Bob Jelley argues that success is essential since, for many youngsters, a teacher may be one of the most significant male role models in their lives.

So Michael Perham, 14 years old, has crossed the Atlantic and become the youngest person to do this trip solo. It’s clear from where comes the lad’s sense of purpose; after the trip his mother said: ‘He’s got homework to catch up on.’ You can imagine the scene in the Perham household. ‘Well done love, now put your wet clothes in the laundry basket and get on with your geography.’ Michael’s dad was thereabouts too – he followed Robert, for six weeks, over 3,500 miles, in another boat.

This young man has the double blessing of two attentive parents, his success involves his own impressive inner strength and self-belief and their support. However, a feature of the current social landscape is that many youngsters do not enjoy the support and/or proximity of two parents. Bereavement, or more commonly, marital difficulties, place many within either a tangled web of relationships or with just one parent.

My father died when I was eight but I had a strong mother to raise me and three older brothers and four brothers-in-law to act as role models. There was no lack of significant male adults in my life. At my junior school there were several male teachers who delivered woodwork, football, excellent dramatic productions and carried the smell of shaving around with them. As I developed – kneaded and formed from genes and experience – female and male figures were of equal influence.

A widespread phenomenon

In 2007 there are many children who live in a one-parent household or with the support of just one parent. Every teacher knows that these children can flourish and excel but there is an issue with boys from those homes where dad has left and is now largely or completely out of touch. The boy is left feeling neglected, abandoned and under-valued by his father. It’s a widespread phenomenon.

Girls are hurting too but there is often mum, a female role model, for them. It is boys who seem more likely to become resentful and difficult at school. As a headteacher, the most confrontational pupils I knew were boys from homes which dad had left. As a supply teacher, I seem to have the same conversation in each staffroom, the difficult pupils encountered in junior school classroom fit the same pattern, I am prepared for the words, I can mime them as they are spoken ‘he misses his dad’. Good fortune will place a significant reliable adult male near to these ‘dad-less’ boys but too often there is no such figure, not at home and, increasingly, not at school.

The Report of the Teaching and Learning in 2020 Review Group, led by Christine Gilbert , makes several recommendations as to how we might improve the performance of pupils who are underachieving or ‘stuck’. Some of these involve boys. There is no surprise here because an important feature of the report’s background was the poor showing of males in the 2006 GCSEs… ‘boys are seven years behind girls’.  What to do?

Successful strategies

The 2020 report suggests a need for more gender-specific resources and strategies which involve more competitive lessons. It urges the government to trawl for successful strategies: ‘Ofsted should report on the practices of schools that “buck the trend” in boys’ achievement.’ It would be good if we could look for  good ‘boys’ achievement’ and also that strategy and that school ethos where young males have high self-esteem, despite absent or distant fathers. 2020 makes the loud claim that ‘learner centred and knowledge centred [education]… avoids the disaffection and attention-seeking that give rise to problems with behaviour’.

Really! Learner-centred education will do the lot then. At this point, the report risks underestimating the scale of the problem; understating how acute the challenge is; skipping over problems with deep roots that may be cracking – not just peace in the classroom but general social cohesion.

Quite rightly 2020 cherishes home/school cooperation such as Sure Start and calls for a ‘strengthening of the links between schools and family and parenting support services’. Perhaps any research groups spawned by the 2020 report will look into that strange and unfortunate equation – the number of underachieving and disaffected boys is growing just as the number of male primary teachers is declining.  No cause and effect is suggested, it’s just an unfortunate coincidence of trends.

The desirability of a mix of males and females in the primary staffroom is rarely opposed, it is a natural, healthy characteristic likely to provide good role models for both genders. Finding and appointing reasonable numbers of male teachers and TAs is an underlying challenge for every headteacher and governor as they act as agents for society.

Those ‘lost boys’ who increasingly haunt our classrooms and the disturbed dreams of their teachers need a glimpse of how they might grow.