Education: Personally Speaking - Pru Irvine

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The Independent Online
My son hates football, cricket, tennis, running and generally being out of doors. Ideally he'd like to be in bed reading, writing stories and designing newspapers and clubs for his friends. It has nothing to do with being a couch potato of the 20th century. It's simply the boy that he is. It's his character, not his condition.

We're not big on macho role models in our family. Most of us view all forms of physical exercise as a sign of mental anguish. It doesn't stop my other son from riding, swimming and judo tumbling. It simply suggests that on the whole we prefer the great indoors.

But this is not good news. Lewis, like most other nine-year-old boys, has learned to "hate girls". And because he's so unsporty, he finds most boys difficult to live with. I suspect the absence of male role models in his life has caused him additional anxiety about who he is.

His nannies and his nursery and primary school teachers were all women. In effect, he's had lots of mothers and only one father. So the vast majority of these all-important years has been spent under female influence. From his experience, women are most likely to be supportive and tender. It's not that men are not. It's simply that he's lived in a female domain and knows what women are capable of but has little evidence of male potential.

Like many boys he has a father who spends most of his life at the office, and is knackered on the two days a week he is at home. His experience of men is limited to his father, his father's friends and the telly, where you're either a wimp or a super-macho, aggressive stud. It's not ideal. What's a boy to do when he doesn't enjoy the traditional boyish things and he thinks girls are ghastly? I think the answer is more male teachers in the primary sector.

But the figures are not good. In the past five years the number of male primary teachers has dropped by about 1 per cent, while female teachers in the sector have risen by nearly 3 per cent.

The consequence of this is a lot of little boys who are nervous about having a male teacher. My god-child, Tom, tried to persuade his mum to move to America when faced with the possibility of such a teacher in year five. "They're too shouty and strict," he says. "You don't have a good time with the men."

Can this be possible? I can't really believe it, but there's a fine line between perception and reality - particularly at nine. Tom's angst is backed up by his teacher's explanation of why things are hotting up in year four: "I'm preparing them for the men next year."

Let's face it, separating from your mother is never easy. And, while most mums still relish the odd occasion when her hulking 11-year-old wants to sit on her lap, being a mummy's boy is not considered cool. But without more male teachers in the primary sector, the process of separation is inevitably protracted, leaving boys like Tom and Lewis uneasy about male influence.

Inexperience of being male in a male world can't be good for a child's development. Lewis's head teacher agrees. He says it's about fear of the unknown and, without more male primary teachers, the whole sector becomes synonymous with mothering. He's right. Lewis loves his teacher. She's kind and empathetic and he knows that she'll ultimately forgive him. But sometimes, when she's had enough, she sends him to Mr Burkett's class. He really hates that. Mr Burkett doesn't bend. Or so he says. I reckon Mr Burkett is just being male but he impacts like a rock on a soft place.

What's most important about kind, male teachers is that they teach little boys that they don't have to be macho to be male. Lots of boys, says Lewis's head teacher, go into sports because they're not sure what their role should be.

But it's not always the right answer. There are more male primary teachers in the private sector than in the state system. The equation goes like this: private school = more extra curricular activities = unavoidable (they say) emphasis on sport = more male teachers. Why? Apparently because men are sportier and more willing to don a tracksuit after school, whatever the weather. Women often have to go home to their children!

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the schools are suffering from an attitude problem and Lewis and Tom are suffering from being males in a female world. Where's the equality in that?

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