Education Viewpoint: Please, sir, come back to school

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The Independent Online
If role models in the classroom are important for raising the expectations of pupils, then the future looks bleak for the next generation of boys.

Men are turning away from teaching in droves so that now, according to the Graduate Teachers Training Registry 1993, 67 per cent of applicants are female. Even in secondary schools, where the gender balance has traditionally been more even, the drift of men away from the profession is becoming more pronounced.

Teacher recruitment specialists appear to be at a loss to explain why men are leaving the teaching of our children to women, but even the most cursory search of the relevant literature provides the answers.

First, teaching has a strong service and nurturing element to it and in our society such activity is classed as less skilled and less valued than other labour. In addition, a service and nurturing label tends to define a job as 'women's work' and is considered inferior simply because women do it.

This has not always been the case. In 1870, for every 99 women in the teaching profession there were 100 men, and the job had much higher status than it does today. However, in the early part of this century the profession became 'feminised' by the entry of large numbers of middle-class women looking to be of use to society.

So teaching became a profession largely dominated by women and, as a consequence, suffered a loss of status because of the way that feminised occupations are ranked lower than male-dominated ones.

After the large influx of women into the profession, the gender balance in teaching remained relatively constant for many years. So what has happened recently to alter the picture?

The fact is that as soon as men perceive a job is becoming too directed from outside and the practitioners are being deskilled and depowered, they will look elsewhere to earn a living.

This is exactly what has been happening with teachers. A Government that became obsessed with the belief that teachers were not doing their jobs properly decided that more prescription was necessary.

Systematic curricular programmes and materials that were designed to be 'teacher-proof' were compulsorily introduced. Teachers began to feel that everything they had to deal with was pre-packed and pre-specified, and the confirmation of regular inspections merely emphasised the fact that they were not to be trusted.

In general, men do not like to be pushed around in the workplace because such action offends their masculinity, and so even fewer of them now view teaching as an attractive career option. Those who stay in teaching look to protect their autonomy and enhance their status in other ways. That is why there is such a pronounced division of labour within the profession.

As higher status management positions have been created to placate a restless and disenchanted work force, so these positions have become 'masculinised'. The result is a profession largely populated by women and largely managed by men.

Grand designs constructed to bring about changes in the behaviour of a large number of people often bring unexpected and unwelcome outcomes. The 1988 Education Reform Act was such a design, and one of the negative outcomes has been to frighten men away from the teaching profession.

This trend must be reversed as quickly as possible. As a first step, the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, must set about reducing the sex-typing of teachers by restoring some semblance of autonomy to their work. She could also try to overcome the notion among many politicians that female teachers are in some way deficient.

The author is head of Rutlish School in the London Borough of Merton.