Please Sir, why are you leaving?

More and more men are turning away from the teaching profession to pursue careers elsewhere. Should we be worried for the future of our children?
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The Independent Online
A new autumn term brings new teachers. Have you noticed that, increasingly, your children are being taught by female staff? That has long been the case in primary schools, but today it has become so in secondaries, too. The male teacher is becoming an endangered species for juniors and infants, and the syndrome is spreading.

Figures from the Department for Education and Employment speak for themselves. In the past decade the proportion of men teaching in secondary schools has dropped by 5 percentage points, to less than half of the secondary teaching force. That represents a loss of around six male teachers from every school, or 34,800 male teachers in total.

Primary schools have seen a similar decline - from 21.9 per cent male teachers in 1995 to 17.8 per cent 10 years later. Moreover, proportionally fewer men have been entering teacher training during the past decade. Recent figures show that the downward trend is continuing remorselessly.

If you look at the percentage of young male staff in primary schools, the picture is alarming. Only a tiny proportion - 1.7 per cent of all primary teachers - are young men under 30. You see a similar scenario in secondary schools, where only 4 per cent are young men. That bodes ill for the future, particularly when you remember that fewer men have been choosing to go into teacher training in recent years.

Anthea Millett, chief executive of the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), is clearly worried. "We are very concerned about how few men there are coming into teaching," she says. "We think this is a problem."

The experts agree that the imbalance in primary schools has almost reached crisis proportions. One reason men are shunning the profession, they think, is that primary teaching is seen - you guessed it - as an all-female business. Another reason is that primary teaching has not been viewed as particularly intellectually challenging. Of course, nowadays it is, or should be, because of the national curriculum requiring 10 subjects to be taught at the top end of primary school, the same number as in the first year of secondary school. But that message may not have percolated through society.

Teaching has always been one of the caring professions, particularly primary teaching, and it needs to remain so. "But what we need to do alongside that is to raise the profile of teaching as a challenging and rigorous profession and I don't think that's been done enough," says Ms Millett.

When you ask teachers why they think men are steering clear of the profession, they cite issues of career progression and salaries. John Bangs, head of education and equal opportunities at the National Union of Teachers, thinks men avoid teaching because they can earn more elsewhere. They are also put off by the lack of career prospects. The Government has not helped matters, says Mr Bangs. "The profession has been undermined by attacks from the Prime Minister and the Chief Inspector of Schools."

Mr Bangs blames the TTA for failing to promote teaching as an interesting and creative career. He says: "I do wish the agency and the Government would go upfront and make clear that they think teaching is a valuable thing to do and put their money where their mouths are. That would do enormous good."

In fact, the training agency is embarking on a new initiative to attract men into teaching. Ms Millett does not deny the importance of issues of pay and prospects. Her agency is preparing advice for the Teachers' Salary Review Body on pay. She will not be drawn on the details, but she says that career progression, and the speed of that progression, is an important issue for the body to begin to grasp.

"We have to recruit on the basis that people can see there is career progression for them in primary schools in a way that they haven't seen in the past," she explains. "There are some difficulties in finding heads for primaries at the moment. In other words, some women in primaries don't see going on to a headship as something they want to do."

This month the agency appointed a new head of teacher supply, Jane Benham, and a new professional adviser on teacher supply, John Howson, of Oxford Brookes University. Mr Howson has been outspokenly critical of the agency. Earlier this year he called for a massive promotional advertising campaign on television to attract people into the profession. It will be interesting to see whether the agency takes up the idea.

A new teacher recruitment strategy, containing promotion, marketing and advertising, is to be considered at the agency's board meeting next month. Howson thinks teaching has got to be made into a more desirable career, carrying high reward and status. "We need to make sure its status in society is not as the whipping boy," he says. "Successful companies don't go around denigrating themselves. We must not go around putting down the teaching profession."

Does it matter that the nation's classrooms are increasingly staffed by women? The experts think it does. Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, believes it's important for children to be taught by people who are representative of the population at large, that is by men as well as women. "There should be similar numbers of men and women in all schools," he says. "That's what life's about."

