Sometimes it seems that we think of little else. Whilst you could be forgiven for believing that I spend too much time reading a certain type of women’s magazine, I am in fact talking about male primary school teachers. To be more specific, I want to share some thoughts on the benefits of having them in junior schools, why achieving this can be so difficult, and how the problem might best be approached by school heads and policy makers respectively. Whilst there is no magic bullet, I believe that the right school ethos and culture can help persuade potential applicants that they will be given the opportunity to do what they most care about, and that this can go a long way.
In a recent article in The Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer applauds the rising numbers of women in boardroom positions in the UK and the positive effects this has on organisational performance, but laments the lack of gender balance in primary school classrooms. Also in The Telegraph, Neil Lyndon has argued that boys fall behind girls as a consequence of the relative lack of male teachers working with younger children. Whilst I find myself raising an eyebrow at some of the arguments he employs in support of his claim, I agree that there is merit in having a strong male presence on the teaching staff, and that achieving this can present a challenge.
Rectifying this gender imbalance can be easier said than done however, not least as there is a range of disincentives to men considering the profession. As Lyndon points out, it offers relatively low status, and issues around child protection can see men attracting scrutiny as to their motives. Nor are the salary prospects great. It takes some courage, then, and a commitment to early years’ education, for men to enter the profession and contend with all that accompanies being a primary school teacher.
This is a great pity. In my experience, men can be valuable role models at a formative point in young people’s lives. Men are able to relate to boys, in particular, in ways that that carry a special kind of weight – essential if we are to deal with the ever-present danger that boys see learning as something that only girls do. Hartley-Brewer observes that boys often need a “more competitive, hands-on style of teaching that male teachers are more likely to understand.” I am not so sure: without it ever becoming overt, there is something very powerful in a man giving lessons that encourage deep thinking, or modelling the kind of gentleness, restraint and respect that is valued and expected at school and beyond.
Lynton ascribes the feminisation of primary school teaching to the introduction of pay parity for the genders in the early 1960s, followed by what he describes as a “feminist mission to raise the self-esteem and social position of girls” at the expense of the education of boys. I have never experienced any kind of ideological intent or overt gender preference in teachers with whom I have worked, and the culture of Bedales means that such dispositions in any applicant would be detected and dealt with during the process of interview.
During my time at Bedales, the prep school has enjoyed consistently the benefits of broadly equal numbers or male and female staff. At the time of writing we have 15 male and 23 female teachers. I like this ratio – it brings with it a culture that we value, and which is thrown awry whenever the balance shifts. It matters to us enormously that – as with staff – the boys and girls in our care should appreciate each other first and foremost as colleagues.
So – is there a secret to attracting passionate men that I might share? For heads, I suspect that the trick lies in developing an educational ethos and accompanying culture that attracts the very best applicants with the promise of the licence to do what they do best. Seek to recruit the teachers that most suit the requirements of the school, and have applicants undergo the assessment of a number of people – both staff and pupils. Above all, develop an educational ethos that values inquisitiveness, individualism and creativity, because I suspect that somewhere within such a mission lies the attraction of primary school for male teachers. Any policy makers persuaded that, instead, a good education necessarily comprises a rigid curriculum and ever more testing, please take note.
By Jane Grubb, Head, Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst