Panic over the paucity of male teachers has been reignited by figures showing that almost 30 per cent of primaries do not have a man on the staff. The numbers, released in the General Teaching Council for England's (GTC) annual digest, have led to calls for the teaching profession to have a more balanced intake.
Boys' education will suffer unless they are taught to read, write and count by men, the argument goes. Children need more male role models, regardless of whether men are actually better teachers.
Around 75 per cent of teachers are women, but in primaries only 13 per cent are men. This means that significant numbers of children are never taught by a man before secondary school.
The number of teachers from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, on the other hand, has grown rapidly in recent years according to the GTC figures. Between 2002 and 2008 the proportion of BME teachers entering the profession has almost doubled from 5.3 to 9.1 per cent.
But how concerned should teachers be about the make-up of the workforce? What difference does it actually make to the quality of education?
According to Keith Bartley, GTC chief executive, too many men are put off careers in teaching, particularly with younger children, over fears that it will raise misgivings about their intentions.
"We should focus on attracting the best recruits to teaching regardless of their gender," he said on publication of the annual statistics.
"If men do not believe that teaching is a worthwhile career option for them, or worse still, if their interest in teaching is viewed with suspicion, then children potentially miss out on a huge pool of talent."
Others have said that a more representative workforce would help children with their "broader development" and that a lack of men creates the danger that boys will see education as "sissy".
The drive to get more men into teaching has been spearheaded by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA), which is responsible for recruiting new entrants. With the concern that negative associations are putting men off becoming primary teachers, the Agency is organising visits to schools for men to observe lessons, talk with teachers and experience the school day. It is also arranging taster courses to network with other men interested in primary teaching, and advice sessions from serving male teachers.
A poll published last week showed that 72 per cent of people think it is important for there to be equal numbers of male and female teachers. When asked why, almost half said it was to provide role models.
According to Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, while the gender balance is a problem, it does not have any impact on pupils' results.
"It would be beneficial for the workforce to represent society more broadly, but we know from lots of studies that it does not have an impact on achievement," she said.
"What we have to be concerned about is why men are not attracted to teaching - low status and low pay, for example. To assume this is not a problem for women too is nonsense."
There are big differences between individual teachers and their styles, irrespective of their gender, Professor Francis said.
One of her own studies, carried out with Christine Skelton from Birmingham University, involved interviews with more than 300 primary school children.
More than two-thirds said the gender of their teachers did not make a difference to how they viewed them. Children's main concern was the quality of teaching, not whether teachers were men or women, the study found. Only one boy said he saw his male teacher as a role model.
While the number of men entering the profession has remained relatively static, the same is not true of the BME community, which has also been the target of recruitment drives. The push, led by the TDA, began in the late 1990s and although it took a number of years to get into full swing, it is now showing impressive results.
For the past three years, the number of new entrants to teaching from BME backgrounds has been above 9 per cent. Between 2003 and 2008, the number of new teachers from Asian backgrounds has risen from 2.7 to 4.5 per cent of the cohort, while for black teachers it has increased from 1.3 to 2.4 per cent.
Professor John Howson, a teacher recruitment expert at Education Data Surveys, said there had been a "striking success" in attracting more Asian teachers to maths and IT.
"But there is still an apartheid between different parts of the country," said Professor Howson. "In urban areas, London, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire there are now significant numbers of ethnic minority teachers, but it is not universal.
Michelle Codrington-Rogers, a citizenship teacher at Cherwell School in Oxford and a member of the BME advisory committee of teaching union NASUWT, said she did not think of herself as a role model, but as an "example" to children.
However, she said: "Parents will have had mixed experiences of the education system and may feel it does not value the positive contributions of their community. Having more BME teachers can help with that."
Mrs Codrington-Rogers said there is widespread concern about "institutional racism" which blights the career paths of BME teachers.
"We can't deny there is institutional racism and it takes many forms. It is hard to prove, but a lot of teachers are dispirited by it," she said. "In teaching, you have to work as a team and if you are seen as a troublemaker it can cause problems."
However, Tony Sewell, an expert on the educational achievement of black boys, said the problems affecting pupils would not be solved by having a more diverse teaching workforce.
High exclusion rates suffered by African Caribbean boys have not dropped in line with the increase in black teachers, he said.
"That shows that achievement and well-being still depend on where students come from in terms of parental background, peer group pressure and other outside factors.
"If we are going to get to the root of the problem, we are going to have to think of ways to make the whole experience different.
"I welcome the increase in black teachers, but it's not enough. It is more complex than that."
PLAYING THE AGE GAME
- The teaching profession has been getting younger since 2006, with a 5 per cent increase in the number of staff aged 39 and under.
- Figures showed that there has been a 7 per cent drop in teachers aged 45 to 59 over the same time period. A third of in-service teachers are now under the age of 35.
- In 2008, 39 per cent of newly qualified teachers were under the age of 25, which is six per cent higher than 2006. A further 31 per cent were aged 25 to 29.