In defence of the female

25th April 2003 at 01:00
Anything a man can do, a woman has to do better, especially if she is a teacher, writes Bob Aston.

We all know women outnumber men in primary schools. This might be seen as a good nurturing move by the John Patten brigade (whatever happened to him?), but it has its drawbacks.

After learning that her son would be in the class of the only male teacher in the school, one mother of a challenging boy said: "Thank God. At least a man teacher will sort him out." What she appreciated was that her son needed structure, clear targets, short, tightly focused activities and the security of firm but fair discipline. If this could be combined with a "toys for boys" ICT culture laced with plenty of competitive sports such as football, her son's problems would, she believed, magically disappear as respect for his teacher miraculously reappeared.

No longer would she have to spend hours listening to lists of his misdemeanours. But she mistakenly believed that only a male teacher could deliver these qualities. She ignored the fact that his current female teacher was providing all of them with expertise and judgment. Perception is everything, and sexism is alive and well.

Because some women may be falsely perceived to be soft, gentle and subservient, many parents believe they cannot teach boys - an attitude ingrained in some boys too. They sometimes try to play women teachers up more than they would dare with any man - which is how many swiftly learn how tough female teachers can be. As the allegedly weaker sex, women are expected to be supportive, nurturing, empathetic and, in macho eyes, of less worth. Nothing could be further from the truth. And there are many ways in which a testosterone-free environment is preferable.

God forbid that anyone should subscribe to a "mums' army" view of primary school, but there are advantages in an all-female staff. Women are usually excellent team members with rarely any competitive abrasiveness that can disrupt male team harmony. Most women seek co-operative solutions to problems. With rare exceptions, they show consistent commitment to finishing the task, and a healthy grasp of detail. No ends are left untied in the hope that someone else will tidy up. Many women excel at multi-tasking; it is not a gender accident that few men could be that paragon of multi-tasking, the school secretary.

But there are disadvantages. The more dynamic, testosterone-fired energy of the male could be said to be lacking and, for some boys who come from single-mum homes, a lack of a positive male role model has a negative effect on self image. The growing use of male mentors from outside school could help here.

Arguably, a female workforce is possibly too quiescent. The original unworkable national curriculum may have been more fiercely resisted if it had been imposed first on the more male-dominated secondary schools.

Research also shows that the feminisation of a workforce depresses salaries.

A disproportionate number of men remain in primary school leadership roles, but as this ageing cohort retires, women are reaping the rewards.

Nevertheless, there is still a sense of injustice about the unfair advantages men enjoy. As one female colleague said bitterly recently: "As far as promotion goes, whatever female teachers do, they must do it twice as well as any man to be considered half as good. Fortunately, that's not too difficult."

So, although men are a dying breed in primary schools, this is not necessarily to be lamented. After all, if behind every good man there is a good woman, perhaps it's time for us to acknowledge that the good woman is sufficient of herself.

Bob Aston is headteacher of a junior school in Medway

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