David Budge and Maureen O'Connor end their reports from the British Educational Research Association conference.
Men may gain the lion's share of primary headships, but they are losing the academic battle with female students on some BEd courses.
An analysis of the BEd students who have passed through the University of Hertfordshire over the past three years shows that attempts to boost the number of men in primary teaching are being hampered by high drop-out and failure rates.
Half of the male students have dropped out of some courses, compared with only 18 per cent of the women, and a significant number are failing in the final year.
Dr Mary Thornton, the University of Hertfordshire researcher who has been monitoring their performance, told the BERA conference: "When final-year failure, unclassified and third-class degrees are taken into account then male students on the BEd are lost at a rate of between 61 and 66 per cent."
Dr Thornton said that she had also surveyed 220 schools within a 25-mile radius of Watford and had found that 35 per cent of their male teaching staff were heads and 17 per cent were deputies. The equivalent figures for women were 7 and 9 per cent. She said that such statistics, coupled with the finding that male teachers earn Pounds 82 a week more than their female colleagues on average, might seem to suggest that although primary teaching attracted few men they were of very high quality.
Her review of the BEd data suggested otherwise. "Why is the drop-out and effective failure rate so high for male students?" she asked. "Is it because, at admissions, we 'fall over backwards' to accept as many men as possible? In doing so, do we accept male students with lower entry qualifications and less experience or commitment?" Dr Thornton also speculated that some male applicants to primary training might have "lowered their sights" after disappointing A-level results, perhaps thinking that primary teaching is easier than secondary, or that teaching is easier than commerce. "The prospect of being a big fish in a small pond may be more attractive than being a small fish in a large, threatening and highly-competitive environment," Dr Thornton said.
She did, however, accept that some of the university's male BEd students had obtained first-class honours and that male applicants who were "immature and unfocused" at the age of 18 or 19 sometimes developed into committed, dedicated and able teachers.
Dr Thornton added that the Teacher Training Agency would have to ask itself how it could encourage more men to enter primary teaching without diminishing women teachers' career opportunities. "The TTA is offering increased student allocations to teacher training departments that recruit a minimum of 20 per cent male students to their primary BEd and post-graduate certificate in education courses," she noted. "But this will not increase the calibre of male applicants to primary teacher training or enhance their completion rate during training."
She said that higher-calibre candidates of both sexes would only be attracted into primary teaching if the profession's status and pay were improved. However, she also argued for more work experience placements for boys in primary schools.
"This could demonstrate that primary teaching was a realistic and worthwhile career option for them and it would provide insight into the nature of the work and the level of commitment required," she said.
Men into primary teaching: who goes where? Mary Thornton, University of Hertfordshire