The male role models who listen

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
The importance men in primary schools can have in helping the development of the pupils is greatly underestimated. Jill Parkin reports

If there is one species rarer than a maths teacher in an inner London secondary, it is a male teacher in a primary school anywhere. When spotted, they are looked upon with suspicion and incredulity, as if there is no place for a man among small children.

Primary school teaching is an overwhelmingly feminine experience. We have 16,000 male classroom teachers in the nursery and primary sector, compared to 119,100 women. Needless to say, the men are disproportionately represented at the top of the sector, with 7,600 male headteachers and 10,900 female.

Yet, men in primary schools may have an enormous positive impact on their pupils' personal development. Professionals say that children - especially boys - suffer from an absence of male role models. Men are needed in primaries but seem mainly attracted to the secondary sector.

The teaching unions reckon that higher salaries would attract more men. Women historically have been more prepared to put up with poor pay because of the family-friendly conditions.

Figures from the National Union of Teachers show the median graduate starter salary now is pound;18,330, compared with pound;16,050 in teaching, a difference of 14 per cent which the union says widens to 54 per cent after five years.

Eamon O'Kane, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, believes salaries are a major factor but that the problem goes beyond that. "It's partly to do with the very important issue of child protection," he says. "Male teachers do feel they are in a vulnerable position working with young children, who require much more nurturing care than teenagers. That plays a part in the diffidence and reluctance of some young men who otherwise would be attracted to teaching.

"I'm sure the situation has worsened over the past 30 or 40 years and that's a great pity because so many children today lack a male role model."

But there are 16,000 men out there doing the job They must have their reasons.

Karl Harms, a former care worker and father of two boys, has been teaching in primaries for 11 years. He is now on supply to Canning Street school in Benwell, an inner-city area of Newcastle, whose 385 pupils include many from disadvantaged homes.

"When I turn up I'm often the first male teacher a pupil has seen," he says.

"A good teacher is a good teacher regardless of gender, but I do believe men and women give out different messages at a subliminal level. Some children - not just boys - spark up a good relationship with a man and that's a way in to teaching them.

"In the older classes boys are often more prepared to listen to a man, because of the authority aspect. Also, they are becoming young men and starting to question the world, so they like to be able to ask a man: "Sir, what do you think about that?" But being a sergeant major is no use - they need to feel you will listen to them.

"I've also taught in reception and year one where the children can be scared of a man. And the parents can be suspicious. On those days I take in my guitar to do songs and fun, gentle things."

The Teacher Training Agency says there have been signs of an increased interest among young men since the introduction of attractive starting packages, training salaries and the fast-track scheme. In some areas initial teacher training providers have been visiting schools, targeting year 10 and 11 boys and trying to change their perceptions of the job as one for women. The TTA is also running a series of conferences this spring which will examine new research into the subject.

Mark Trott, head of Ocklynge Junior School in Eastbourne, has six men on his teaching staff and believes they have a value above and beyond simply teaching. He says: "Many homes only have a mum. Some children have a succession of men in their lives and get a negative picture. Having male teachers in primary schools can show the good and caring things about men."

So, if you don't mind being different while you make a difference, then try the primary sector, young man.

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