The growing "feminisation" of the UK teaching force has been confirmed by an international study which suggests that the male primary teacher is an increasingly endangered species.
Women held 90 per cent of primary teaching jobs in the UK in 1996, compared with an international average of 75 per cent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The imbalance was less pronounced at upper-secondary level where 57 per cent of posts were filled by women. But this was still above the international figure of 50 per cent.
The OECD data do not reveal whether the imbalance has become more marked in secondaries, but they suggest that attempts to draw more young men into primaries have failed. The proportion of female primary teachers had been dropping gradually - 93 per cent of UK teachers over the age of 50 in 1996 were women, but only 91 per cent of those aged 40-49 and 87 per cent of 30 to 39-year-olds. But the figure for the under-30 cohort (89 per cent) confirms that this trend has been reversed in recent years.
However, the feminisation process is an international phenomenon, and is even more evident in some other European countries. In Austria, 92 per cent of teachers under 30 are female, and in Germany and Italy there are no young male primary teachers at all.
The OECD figures also show that England and Wales are not the only countries that will struggle to replace the huge number of middle-aged teachers expected to retire within the next 10 years. Other nations have even more cause for concern.
Whereas nearly six in 10 UK teachers were aged 40 or over in 1996, the comparable ratio for both Sweden and Germany was almost eight in 10. The age profile of the teaching force in Italy, New Zealand, France and the United States is very similar to Britain's.
"The demography of teachers is becoming a major concern in many countries, particularly in those where student enrolment is expected to expand," says the OECD's latest volume of educational statistics, Education at a glance: OECD indicators 1998. "With seniority an important criterion in pay scales, the age distribution of teachers also requires attention since it has a considerable impact on educational budgets."
Primary teachers are most evenly distributed across age categories in Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Korea, Norway and Switzerland: in Denmark and Germany they are heavily concentrated in the 40-49 age group.
"At the lower secondary level, the pattern is similar in most countries," says the OECD report. "Lower secondary teachers, however, tend to be older than primary teachers in Belgium, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and younger in Korea."
Education at a glance: OECD indicators 1998 is available from the Stationery Office, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT (tel. 0171 873 9090). Price pound;30 (plus pound;2.94 pamp;p)