Currently just 15.7% of all primary school teachers in England are men, yet 83% of parents would like to see more male primary teachers. Why so few and why so great a desire for more? Former headteacher and education writer Steve Mynard finds out…

In autumn 2005, the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) surveyed 1,000 parents of primary age children and found:

  • one in four parents were concerned that their children did not have enough interaction with male teachers
  • 61% believed male teachers had a crucial role to play in helping children feel more confident with men
  • 26% were worried that their children would lack a male perspective on life
  • 22%  were concerned their children did not have enough contact with positive male figures of authority
  • 47% did not have any contact with male teachers.

According to the Department for Education and Skills there are 26,200 male primary school teachers in England compared with 141,000 female primary teachers; that’s less than 16% men – surely too few.

Do men make a difference to children, though? Research at Durham University suggests not. The Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at Durham wanted to test what it believed were largely unsubstantiated claims that matching teachers and pupils by gender had a positive effect on attainment and attitudes to school. Researchers analyzed data relating to 8,978 boys and girls aged 11 in 413 classes in English primary schools. They looked at test results and questioned children about their attitudes to school.

Their findings showed that there was no significant link between gender and attainment and on attitudes it showed that female primary school teachers brought out the best in both sexes. There was no evidence that male teachers enhanced boys’ attainment. Does one research study conclude the debate once and for all? Are men really not necessary in primary schools?

It would seem there are actually two key issues:

  • What role do men have in primary schools?
  • Why are men not going into teaching and particularly into primary teaching?

Surely it is plain common sense that men have a role to play in the education of young children? In responding to the Durham research the TDA stated that its purpose in trying to attract more men into primary schools was to create a more representative environment for pupils – not simply to raise attainment among boys.

It is also true that many young children lack a male role model in their lives. Family breakdown means that a significant number of children lose contact with their father within five years of divorce. Research by the University of Newcastle puts this figure at 25%. And with nearly half of all children experiencing the breakdown of their parents’ relationship there are a lot of children without men in their lives.

Roles are changing. It is more relevant now for children to see men in caring roles such as teaching and nursing than it was in the more sexually regulated society of the past. We are emerging into a more sexually enlightened time where work roles are increasingly seen as asexual. Having more men in primary schools is part of this trend and should be seen in a positive light with regard to children’s social and emotional development.

Why more men aren’t teachers

Yet numbers are still low. When it comes to why more men aren’t attracted to primary teaching there are several reasons.

Patrick Nash, chief executive of the Teacher Support Network, believes isolation is a key issue. ‘We often hear from men who are the only male teacher in their school. These men feel a sense of isolation and find it hard to talk to female colleagues about certain issues or admit they are having difficulties at work,’ he said in a BBC News interview.

There is also a problem with male teachers being stereotyped in primary schools as ‘the best person to teach Year 6’ or ‘the best person to discipline the difficult boys’. This can keep men out of the early years, for example, and deny them a sufficient range of teaching to allow them to feel fulfilled in their role.

Social stereotyping also conspires to keep men out of primary schools. Teaching can be perceived as a ‘girls’ job’ and some men find it difficult to challenge this prejudice when it is expressed by family or friends.  Worse are the unspoken taboos – if you are a man and you teach young children you must be either a homosexual or a pedophile, some may think. For many young men the fear of being ‘different’ is enough to keep them out of teaching.

These issues are specifically male. Given that there are also plenty of good general reasons that apply equally to men and women for not going into teaching, such as long hours, stress, lack of respect from children and society etc, is it any wonder that we have a recruitment problem?

The assertion of this article is that men have a crucial role to play in primary schools, for the following reasons:

  • Whether or not male teachers improve boys’ attainment they do provide a suitable male role model for young boys to aspire to.
  • In the asexual workplace of the 21st century men and women are to be valued as individuals with their own qualities and aspirations.

What, if anything, is being done to address the current imbalance?

Following its own research, the TDA formed an advisory panel of male primary teachers to consider how to attract more men into primary teaching. The advisory panel has recently been involved in:

  • feedback on marketing materials, including a recent direct mail piece that was specifically targeted at men
  • providing advice on why men may or may not choose to go into primary teaching
  • suggesting ways to encourage more men to go into primary teaching.

The TDA also has advocate teachers and if a man is considering a career in primary teaching it is now possible for him to speak to a man who is already there. This personal approach can help reassure potential recruits and address any misconceptions about a career in teaching.

The TDA also offers a three-day taster course for those close to making a decision, some of which are aimed specifically for men. There are 105 courses running this year, 24 of which are intended for men interested in finding out more about primary teaching.

Statistics from the teacher training colleges show that there has been a slight upturn in recruitment of men into ITT. In 2004-05 there were 1,976 male primary trainees. This is an increase from 1,565 in 2001-02. These figures may be slightly misleading as recruitment has increased overall and the proportion of men in primary training is still the same.

What can individual schools do?

A more relevant question might be, ‘Is there anything individual schools can legally do?’ If schools start tipping the scales in the male candidate’s favor during the interview process there would, quite rightly, be uproar. Just look at the trouble politicians get into when trying to recruit more female members of parliament through ‘women only lists’ for elections. But there are some practical steps your school can take to help promote men in primary schools:

Get more dads involved in the school: with changing working patterns there are more men available to take on the supportive roles in the classroom that have traditionally been the domain of mothers; hearing readers, working with groups and accompanying school trips for example.

The more dads or male carers get into school, the more likely they are to consider a career in primary education as a viable option. The TDA promote what they call Career Exploration where individual schools make themselves available for people who are interested in a career in education to visit and have a taster of life in schools. Maybe your school could join this scheme.

Local men in primary schools forum: to overcome the isolation that some men can feel organize occasional informal meetings where men can discuss their work and share ideas about teaching. Hold these in a different school each time so that it becomes a real opportunity to share good practice.

Organize social events: this and the previous suggestion are really about keeping men in schools once they have started. In secondary schools male teachers have more access to a male-based social life if they choose. In primary schools this is less available. Occasional social events for men, particularly young men early in their careers and new to an area, may just be what it takes to keep them in teaching. People giving up teaching is just as big a problem as recruitment to initial teacher training.

Staff room gender speak: if men on the staff are hugely out-numbered by women, be aware of discussions that take place during breaks. Sometimes a man can feel excluded from certain subjects of conversation.

Working with ITT colleges: what is your local teacher training college doing to encourage men in primaries? Work with them to develop any ideas they may be working on. Suggest some of your own.

Working with secondary schools: the majority of work experience students who come to you from the local secondary school will be female. You might like to encourage more boys to participate by visiting the school and talking to students about the opportunities primary teaching can provide. Actively encouraging boys to give it a go for work experience may attract some to a future career.

Career and university fairs: this is another area where you could work with your LEA or local ITT college. If there is any form of career fair or degree fair taking place locally maybe a display or presentation from your school would help show the real pluses that a job in teaching can offer.

The TDA is clearly committed to attracting more men into primary schools and its initial work does seem to be reaping rewards. As the world of teaching is restructured and hopefully made more attractive we could see more men working with young children. Individual schools and clusters of schools have a role to play in this too.

It is not my belief that a 50/50 split of male and female teachers in every primary school is either achievable or desirable. At the core of this issue is the desirability for each individual to be able to fulfil their own potential in whatever line of work they choose and the social necessity for young children to be nurtured by both men and women.