Go to many primary schools and the only man on the premises is likely to be the caretaker. Women dominate primary teaching despite strenuous efforts to interest more men. But with signs of a revival in graduate employment and with mass teacher retirements around the corner, is the balance about to get worse?
And if thousands more children go through primary school, or even secondary, never being taught by a man, does it matter? Or should we just concentrate on making sure the best people teach rather than worry about their gender?
The facts are stark. Men, on the whole, are not interested in teaching primary-age children. According to research from the University of Hertfordshire, the proportion of male primary teachers throughout the 20th century hovered between 20 and 30 per cent, with peaks when men returned after the two world wars looking for jobs. It is now around 20 per cent.
The Teacher Training Agency has been trying to fight the trend with advertising campaigns targeting men - the "can you explain the offside rule" type of advertisement. The ambitious aim is to boost male numbers in primary schools by 20 per cent annually over a three-year period ending in 2006. Last year, acceptances of men on to primary courses was up by 19 per cent - but on such a small base, progress is slow.
Latest figures show that 2,884 men have applied for primary postgraduate teacher training since last autumn, which is 86 or 3 per cent up on last year. The comparative figures for women are 13,964 applications which is 645 or 5 per cent up. The gender balance will be better when offers of places have been made, but it will be a struggle to achieve the 20 per cent target, according to Professor John Howson, a teacher recruitment expert.
More applications do not necessarily mean more men on training courses. Men tend to apply much later than women, and some popular courses fill early.
They are also more likely to drop out and they are, on average, less well-qualified than women. Professor Howson says there is evidence that women are more organised in their final undergraduate year - more likely to know what they want to do and, if it is teaching, apply early; critically, they make sure they get teaching work experience.
Men are also less likely to write an effective personal statement, vital for a successful application. Mary Doherty, director of teacher supply and recruitment for the TTA, says: "Men often say in them what they have done, such as reaching a higher level in sport or getting coaching awards, but they don't reflect on how that will help them to be good teachers."
Even if they do get on to a course and qualify, they are less likely to be in post in their first year than women - in 2002 some 22 per cent of newly-trained men were not. For women, teaching is a well-paid, well-pensioned job that fits in with family commitments. For men, the money can be better elsewhere and family commitments may matter less.
But whether the figures mean that men can find better jobs or that schools are more reluctant to recruit them is not clear. Certainly, Paul Moore (see box) has never had difficulty finding a job, but some men face questions about why they want to teach small children. Research also suggests that men fear being labelled perverts for wanting to work with children.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education Employment and Research at Liverpool university, says his research shows that male primary teachers have to make 60 applications before they find a post. And those who do get a job are more likely to leave the profession. A survey conducted last year by Mori found that 22 per cent of teachers with between one and five years' experience were likely to quit within five years, and men were more likely to go than women.
If the number of graduate jobs is increasing, the temptations can only be greater. The Association of Graduate Recruiters reported in January that the number of graduate jobs is likely to rise by 11.9 per cent this year after three years of declining vacancies.
But does it matter if there are relatively few male primary teachers? Wendy Briscoe, headteacher of Graisley primary in Wolverhampton, an inner-city school with four men on a staff of 20, says: "Any school worth its salt should promote and reflect the outside world. Some children relate better to women, but many relate better to men and I've seen disenchanted boys turned on to education through men teaching them football. I would not refuse to take on a woman in favour of a man but I would be very sad if I didn't have any men on my staff."
Dr Mary Thornton, assistant director of learning and teaching at the University of Hertfordshire, thinks otherwise. Her research shows that the educational performance of children is unaffected by the gender of their teachers. Also, a study of 400 children in primary and secondary schools in Hertfordshire suggested that children did not use teachers as role models.
"They see people like David Beckham as role models," she says.
Richard Edwards, head of 330-pupil Lansdowne primary in Cardiff, has two other men on his staff and agrees that gender makes no difference. "I judge people on their professional competence and children look at the qualities of their teacher, not their gender."
John Howson, however, is concerned. He points out that the proportion of men in secondary schools is also dwindling. More than half of secondary teachers are now women and two out of three newly-qualified teachers are female. With a rush of retirements due, the balance will swing even further in favour of women.
He says: "It's perfectly possible that, apart from the odd PE lesson, you could go through your entire school life without ever being taught by a man. If that happens, what message might we be sending out to society about learning?"
Professor Alan Smithers disagrees. "If you see a lot of people going in one direction it does tend to get written into the script. If you look at Soviet Russia, becoming a doctor if you were a woman became the social norm. I don't think teaching has to be representative of society. It would be worse to try and get less talented people in just to try to reflect society."
He believes that if the Government wants to get more men into teaching they should look at independent schools. Seventy per cent of teachers in leading public schools, which include many co-educational schools, are men. In non-selective independent schools the proportion of women is higher but there are still more men. Professor Smithers says independent schools are willing to pay more and give their teachers more practical support.
That is one lesson the Government could learn. The second is to make sure that primary schools can afford to hire men this autumn. School rolls are falling, most steeply in primary schools and, without compensation for that, reduced school budgets will threaten teachers' jobs.
It would be a pity if all those expensively-attracted new male primary school teachers had nowhere to go this autumn.
'I NEVER FELT ISOLATED AS A MAN'
Paul Moore, 33, deputy head, Graisley primary school, Wolverhampton, says:
"I slipped into teaching by accident. I took a music degree and wanted to carry on with music at postgraduate level. The only course with a grant was a primary music specialism. By the end of it I was quite enjoying it. I had no problem finding a job - I made three or four applications.
"My first job was at a school in Walsall with a woman head. The deputy was a man, as was the reception teacher. There were 450 children and 25 on the staff, but I never felt isolated as a man. I wasn't under pressure to do 'male' things; the PE specialist was a woman.
"I've had two other jobs in Birmingham since and was accepted universally.
I think it probably depends on the attitudes and ages of the staff.
"I've just accepted a job as deputy head of an 850-pupil primary in Dudley.
There is a female head and a couple of other blokes on the staff but I have no worries about that.
"I never thought of being a teacher. I wanted to be a musician. I was semi-professional on the piano at 14. I would have made enough to live on but I wanted security and teaching has a good pension scheme.
"I don't think there is any difference in the way men and women teach but I think it is good to have blokes around in a school. You don't need to be taught by them but it's good to have them around, particularly for children who have no male role models at home."