatedly criticised them, it acknowledged if MPs were trying to protect widows their motive was "not an unreasonable one".

"On the face of things a married woman is at least as efficient as an unmarried woman, and a stout case has been made out for the retention of married women who were in the teaching profession before marriage," the newspaper stated.

"The quality of their work has never been seriously attacked, and their sympathetic outlook on child life is certainly not likely to be altered, and many think that it is deepened by the fact of marriage. But the fact is that the loss of male life in the war has imposed celibacy on a large number of women who, in mid-life at any rate, will have to depend on their own exertions for maintenance."

It was not until the end of the next world war that the bans were lifted, and an amendment to the Education Act 1944 finally ensured that married women could continue teaching.

Many women teachers hoped that act would go further and also get rid of the separate pay scales for male and female staff. Those were not removed until 1962, leading one head to grump five years later that "air terminals and channel ports in late July are thick with women teachers hurrying abroad to spend their equal pay".

But even without those scales a pay gap still existed: today, the average male secondary teacher earns around pound;2,000 a year more than their female counterpart, and male secondary heads pound;4,000 more. A standard explanation given for this - as for the gap in other industries - is that women fall behind in the career race when they take a year or more out of work to have children.

Over the century, teaching switched from being perceived as an inappropriate job for a mother to an ideal one. In 1969, The TES reported that the president of the Association of Assistant Mistresses was calling for more encouragement for young women to enter the profession, as she had herself returned to teaching after marrying.

Another article that year stated: "Obviously for a girl who wants to combine a career with marriage, teaching, a profession in which her hours away from home will coincide exactly with those of her own schoolchildren, has enormous advantage."

By 1986, married women returners were the "the largest source of recruits to teaching". A Teacher Training Agency survey in 1998 of a group of female London teachers who had started teaching in the early 1970s found that 73 per cent of those working in primary had at least one child, but only 50 per cent of those in secondary.

In 2002, a study found that male heads were more likely than women heads to live with a partner (95 per cent67 per cent) and to have children (94 per52 per cent), an illustration of how much more female school leaders still have to give up for their careers.

"The 20th century has brought its revolt against the view of the inferiority of women teachers," The TES wrote on its front page in 1930.

"If the revolt seems to some to make headway too slowly, and to encounter obstacles too unyielding, let the history of women teachers bring, if not patience, at least a little comfort to the women by showing them that they are at war with an age-long tradition that was unchallenged for centuries, a prejudice that is tightly woven into the texture of men's minds."

Today, female teachers may still be the predominant face of the profession, but that war with age-long tradition may yet have a few battles to run.


One of the biggest changes to teachers over the past 100 years has been the levels of their own education.

"Elementary school teachers nearly all come from elementary schools themselves; that is, they belong to families very seldom well-to-do and generally poor," The TES wrote in 1910.

"Some are the children of widows; in nearly every case the parents have made sacrifices, often great sacrifices, to launch their children in a profession involving six or seven years of preparation (including the time spent in improving their general education at secondary schools, as well as in their purely professional training)".

In contrast, the paper suggested that those who aspired to be secondary teachers were from better-off backgrounds. They were like young doctors and lawyers, it stated, as they "generally belong to families capable of supporting them till they can support themselves".

The academic qualifications expected of teachers grew as the century went on, though it was not until 1976 that all new entrants were expected to be graduates (postgraduate training had, however, been compulsory for all graduate teachers in state primaries since 1969 and state secondaries since 1973).

Last year, a century after The TES wrote about the struggle to ensure elementary teachers had received secondary schooling, Conservative and Labour politicians were looking to Finland, and exploring ways to make primary and secondary teaching a "masters-level profession".

Social class is a greyer, more fluid area. For teachers it has been bound up with their education and with the status of their job - which TES readers have always argued should be higher.

But the job has always attracted the middle-classes, and seemed to grow more middle class as the century wore on, ahead of the national shift in that direction.


The whole fabric of women's education in England, from the elementary school to the university, may be said, with substantial accuracy, to have been built up in the 19th century.

When a national system of elementary instruction was created, girls and boys profited equally by the labours of educational enthusiasts and of statesmen: but the provision of a sound system of secondary education for girls and their admission to the advantages of university training was in the main the work of women themselves, and is the chief actual accomplishment of what is called the feminist movement.

The objections once so freely urged against women's education have been proven on nearer acquaintance to be exaggerated. Women have eaten of the tree of knowledge without reducing the rest of the family (to quote Sydney Smith) to the same kind of aerial and unsatisfactory diet.

They have shown an unexpected aptitude for mathematics, they have distinguished themselves as historians and archeologists; and in other branches of learning they have become eminent surgeons, they have furnished to the public service skillful administrators, and in their work as health visitors have shown that they were able to render to the general community a service which was never efficiently undertaken until they had been fitted to perform it.

Those who shuddered at the thought of opening University education to women belonged to the class of practical infidels who think that the great institutions of nature depend on teaching women a little more or a little less.

That home is a woman's sphere is true enough, but the truth does not exclude the possibility of an instructed womanhood to make our homes more satisfactory than they were when the height of a woman's education was "to stitch, sew and make baubies".

Girls' schools are providing special courses of instruction relating to household affairs, and the courses of lectures at King's College on applied chemistry, sanitary science and hygiene seek to give a scientific education to the principles underlying the organisation of home life.

Women are not rebelling against domestic tasks but are bringing new energies and more scientific knowledge to aid in their fulfilment.



1927 - 57%

1959 - 49%

1976 - 38%

1997 - 51%

2000 - 54%

2003 - 57%

2010 - 63%

Source: IPPR, DfE


The teaching profession, like the country, grew more racially diverse over the century - but not by much. In 1976 The TES posed a question: "4,000 non-white teachers - but where are they?"

Teaching staff in city schools had become slightly more multiethnic in the 1950s and 1960s, but this was mainly because immigrant teachers from the West Indies and Asia had been employed to fill staffing gaps.

"Nobody ever decided purposefully that Britain's schools should have multiracial staffrooms," the journalist wrote. "The black and brown teachers from abroad are there because teachers were scarce and they were available."

No national figures were collected for teachers' ethnicity in 1976 - this only changed a few years ago - so The TES reporter came up with the 4,000 estimate for non-white teachers after ringing round local authorities. Some were more helpful than others: Haringey's official response was "Oh, we've got loads".

The TES was in favour of a more ethnically diverse teaching force, noting then that "many of the so-called immigrant pupils in schools - and there are an increasing proportion - are native born".

"It is much more important in an increasingly multicultural society for all children to be familiar with different racial groups."

The title of Britain's first black headteacher is contested, but it may well have been Caribbean writer Beryl Gilroy, who was head of a London primary in 1968.

In 1982 - the same year that Carlton Duncan (left) in Birmingham became the first black secondary head - a survey of eight local authorities by the Commission for Racial Equality found that 2 per cent of teachers were from the ethnic minorities.

As of last year, the workforce was less diverse than the nation: 94 per cent of teachers were white; 2.8 per cent Asian; 1.7 per cent black; 0.8 per cent mixed race; and 0.5 per cent Chinese.

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