'Mr Peck will clear up the suck!';Men in primaries

17th September 1999 at 01:00
... and he's running the music club and teaching cookery. Victoria Neumark visits a Surrey primary school where half the teachers are men.

Juliet Armstrong loves her job as a reception teacher at St John's Church of England primary school, Kingston upon Thames, Surrey. "All my friends are jealous," she laughs.

While she might be talking about the school's OFSTED's report - "an exceptional environment for learning" where "behaviour is exceptionally good" - or maybe its imaginative display of Greek masks and Impressionist paintings, or even the landscaped playground, with its wild area and playspace set next to a canal in the middle of suburban gardens, she is actually talking about her colleagues. Out of a full-time teaching staff of 10, five are male. As Linda Palmer, head of St John's since 1990, says:

"People might think it's unusual, but it works."

According to research published in January 1999 by research student Diane Button at the University of Bristol, while the total percentage of men within teaching has remained at 18 per cent for the past 10 years, only 10 per cent of 21 to 29-year-old entrants are male, and most of these men are working in secondary schools.

Recent DFEE figures show that fewer than 4,000 men aged between 21 and to 29 work in the primary sector, compared with 31,000 women primary teachers in the same age bracket. The picture is clear: young men shy away from primary teaching. But when you look at the overwhelmingly positive experience of staff and pupils at St John's, it's equally clear that there are a lot of primary schools missing out. Juliet Armstrong says: "It is so much better like this. It feels balanced."

Chris Tyrrell, a former secondary RE teacher who takes Year 6 at the school, is quite clear about the school's position. "We're very keen to blur gender stereotypes. We always try to show the children that caring isn't a girly thing and that sport isn't just a boy thing. I run the rugby club, which has lots of girls. The music club is not just for girls, nor is cookery." Male staff run both.

But St John's, which is an extremely popular school in a high-achieving authority, sees its gender balance as just one element in a mix that relies heavily on the creativity and individuality of all its staff.

Jem Peck, a Year 4 teacher, says: "It's not so much the males in the school who affect it, as it is the employment process - choosing people who have skills from life experience."

Mr Peck is a guitarist, former engineer, songwriter, decorator and son of a teacher ("so I knew what I was letting myself in for"); deputy head Richard Woodfin, who's responsible for the Year 1 class, used to work in a bank and give guitar lessons; head Linda Palmer worked as a civilian fingerprint officer in the Metropolitan Police. Four out of the five male staff are part-time musicians. The staff's varied backgrounds seem to give ballast to the school, opening out vistas for the children, squashing petty disagreements. As Mrs Palmer comments: "We've all seen life."

Yet to the outsider, the even balance of men and women seems to be the most important element in the school's particular atmosphere. As Juliet Armstrong puts it: "There are different outlooks, ideas."

What is different for the children - a proportion of whom come from single-parent homes - is that positive role models are there on tap. Although the male staff shy away slightly from being seen in this light, Ms Armstrong is clear: "It's a very positive point for our school that our children see a positive male presence." Jem Peck concedes: "We are there and we are available."

From outside the school, one might imagine a range of parental worries about men and small children, from physical contact to sex education. The headteacher and staff are sensitive to such concerns. "When you become a parent," says Mr Peck, "you see how wonderful and how precious children are to their parents." Being a school where gender relations are positive and where policies are clear-cut, guidelines for appropriate touching are the same for men and women: small children rush up for the odd hug and then dart away. Teachers in the playground have a bunch of kids on each hand, chatting away.

Neither are potentially tricky areas, such as sex education for the older girls, a problem. "We think it's important for both genders to hear both sides of the subject," explains Mrs Palmer.

All the key stage 2 children in the one-form entry school are taught by men. Gender issues are part and parcel of the general management of behaviour in the school, which is where, to the outside eye, the male influence is most benign. Restless, wriggling little boys respond well to a mixture of jocularity and firmness, and throw themselves with enthusiasm into the rich mixture of activities that school life offers.

It is the head's eagle-eyed presence as well as what she calls "more of a male joshing atmosphere at times" that makes the children comfortable. "That's how they can learn - safely."

St John's is, says Jem Peck, a "wonderful place". He would say so, you may say, since he was head-hunted by the school after completing his 1991 teaching practice there. But his easy banter with staff and pupils, his evident enjoyment at talking with his class and his enthusiasm for his job speak volumes about the "magical ethos" of St John's.

That ethos, nourished by Linda Palmer, is one of positive engagement. As she puts it: "There is not a day in my life when I have woken up in the morning and not wanted to go to work." Having worked for the police, she is not in the least fazed by her male staff. As she says, "I just don't feel inhibited."

As well as the role they play in behaviour management, male teachers are especially important in building pupils' confidence through creativity. Concerts and improvisations are a school norm. "The secondary schools tell us that it's always St John's children who put their hand up to perform," says Jem Peck. "They all want to play the guitar. It must be because we have such a good time here."

They have such a good time that staff commit themselves to a plethora of after-school clubs and to diligent whole-school planning on every issue, from converting the loft into a staffroom and freeing space for art and drama, to scheduling the literacy hour to dovetail with performing arts. Such a good time that staff enjoy spending time together out of school. None of the men can imagine why more of their gender don't go into primary education. "It's so interesting to watch your class develop over the year," says Mr Tyrrell.

Yet it could easily not have been so pleasant. You would be forgiven for assuming that because the school is in leafy Kingston, it's nice and middle-class. It's not, say staff. The pupil population has twice the free school-meals average for the authority. Parents are drawn to the school because it takes the needs of all the children positively, with excellent special needs provision. Recently, with perhaps an extra keenness born of their gender, the staff have been considering the special needs of boys, focusing on sport and physical education and "reward ladders" (achievement acknowledgement) as ways to encourage male success.

But, as Richard Woodfin points out, the real role encouragement for young boys is already there, in the classrooms where they see effective adults of their own gender. "In my last school I was a bit of a novelty," he says. "Here it just feels right."

Ultimately, the school feels right because, in Jem Peck's word, it is "child-ified". Perhaps that sense of rightness, that sense that adults and children are balanced in gender and in role, is best captured in an anecdote about a recent school trip. The children had already been reassured. "Your mum won't be there, but Mr Peck will be." one mother asked: "And I expect the ladies will be clearing up all the sick, will they?" "No," said Jem Peck, with the certainty that comes of previous experience, "Mr Peck will be clearing up the sick."

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