What's the problem here?

5th December 2008 at 00:00
There are almost eight times more women than men in primary schools. Hannah Frankel looks at attempts to redress the balance

At the turn of the last century, about 12 per cent of the UK's primary teaching force was made up of men. Fast forward 108 years, and that figure has barely risen. There are 25,591 men registered to teach in primary classrooms compared with 174,793 women, figures from England's General Teaching Council show.

But as the credit crunch bites deeper into the male-dominated financial sector, it could be primary schools' gain. Inquiries about teaching have risen by 33 per cent since Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, collapsed, according to the Training and Development Agency, which set up recruitment events in response to the City lay-offs. Teaching may not be the best paid profession, the thinking goes, but it is one of the safest during a recession.

"We're under-exploiting men, which is not a good economic approach," says Graham Holley, TDA chief executive. "Pupils want more men and so do parents. There's strength in having a diverse workforce that meets pupils' diverse needs." Interestingly, although fewer than one in eight classroom primary teachers are male, a third of primary heads are men.

But if the trend continues and men turn to teaching from the City, what sort of teachers will that bring into the classroom? More importantly, will they hang around when the economy recovers?

"You've got to ask yourself whether it's ideal to persuade men whose natural inclination is not to become teachers, to become teachers," says Professor Peter Tymms, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, an educational research group at Durham University. "It could be counter-productive if, in the quest to become more representative, less well-suited male candidates are recruited."

The secondary sector has always had a more balanced mix of genders, but even that is starting to shift. In the past 10 years, the proportion of secondary female classroom teachers has increased from 54 per cent to 58 per cent, TDA figures show. If men become as scarce in secondary schools as they are in primaries, some pupils could go through their school career without ever having a male teacher.

Professor Tymms co-authored a paper on role models and the "gender gap" in teaching in the British Educational Research Journal earlier this year. In it, he traced the progress of almost 9,000 11-year-olds taught by men and women over the course of a year. Researchers found no discernable differences in pupils' achievement or attitude towards school, reading, maths or science.

"There was no evidence that boys performed any better or worse with male or female teachers," he says. "They were slightly more positive about school with female teachers, but that was about it."

The findings support large-scale research projects in the US, which show that teacher ethnicity, not gender, impacts upon learning in the States. Although Professor Tymms believes schools should be more reflective of society, policy should not presume that that in itself will improve the performance or attitude of any pupils, including under-achieving boys.

Regardless, the TDA is determined to drive up male recruitment figures. Its Pounds 12 million annual advertising campaign aims to ensure about 40,000 people train as teachers each year, regardless of gender. Its current focus is on secondary school teachers of either gender, especially maths and science specialists, rather than the over-subscribed primary sector.

However, money is being set aside to encourage men into the profession. The TDA has spent Pounds 200,000 over the past year on grants for universities and colleges that reach out and attract male trainees into the primary sector, alongside greater numbers of disabled graduates.

"We recognise it takes more effort to get men into the training courses, and we want to reward the initial teacher training providers that go that extra mile," says Graham Holley.

"There are false perceptions and stereotypes about what primary school teachers do. Men don't realise that it can be intellectually challenging or that there's room for progression and pay prospects."

To change mindsets, the TDA has set up three-day men-only taster sessions in schools, plus a panel of male teachers who will talk through any issues with prospective male candidates on the phone. It has also contacted 10,000 men who voiced an interest in teaching to remind them to get their applications in at the start of this month.

The TDA's efforts have been met with limited success. The last academic year saw the lowest proportion of men qualifying from universities and colleges for five years, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency; just 24 per cent of the cohort were men (7,610 out of 31,945 trainees) - down 6 per cent on the previous year. "We've made some progress," says Graham, "but an honest appraisal would be that we still have some way to go."

Part of the problem appears to be men's attitude, according to the TDA. It says that men are notoriously bad at applying for competitive primary trainee places: they leave their application too late, do not complete the compulsory two weeks' work experience prior to the course, and are less convincing interviewees than their organised female counterparts.

Mike Yule, 47, recognises all of the above in his younger self. He swapped his job as a partner at a criminal law firm in London for the classroom six years ago, but struggled initially to get a job. "I was out of practice, arrogant and assumed I'd be snapped up," he says. "I never thought it was going to be easy, but I thought I had interesting experience that I could bring to a school.

"I think it's a mistake men often make; they believe their previous career is enough to open doors, when in fact young children don't necessarily care about what you used to do. They just want someone in front of them who can provide a questioning environment that allows them to actively learn and participate."

Mike is one of five male teachers at Maidenbower Junior School in Crawley, West Sussex. The 600 seven to 11-year-olds have six times as many female teachers. Mike took a significant pay cut to become a teacher, but believes it was the right choice. "I was more proud of my first wage cheque as a teacher than any other income I've ever received," he says. "I'd worked hard for it."

He would encourage other career-changers to enter the profession, as long as they don't think of teaching as a second rate option - a perception fuelled by the massive disparity in pay.

"People tell me that teaching is a step down from being a lawyer, but that's absolute nonsense," says Mike. "If teachers were paid what lawyers were paid there wouldn't be these misconceptions and I guarantee the men would come flooding in. I work as hard as I ever did and I'm still handling lives that are at stake. How can teaching be less important than law?"

Michael Tidd is a teacher at Thomas A Becket Middle School in Worthing. He agrees that better pay would improve teacher status and attract more men in the process. "Men tend to be drawn to roles with higher status, be that through high income or high standing," he says. "Teaching has neither. But that in itself is a reflection of the value the nation places on learning."

This has a knock-on effect on teachers as role models. Michael doesn't believe that male teachers should double as father figures, but he does think they can reinforce the message that learning is good whatever your age, plus the concept that teaching is a career option for boys as well as girls.

Almost half of the 800 men who took part in a recent survey by the TDA said that a male teacher had been a fundamental role model in their lives. More than a third felt that having a male primary teacher challenged them to work harder at school, while half were more likely to approach a male teacher about bullying or problems with school work.

But not everyone agrees with the findings. Research based on the feminisation of teaching by Sheelagh Drudy, professor of education at University College Dublin, has led her to reject the role model argument. "Children don't look to teachers for role models," she says. "Even those who come from single parent families are more likely to turn to sport or pop stars for their inspiration, or to extended members of the family. Evidence suggests more men won't necessarily improve pupil experiences. Policy should remain focused on high-calibre candidates whatever their gender."

Professor Drudy would like to see more male teachers from an equality perspective, just as she'd like to see more women in engineering. But she warns that it is unlikely to happen without a sea change in the professional status of teaching.

"Many female-dominated professions are poorly paid and poorly regarded across Europe and that deters men," she says. "In less developed countries, such as Tunisia, teaching is a highly respected job and the number of women and men in primary teaching is about the same."

Peggy Drexler, assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Cornell University in New York, and author of Raising Boys Without Men, agrees there should be a diverse workforce, but also sees limitations in what that will achieve.

"A more gender-balanced staff fights stereotypes that men manage and women teach," she says. "There is a case to be made that a mix of men and women creates a beneficial diversity of styles and backgrounds, especially in adolescence, when boys and girls are more comfortable about discussing personal problems with members of their own gender.

"However, there is no definitive research that says male teachers improve the academic achievement of boys or that that they enhance a young man's masculine social development."

Their performance may not be affected, but pupils say they want a better mix. Research for the TDA last year found that more than half of boys believe they behave better when taught by a man, while 42 per cent said that it made them work harder.

It may have something to do with some men and women reacting differently to their pupils, although it is less clear whether this is due to gender or just individual character traits. Following a classroom survey on teacher feedback, Damian Hassan, an Advanced Skills Teacher from Durham, found that his reaction to misbehaving Year 5 and 6 boys and girls was inconsistent.

"I was more likely to give immediate reprimand and punishments when boys broke the rules," he says. He has since consciously tried to treat boys and girls in a similar fashion.

Mike Yule is certain that his reaction to pupils is sometimes governed by his gender, just as some boys and girls react to him differently because he is a man. "I'm sure I deal with those friendship problems that girls often have differently from some women. For those with absentee fathers, male teachers can be the most stable role model in their lives."

Colleague Giles Kolter "fell into teaching" after the last recession in 1991 left him with few other options. He took a job at Maidenbower Junior School after teaching in a private school and working for Voluntary Service Overseas in Pakistan for two years.

Now head of Year 3, Mike says that he has grown used to being a minority in the staffroom. "People think that male teachers are forced to mend the computers or talk about `female' subjects because it's such a female- dominated profession, but that's not the case here at all."

A male presence in primary schools can be a mixed blessing. Schools without men are unlikely to attract them when vacancies arise, leading to parental grudges that their children may go through their entire early education without any male influence.

But schools with a male contingent can prompt unfounded parental concerns regarding sexual abuse. Many men steer clear of the classroom, especially those for younger pupils, because they will not risk being labelled a paedophile.

Mike insists that a fear of "inappropriateness" has never been an issue for him. "I don't think about how people perceive a man teaching young children," he says. "It doesn't affect me at all. I take the obvious sensitivities and precautions, such as avoiding the changing room and that's it."

Graham Holley believes it is important to fight those age-old stereotypes about men in teaching. Misconceptions - namely a heightened sensitivity over malicious allegations, the belief that primary teaching is a women's job, and misunderstandings surrounding pay and conditions - all prevent men from entering the profession, he says.

"We can't solve this issue alone. There are lots of external factors, such as social views and cultural attitudes that need to change. But if we agree that a mix of people in the classroom is a positive thing, be it those with disabilities, ethnic minorities or men, then we must keep encouraging these people to think of teaching as a viable option."

- 16 per cent of primary teachers and headteachers in England and Wales are men.

- 8 per cent of primary teachers and headteachers in Scotland are men.

- 12 per cent of classroom teachers in England are men.

- 11 per cent of classroom teachers in Wales are men (Scottish figures are not available.)

Sources: Department for Children, Schools and Families; Scottish Government; Welsh Assembly


Richard Westley, 38 (pictured right), wanted to become a teacher, but he didn't have a degree. Instead, he juggled working for the Royal Bank of Scotland with a part-time history degree at Birkbeck College in London. He went on to work as a teaching assistant at a school in Surrey, before embarking on a graduate teacher programme.

"I had a nagging itch to become a teacher, and eventually thought I should give it a scratch," says Richard, who went on to win the primary teacher of the year award for London at this year's Teaching Awards. He now teaches at St Gilbert's Primary School in Stanford, Lincolnshire.

"It's a blessed relief not to be involved in petty office politics. I enjoyed my job but, with hindsight, it doesn't come close to teaching. I spend more time with the kids than the adults, so I never notice the lack of men.

"Male teachers can be seen as a novelty by parents and pupils who don't always know what to expect, but they can end up responding positively. Some of the boys are more likely to push the boundaries with female staff, while they're more relaxed and chatty with men."

For male-only taster courses, visit: www.tda.gov.ukRecruitexperienceteachingtryatastercoursetasterregions.aspx


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today