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Why a man's place is in the classroom

One in four primary schools has no male teachers. This week, Nathan Kemp was anointed Teacher of the Year at the annual Teaching Awards. He tells Richard Garner why this is the job he's always dreamed of doing.

Nathan Kemp is one of that relatively rare species – a male primary school teacher. And the 28-year-old, who teaches at Tollgate Primary School in Plaistow, east London, cannot understand why more have not followed in his footsteps. "It's strange," he says.

"When you're in a room and tell people you want to be a primary school teacher, they say, 'why do you want to do that?'. As for me, I don't understand that. I think it's great – the impact that a male teacher can have in the early years. It's not just about giving children from single- parent families male role models. It's about having that balance – growing up and socialising with both sexes."

Nathan is now in a unique position to do something about this, having been anointed Teacher of the Year at the annual Teaching Awards ceremony at the Victoria Palace Theatre last Sunday. His award is something of a first – the first time there has been an overall Teacher of the Year instead of separate winners for the primary and secondary sector.

Nathan's desire to become a teacher shone brightly on his horizon from the first day he attended primary school at the age of five. "I saw the teacher in front of the class – wearing patches, talking to the children – and thought 'I want to do that'," he says.

"I don't know why it is that more men don't want to put themselves forward," Nathan adds. "It's crazy. It's all I've wanted to do. I think it's the look on the pupils' faces as they get something that drives you on."

Nathan has been working for the past seven years at Tollgate school, a 450-pupil school in one of the country's more disadvantaged areas, where about 70 per cent of the pupils do not have English as a first language. Its pupils speak 48 different mother tongues between them so the emphasis is often on languages – French and Spanish are on the curriculum and they have a guest language from the 48 to study every month.

Before Nathan's headteacher, Tom Canning, took over the school it was identified by education standards watchdog Ofsted as causing concern. Its latest inspection, though, led to it being rated as outstanding.

Nathan is, by all accounts, a bundle of energy in the classroom and his advice to newly qualified teachers is: "Don't sit down all the time. Move about the classroom." It is a sure recipe, he believes, for keeping the children engaged.

Figures show that around one in four primary schools in England are solely populated by women – although there was a glimmer of light in the latest statistics published by the Teaching Agency earlier this year. The number of males embarking on training courses had risen from 2,467 to 3,743 over the past four years. That still means, though, that they only made up 19 per cent of all trainee teachers. Nathan's selection is therefore timely as he can make sure the drum for recruiting more males continues to beat.

He was one of seven teachers to win individual awards at last Sunday's revamped Teaching Awards. The roll of honour also included Liz Bailey, an English teacher at Clacton County High School, a comprehensive in Essex. In her third year of teaching at the school, Liz, 29, first taught undergraduates at university. She is now head of faculty at the school – standing in for a maternity leave.

It has been a difficult period for English teachers with the controversy over the marking of the subject's GCSE papers this summer. Liz saw some of the fall-out from that controversy – where the boundary for a C-grade pass was raised between the January and June sittings of the exam – first-hand with students who were unable to take up their A-level options this term. She is determined, though, to work harder this year to make sure her charges reach the new standard now demanded for a C-grade pass.

The highlight of her career so far has been the achievement of one of her pupils, Anna Page, in getting a place to read English at Cambridge University – the school's first Oxbridge entrant for 20-odd years.

"I'm incredibly passionate about English literature and so is she," said Liz. "At times she had been blighted by a lack of confidence, which might have been as a result of her surroundings in Clacton. She didn't realise she could achieve what she has but she was sitting there last night (at the awards ceremony), an English literature student at Cambridge. She was so incredibly passionate about literature. I was so pleased."

It was, in fact, Anna who nominated her for her award – Outstanding New Teacher of the Year.

Both Nathan and Liz are adamant they would like to remain in the classroom rather than gain promotion to do a desk-based job. "I just want to do something really well and be in the classroom," said Liz. "I hope this award will do something for the school – a comprehensive school in Clacton."

They were both looking forward to getting back to the classroom after their weekend as teacher celebrities.

"I was worrying how I was going to get up the stairs on to the stage with my high heels when I won the award," said Liz.

"I just thought I wish this was in front of 30 pupils in the school rather than 1,000 teachers at the Victoria Palace," added Nathan.

There are different opinions over the awards ceremony. Some feel it is wrong to single out one teacher for an award when achievement should be a reflection on the whole school. Most, though, believe the award will be a reflection of what their school has achieved – rather than they themselves as individuals.

The annual ceremony was rescued from dire financial straits by Pearson, the education firm that is the parent company for the Edexcel exam board, and will still have its slot on BBC 2 next Sunday evening at 5.25pm.

The idea of the awards ceremony was the brainchild of Chariots of Fire film director Lord (David) Puttnam in the days when he was a close adviser to the last Labour government and the awards are now set to continue, with nominations already being sought for next year.

At least one teacher that I spoke to at the weekend said that the glow it can give to the teaching profession in celebrating the achievements of individual teachers is worth more than any number of initiatives from the Government in improving morale in the profession.

Others thought it acted as an antidote to some of the more negative opinions of the profession often expressed on the national stage.