Man in a girls' world
It takes a lot to embarrass Simon Penny. Which is just as well because, for a male teacher at an all-girls school, blushing is not an option. Janet Murray reports
Wanted: talented male role model for young audience. Must be comfortable in the spotlight and skilled at fending off female admirers.
This could be an advert for the latest boy band. But it could equally be a job description for Simon Penny, a 30-year-old teacher of geography, leisure and tourism at Rainham school for girls, an 11-18 technology college in Gillingham, Kent. He loves his job, but admits that being a young male teacher in a girls' school can be tough. "Inevitably, the girls develop crushes on male teachers. Often a girl will come up to you and say, 'My friend fancies you', or will blush when you walk into a room. It's unnerving at first, but you have to accept that it's part of the job and laugh it off."
Mr Penny has had to take some ribbing from his friends. "When I told them I'd be working in a girls' school, some of them said, 'Wow, think about all those young women you'll be working with - they'll all be falling in love with you'. They thought I'd develop a big ego. But it's not like that; you put on your professional head and get on with the job."
It is the first time he has taught in a girls' school. Since qualifying in 1993, he has taught geography, leisure and tourism in comprehensives, and science in an international school in Madrid. But despite the diversity, he cites teaching at a single-sex school as one of his most interesting experiences. "It's so different to a mixed school. The girls are so much more confident in themselves. Boys can tend to dominate, shouting out in class and over what the girls are saying. When I started here, I was immediately struck by how much better the girls behaved, and how much more they achieved without boys to distract them."
It's commonly believed that girls perform better than boys, particularly in single-sex schools. In last year's GCSE results, girls outstripped boys by 9 per cent at grade C and above - an improvement on the 8.9 per cent of the previous year. And supporters of single-sex schooling have often argued their case by pointing to the success of girls' schools in performance tables. But the evidence is inconclusive and research suggests that factors such as social background and academic advantage may be even more crucial to girls' success.
As Professor Debbie Epstein, head of educational studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, says: "While it's difficult to prove that girls achieve more academically in a single-sex school, it is fair to say that girls have a better time because there is less bullying and violence.
And in an all-female environment, girls don't have to compete with boys for space, time or attention."
Is there any truth in the stereotype that girls' schools are bitchy? "I'm not sure if bitchy is the right way to put it," says Mr Penny, "but girls do upset each other and fall out more frequently than boys. When I started at the school, I was a Year 7 tutor and spent a lot of time dealing with friendship problems. It was an eye-opener."
And the girls are not reluctant to discuss their personal difficulties with a male teacher. "I sometimes wish they were," Mr Penny jokes. "For personal issues, such as periods and contraception, I suggest they talk to a female member of staff. They sometimes want to discuss boyfriend troubles, but once it reaches a certain point I warn them that if they want to say more I may have to tell a senior teacher. I follow the protocol for child protection, which is exactly the same for female teachers."
Nevertheless, some situations can prove embarrassing. He was recently asked to attend an assembly on pre-menstrual tension, sponsored by Tampax. "The girls were looking round and laughing," he recalls. "At the end, I had to help dish out free samples and the girls thought it was hilarious. Some male teachers would have found it excruciating, but I coped."
At other times he feels even more in the minority. "We have services at Christmas and Easter," he explains. "We sing hymns, and in a hall with 600 girls, a male voice can be difficult to disguise. You find yourself trying to 'up' your voice, which makes the girls giggle."
Of the 85 teachers at his school, less than 40 per cent are male, a figure he'd like to see increase. "It's great that the girls are taught by successful females," he explains. "They are fabulous role models. But male role models are important, too. And it's as much of an education for us as it is for them. Since working at a girls' school, I've become more aware of gender issues, and I've had to rethink the way I do things. For example, you have to think carefully about the language you use - descriptions such as firemen or policemen are out."
Mr Penny is also aware that a young male teacher can be vulnerable in a girls' school. He is still wary after an uncomfortable incident at a previous school when a parent complained because his daughter had stuck photos of him on her bedroom wall. "The worst thing was that I didn't even know the pictures had been taken," he says. "She'd taken them when I was on playground duty and that made me very uncomfortable. The situation was quickly resolved, but that kind of thing does leave a nasty taste in the mouth."
Serious incidents like this are rare. According to Professor Epstein, crushes are usually harmless. "Adolescent girls can have an emotional intensity that can be unsettling, but it's part of growing, of learning to be a woman. So a young male teacher can find himself the focus of unwanted attention. But it's rarely threatening."
Despite his experiences, Mr Penny agrees. He says most girls are keen to build good working relationships. "Girls are much more openly positive than boys. They try to see you as a person, not just a teacher. I got married recently and lots of the girls bought me presents. It shows just how thoughtful they are."