Professor Wragg and other experts believe the dearth of men is particularly worrying in primary and infant schools, because of the extent of the problem in that sector and because figures show boys falling behind girls in reading. More male teachers would provide more role models for little boys - more men in positions of responsibility, showing the way in academic achievement and behaviour.

In a world of fragmented families, in which children are increasingly living in single-parent households and usually with their mothers, boys often have no immediate male role models in their lives. They go to school and find no male role models either. "It is worrying when the lack of male role models in schools reflects what is happening at home," says Peter Smith, general-secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Mr Howson suspects a link between the lack of men in many young people's lives and the rise in crime among younger and younger children. Today's young men are drinking in messages from television and from adolescents they see around them. Such messages have a more powerful impact when there are no real men around to counter them.

"Are they aping what they see because they've got no alternative role model?" he asks.


Number of teachers in England and Wales

1985 1990 1994 1995

Primary school teachers 171,300 178,700 180,900 181,300

Percentage of males 21.9 19.4 18.1 17.8

Secondary school teachers 236,700 206,400 189,700 189,900

Percentage of males 54 52 49.6 49

(Figures from the Department for Education and Employment)

Pay doesn't match that of other jobs

Philip Clarke, 40, teaches history at Sunbury Manor, a comprehensive school in Surrey. He has a BEd degree from Newcastle University and earns pounds 25,500 a year, which puts him almost at the top of his salary scale. Pay is a problem, he says. He knows a recent graduate who began work in industry on a salary of pounds 19,500, whereas a starting teacher earns around pounds 14,000. That makes it difficult for teachers ever to catch up, he says.

Stress is another issue, as is the lack of respect given to teachers. "I remember when I started teaching in Carlisle, being a teacher was something special," Mr Clarke says. "Nowadays, people look at it and see it's a highly pressured job, and ask themselves whether they really want to do it."

Moreover, education has been in constant flux for the past 10 years. That means that people do not feel confident that teaching is a profession that they can develop and make better, because they do not know what other changes there will be. Such problems, combined with the pay, poor promotion prospects and low status mean that teaching is not as attractive as it used to be.

In primary schools, Mr Clarke believes that some men may be put off by the fact that it is a female-dominated profession. They may also worry about being falsely accused of child abuse. At his school he has noticed a change in the proportion of men and women staff. When he began at Sunbury Manor, the staffroom was dominated by men. Today there are more women than men teaching at the school.

He believes that the lack of men matters, particularly in primary schools, because young children are deprived of male role models.

"We know that some children react better to male staff and others react better to female staff," he says. "For that reason you need a mixture, just as families need a caring set of parents."

Teaching carries little status

At 52, Dave Rigden has been a primary school teacher for 22 years. He thinks the hoary old issues about the relative value of teachers' salaries, and the regard in which the profession is held, lie at the heart of the gender imbalance. Mr Rigden, who has a degree in chemistry and economics from Keele University, as well as a PGCE, is at the top of his salary spine, earning pounds 20,000-pounds 21,000 a year. Many classroom teachers are stuck with the amount they can earn, he says.

By moving into teaching in 1974 from a job in computers, he halved his salary. But he switched for altruistic reasons and because he thought he would be more fulfilled personally as a teacher. "It was a tremendously rewarding job," he says. Now it brings fewer rewards because teachers have less freedom. The pay is not good, but not as bad as it was, he thinks. The problem lies in salary progression.

The status of teachers has taken a lot of knocks during the Eighties and Nineties, and that hasn't helped. "Teaching is seen by people as a profession that has been highly criticised in the past few years and they expect that to continue," he says. "It has been very much in the spotlight and that has put people off joining."

Status, or rather lack of it, has also been a problem for more status- conscious men. Teaching, particularly in primary schools, has not been seen as carrying great status. Women, of course, are not supposed to be so concerned with status. They have been attracted to the profession because it enabled them to bring up a family and work at the same time.

Another problem has been the new sensitivity to child abuse which makes it more difficult for men to work with small children, especially in nursery schools, says Mr Rigden: "They feel more inhibited, perhaps a bit more uneasy these days, which is very sad. Children need role models of both genders to see that men and women can do all kinds of jobs and play all kinds of roles that might not be considered traditional."