An unsuitable job for a man

Boys, we all agree, need role models. But the fear of being thought 'a bit funny' is now putting men off primary teaching
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The Independent Online

It was a school outing to a farm that drove Gary O'Neill out of teaching. While feeding a rabbit, one of his pupils was bitten. As the tears came streaming from her eyes, Gary felt helpless. He felt ill at ease about following his instincts and did not take her on his lap to cuddle her. Instead, he ran to fetch a woman from the farm shop to provide the necessary consolation.

It was a school outing to a farm that drove Gary O'Neill out of teaching. While feeding a rabbit, one of his pupils was bitten. As the tears came streaming from her eyes, Gary felt helpless. He felt ill at ease about following his instincts and did not take her on his lap to cuddle her. Instead, he ran to fetch a woman from the farm shop to provide the necessary consolation.

"I felt awkward and really stupid," said Gary. He resented the fact that he could act with neither his feelings nor his professional judgement. After discussing the episode with his partner, he packed in his career. He now works in computing. Twelve years' teaching experience lost to the community.

Gary's experience is by no means unique, and must contribute to the serious teacher shortage which currently means that pupils in one part of the country are on a four-day week. Many men are having second thoughts about pursuing a career in primary teaching. They report that concern with the protection of children has created an atmosphere in which male teachers find it difficult to get on with the job.

Leo Green teaches in a primary school in East London. Leo believes that he, along with his male colleagues, are often viewed as a bit funny, and are therefore constantly self-conscious about not touching their pupils. Many male teachers feel that they can no longer place their hand on a child's shoulder to reassure them or make them take notice.

Peter Lehman feels both vulnerable and demoralised. "One accusation and that's the end of your career," he notes. Two years ago, Peter was accused of physical abuse for pulling a 7-year-old boy off a table. The child's relatives created an almighty scene in school forcing an investigation. Eventually, the pupil admitted that he had made the story up and Peter was acquitted of any wrongdoing. "The parents even came in to apologise to me," he says. By that time, however, Peter had got fed up. "For three weeks everybody was talking about this incident, and I felt that my reputation was irrevocably compromised." One more former male teacher embarking on a new career.

The number of men coming into teaching is falling, particularly the number of male teachers wanting to teach in primary schools. Since 1981, the proportion of male teachers has fallen from 22 per cent to less than 14 per cent today. This decline is far sharper among young teachers. Men constitute less than 10 per cent of staff under 30. Low pay and status go some way towards illuminating this trend, but it is the fear of being branded a paedophile that has made many men reluctant to get involved in primary teaching.

These sentiments are widely echoed even by men on teacher training courses. Research carried out at Hertfordshire University suggests that many men are turning away from a career as primary school teachers because they are apprehensive about being labelled as "a bit funny".

Mary Thornton, who conducted the study, claims that many male students on teacher training programmes felt uneasy about how they should handle children. Some of the teachers were not sure whether they could escort children to the toilet or change wet pants. Other issues of concern were whether they could they ever be alone with a child, and whether they ought to cuddle a distressed child.

One consequence of these anxieties is that a significant number of male trainee teachers are abandoning their courses. According to research published by the Education Statistics Agency in January, men training to be primary school teachers are twice as likely to drop out of their postgraduate course then women. Around 15 per cent of men left before completing their training course.

Even men who are wholeheartedly committed to primary school teaching encounter formidable obstacles. Mike Donovan, a 35-year-old father of three, decided to change his career so that he could use his considerable child-rearing experience to teach infants. He was shocked to discover that teaching infants was no longer seen as a suitable occupation for men. One headmistress told him that male infant teachers are "absolutely unheard of". A lecturer on his course informed him that "you can't get away with teaching infants." When he asked why he should not plan on teaching four- to six-year-olds, Mike was told that a lot of the time the job involved infants sitting on your knees and other forms of physical contact.

Despite the climate of uncertainty that male teachers experience, they are highly valued by parents and female colleagues alike. Many male teachers are respected because they project a strong figure of authority. However, they are often inhibited from exercising this authority. Some men teachers report that they would be reluctant to intervene to break up a fight since it might involve touching children. Instead of directly intervening, they would get a female teacher to sort out the problem.

Dave Little, who teaches in a primary school in Bristol, claims that this state of affairs actually reinforces the worst forms of gender stereotyping. "I am the aloof masculine authority," he observes, before adding, "Everyone respects me, but I am not allowed to get too close to the children." He claims that touching and comforting is a job "reserved for women teachers".

In 1996, Anthea Millett, then chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency, said male staff would vanish from primary schools by the year 2010. It looks as if her prediction is likely to be realised. And yet the disappearance of the male primary school teacher is taking place at a time of growing awareness about the importance of male role models in education.

"Recruiting more male teachers in primary schools could help to tackle the long-term underachievement of boys," said schools minister Estelle Morris last month. Possibly true. But it will take more than sporadic recruitment drives to convince men that they will be valued as primary school teachers. Trusting them with children would make a good start.

The writer is reader in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury

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