A row over the impact of the increasing proportion of female teachers in schools on male underachievement has blown up between two influential educationalists.
Mary Curnock Cook, head of universities admissions service Ucas, has suggested that the “pervasive” underperformance of boys can be partly explained by the gender imbalance among the country’s teachers.
“The dominance of women in the school workforce may play a role in boys’ underperformance relative to girls,” she writes in the foreword to a report on male underachievement in higher education, published last week.
“I remain instinctively convinced that, as in any other area of life, gender imbalance will itself generate further imbalance. Just as the performance of boys at GCSE has declined relative to girls, so the proportion of female teachers has increased.”
There is no doubt that the gender balance between teachers has shifted. As Ms Curnock Cook says, up until 1993, “male teachers in secondary education were in the majority”. By 2014 they had dropped to just 38 per cent of the workforce (see box, below right).
But the idea that the change has had a damaging impact on male pupils is hotly disputed. Becky Francis, who will become the next director of the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) in July, told TES that she was “very surprised” by the Ucas chief’s remarks.
The professor of education and social justice warned that they could revive a “moral panic” where schools reverted to “silly stereotype solutions” with no evidence behind them.
Professor Francis, currently at King’s College, London, said the view – popular in the 1990s – that boys’ chances were being damaged by too many female teachers had been “undermined” by the prevalence of studies showing that the gender of staff had no impact on boys’ attainment.
She has carried out extensive research in this field and found no correlation between the number of male teachers and boys under-performing – one study actually showed that boys did better with female teachers.
“What young people were concerned about in their teacher was not their gender,” she said. “It was about the teacher being a good subject expert and being interested in the pupil.”
But concerns are growing about boys’ chances in education. Last month, Tim Leunig, the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser and analyst – who helped to devise Progress 8, the government’s new secondary accountability measure – admitted that “boys do less well than girls” under the indicator and that heads of boys’ schools have a “harder job”.
“We need to ask ourselves the question, ‘Why is it boys are doing less well than girls?’ Is it something about the way we teach them?” he told delegates at the National Association of Secondary Moderns conference.
Kate Chhatwal, chief programme officer at the Future Leaders Trust, would like to see more male teachers in primary and early years. “It is really good for children to see role models in teachers,” she said. “If you want children to think that all avenues are open to them, then it’s important that they see people that look like them in all different professions.”
The gender gap in teaching is set to continue, however. Last year nearly 20,000 women were placed on to teacher training courses through Ucas, compared with 8,500 men.
But Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, noted examples of boys achieving highly at schools where the staffing structure reflected the typical balance of female and male teachers across the education system. She warned that gender-based role models could stray into “dangerous territory of relying on stereotypes to determine a teacher’s strengths and abilities”.
Sian Carr, vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that the focus should not be only on boys’ outcomes. “There is underachievement but it’s a specific group – the white disadvantaged class – and that’s about boys and girls,” she said.
And even Ms Curnock Cook admits in her foreword that the report does “not find evidence to support [her] theory”.