Men on their own

13th January 2006 at 00:00
The three men in a 100-strong class of 2005 are finding it's a very female world out there in schools. Su Clark reports

It wasn't until Richard Denton walked into his first lecture at Edinburgh university and was faced with a mass of women that he recognised the disparity between the sexes in teaching.

"Looking back," he says, "I suppose I should have realised, because I never had a male teacher at primary school. But you forget - and, at secondary school, it was much more balanced. Even so, at secondary, I had mostly male teachers, because I chose to do those subjects traditionally dominated by men, such as science."

Richard, who at the last moment swapped from politics to a teaching degree after meeting other student teachers, was in for a shock. At the start of his degree, the men were outnumbered 17 to 1. Friends on other courses looked on in envy.

"They thought I was so lucky, that it would be brilliant to be so outnumbered," he says. "I suppose for some men it could be intimidating, but I had always had female friends so I didn't have a problem. Also, I was already with Sophie, who is now my wife, so there was no pressure from that side."

The ratio of female to male teachers in Scottish primary education is 50 to 3. Richard was one of only three men who graduated in a cohort of more than 100 last summer. Today he is a probationer, the equivalent of an NQT in England and Wales, but has found teaching a little less imbalanced. At his school, Barassie primary, in Ayrshire, he is not the only man, a fact which bucks the trend.

"Having gone through a course where there were so many women compared to men, you just accept you will always be outnumbered," he says.

"I don't feel so outnumbered at my current school, not like I did at college. I do have male colleagues." Two of the 11 other teachers are men at Barassie, where Richard takes P2 (Year 2 in England).

Schools often have male caretakers, and even some male support staff, but among teaching staff it is becoming common in Scottish primaries for there to be no men at all. And this is causing problems.

The increasing dominance of women over men in education is cited, by many, as one of the reasons why fewer men are choosing teaching. They are reluctant to join such a feminised profession. And it can make the staffroom seem an intimidating place.

"Before I qualified I knew of one teacher who never went to the staffroom - he just felt too awkward," says Martin Christison, who graduated on the same course as Richard Denton last year and now works as a P3 (Year 3) teacher at Langlee primary in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders.

Martin highlighted the problem to Peter Peacock, Scotland's education minister, when he visited Edinburgh graduates in May last year. This autumn, Mr Peacock replied to him by letter, inviting his thoughts on the problem. But the Scottish Executive is still waiting for a report, commissioned from Edinburgh university, assessing how serious the problem is and suggesting solutions. Meanwhile, the number of men in primary schools will continue to shrink as older men retire.

Martin is one of three men teaching at his school, but the third male graduate from his course at Edinburgh is even more isolated. David Banks is doing his probation with a P2 (Year 2) class at Whitdale primary in West Lothian, where there is one other man and he is on long-term supply. The other 10 or so teachers are women.

David is worried about the effect this is having on pupils. "Young children need positive male role models within schools," he says, "especially those who don't have a father figure at home, For some children, a male teacher could be the only positive male role model they know.

"Parents like it when there is a man on the teaching staff," he says. "I've been getting a lot of positive feedback from parents."

Yet David is already thinking about his long-term future, and it is likely it won't be in the classroom in the regular sense. "I don't see myself as a mainstream teacher for the duration. I've realised since doing my probation that I would like to do more specialised support teaching," he says.

Martin Christison is keeping an open mind, but Richard Denton definitely sees his future in the classroom.

He wasn't sure when he graduated if he actually wanted to do the job, but he ended up at an excellent school and says he is "absolutely loving" his work. "It is not so time consuming as college and there are more rewards: having your own classroom and seeing the children develop. I think I might like to work towards chartered teacher status so I can stay in the classroom." He and his family have settled in Ayrshire, and he would like to stay when his probation is up.

Richard, like David, stresses the importance of having male role models in classrooms. "Being only one of three male teachers isn't an issue for the staff. But it is important for the children. Many of them come from single-parent homes, usually with just a mother."

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