Simon Davies is an ebullient and enthusiastic 23-year-old, in his first year teaching a reception class. He loves his job and doesn't think twice about getting down to the children's level, crawling into the Wendy house or playing with glove puppets.
But he has had to get used to distasteful comments from friends. He says they often joke about his working with small children. "It's just my mates - they're only having a bit of banter. It's water off a duck's back. It doesn't bother me in the least because on a Monday morning I enjoy going into work - I enjoy what I do. At the end of the day, it's as if I'm having the last laugh.
"But if I wasn't the way I was, not caring what people say, I could understand why a lot of males don't come into primary teaching. If some of my friends went out and got a lot of stick like that, it would ruin their image. A lot of my friends are macho males; I'm not."
He is aware that he is in a minority - he is one of only two men among 15 staff at Jackfield infants' school in Stoke-on-Trent. At a recent gymnastics competition involving schools from throughout North Staffordshire, he was the only male coach.
Not all the sniggering remarks come from male friends, or from outside teaching. "I've even heard it from another reception teacher, a woman I went to college with," he says. "We bumped into each other in the town one night and someone said, 'Simon's teaching now'. When I told her I was teaching reception, she looked at me a bit puzzled and asked, 'Are you gay?'" Fewer than one in six of the 169,000 primary teachers in England and Wales are male. According to annual reports from the Graduate Teacher Training Registry, the number of men accepted on to primary PGCE courses has increased little in seven years; from 1,071 in 1993, it fell to 798 two years later, then rose to 1,081 in 2000.
Although the number of men applying has increased since 2000, so has the number of women, says recruitment expert Professor John Howson. But a huge gender gap remains: of the numbers applying for primary PGCE courses starting this autumn, 14,176 were women and 2,770 were men.
The Teacher Training Agency (TTA) has acknowledged this shortage by announcing its aim to boost the number of male entrants to primary training next year by 20 per cent. Ministers believe encouraging more male teachers into primaries will help provide role models and improve the performance of boys. The TTA launched its latest "Those who can, teach" advertising campaign last month, targeting men; some ads have already appeared in the sport pages of the national press, with slogans such as "Can you explain the offside rule?" The agency aims to highlight examples of successful male primary teachers, and plans three-day taster courses to boost recruitment.
But why do so few men choose to teach in primary schools? "It's not just the UK - few other countries in the world have many men teaching that age range," says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University. He says the question is difficult to answer definitively. "Among the most likely reasons are that women feel more comfortable with children of that age. As a consequence, primary education tends to be female-dominated, and women heads are not always particularly enthusiastic about appointing men.
"I have encountered men who've trained to become primary teachers later in life, perhaps after they'd been made redundant from something else, in the expectation they would be snapped up in a primary school. Then they have had to put in 50-odd applications to get a job because it's been a largely female environment, and the idea of this man coming in wasn't something they immediately took to."
Another factor is pay - many women primary teachers are second income earners in households where husbands or partners have a higher salary. Although primary and secondary school teachers have the same pay scale, extra allowances mean that secondary school teachers earn more.
And many men are attracted to secondary teaching because of their love for their subject, says Professor Smithers. "Among the younger age ranges, where you're teaching children simple things such as how to tie shoelaces, appropriate behaviour at school, getting them to grasp numbers and so on - that depends on a nurturing, caring role that seems to come more easily to women."
Attitudes such as those experienced by Simon Davies don't help, he says. "There is this curious script written for us; that working with very young children isn't manly, and there may be something a bit unhealthy in your wish to do that."
Bewbush community middle school in Crawley, West Sussex, seems to be bucking the trend in terms of attracting male teachers. Of its 26 full and part-time staff, eight are men, and it has an all-male management team. This is not down to any conscious recruitment policy, but is merely a happy accident, says head Richard Winn. "It's been extremely beneficial. It creates a good mixture in school in terms of staffing and atmosphere, and in terms of good role models for disaffected children on some occasions."
Mary Docherty, head of teacher supply and recruitment at the TTA, believes the battle to get more men into teaching younger children is about breaking down stereotypes and overcoming misconceptions about the job. She says there's a need to stress the opportunities primary schools can offer men. "If you've got particular interests in sport, music or drama, you can imbue the pupils with those passions and enjoyment, perhaps in a way you may not get the same opportunities to in secondary.
"I think we're not recruiting enough men to primary teaching because we're not making the case sufficiently clear about the opportunities primary schools offer. We need to show people the challenges primary teaching presents, and how it can enable you to get to know your class pupils in depth, and to see their success in the many parts of the learning experience they have during that year."
According to the TTA, for some reason men also tend to apply late for primary teacher training, and many miss the December 15 deadline for applications. As part of its campaign to target male teachers, the agency is to encourage men to apply early.
Professor Howson believes the agency's advertising campaign could have been better timed. "It's a bizarre time to be launching a campaign for men, because as far as primary is concerned, the majority of courses for September are full. That is not a good message to send out on a marketing drive. We want you to train as a teacher but, sorry, you can't get on a course."
He has argued for positive discrimination to encourage more men to be hired in primary classrooms. "There's provision under the Equal Opportunities Act for women-only courses in areas where the industry is dominated by men. They still run those in areas such as the construction industry," he says.
"It is possible to argue that primary teaching is so dominated by women, there should be the possibility of running single-sex, male-only courses so they don't feel intimidated. It's possible to be the only man on the course going into a primary school where you are the only man in the school. And that's not necessarily a good training experience."