Deborah Orr: The truth about our 'feminised' society

The answer to the problem of male underachievement at school is not as simple as some politicians believe

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It's a theory that speaks loudly to lovers of common sense. The feminisation of schools has driven the widening gap in attainment between girls and boys. There are far too many female teachers in our educational establishments, and under their tutelage, boys suffer, so much that for years now their GCSE achievement has lagged behind that of girls by 10 per cent. More girls get better A-levels too, and more girls go to university. A good number of those, presumably, eventually become teachers. And on it goes.

It's certainly true that teaching is dominated by women. In some parts of the country that domination is extremely marked. Recent figures from Reading confirm that there are 478 women teachers and 38 male teachers in the area. That is extreme, and - incidentally - in line with a countrywide trend in which poorer areas with lower costs of living attract more male teachers, and richer commuter areas like Reading attract fewer. (It would be interesting to see if boys do better in poorer areas, but as far as I know no research has been done on this, and my hunch is anyway that the opposite is true.)

Nevertheless, the discrepancy overall is entirely unarguable. Only 14 per cent of primary teachers are male, and across all state schools only a quarter of teachers are men. Over the last generation, the proportion of male secondary teachers has gone down from 55 per cent to 41 per cent, and many of these are concentrated in the private sector, where pay is higher.

Lots of people subscribe to the view that all this is damaging the educational prospects of boys, the Conservative higher education spokesman, Boris Johnson, being just one of many. Lots of people don't stop there, but point to the particularly marked and particularly vexing underachievement of black boys as being specifically about the lack of black male teachers. Hackney MP Diane Abbott subscribes to this view. So does Trevor Phillips, head of the Commission for Racial Equality.

You have to go to the US to find any more general evidence about gender and teaching though, and specifically to a study by Stanford University of 25,000 pupils which found that girls benefit from being taught by women and boys benefit by being taught by men. The research, however, is mainly anecdotal, with its most useful findings being that when a woman is in charge of a class, boys are more likely to be seen as disruptive, and that when a man is in charge of a class girls are more likely to report that they do not look forward to a subject.

Yet, there is plenty of other research that contradicts this view. A 1998 study by Durham University of 8,978 boys and girls in 413 classes in English primary schools found no difference in attainment between pupils taught by men and women, beyond the possibly significant fact that children taught by female teachers had "a more positive attitude".

And this is not a pattern that is seen only in Britain. Female teachers are prevalent across the developed world, as is, broadly speaking, the gap between the results achieved by boys and girls. The idea that this is linked to gender issues in teaching has been debated for many years not just here, but also in Australia, Canada, Finland and the US. Yet a review of the available international data by Buckingham University again found that there did not seem to be any significant correlation between male teachers and male pupil achievement.

It's one of those theories that seems beautifully obvious in its integrity, but which actually doesn't appear to hold much water. Rather like much else in the "feminisation of society" rhetoric, the truth is a little more complicated, and it can be argued that the so-called "problem" of the gender divide in education actually illustrates not much except that perhaps society isn't "feminising" quite quickly enough.

It's not hard to understand why it is that women are far more likely to become teachers than men. Pay is certainly a factor, even though teachers earn quite a bit more now than they did 10 years ago. Women, generally, will accept lower salaries in return for part-time or flexible work that fits in with their family commitments. Longer holidays that coincide with their children's, and working hours that are broadly but not entirely compatible with having school-age children, are attractive to women who want or need to work but who want to do their best by their families as well. For men, not so "feminised" that family life takes precedence over career prospects, this is not an issue to anything like the same extent.

This happens in all professions, and it should be noted once again that even though girls do better at school and there are a disproportionately high number of female graduates, women still earn less and get promoted less than men. This pattern is just as marked in teaching as in anywhere else, if not more so. Schools, it turns out, have a lot of women in them, but aren't quite as "feminised" by that as one might imagine. Despite the massive preponderance of women in the profession, only 31 per cent of secondary heads are women and only 5 per cent of private co-ed schools have female heads. Men still run schools far more than women do, yet women are blamed for the unequal achievement within them.

It's a pity in a way that the answer to the distressing problem of male underachievement at school isn't as simple as some political figures would have us believe, because the cost of that failure is very high and some sort of magic solution would be most welcome. But even if new evidence comes along to confirm that male teachers do have a strong impact on failing boys, and that black male teachers have a strong impact on black failing boys, the likelihood is that this will be just one small factor amid many others.

There are aspects of school that do not seem well suited to boys, especially when they are younger. It's telling, for example, that amid all the doom and gloom the fact is that generally boys do catch up. Just over half of boys start secondary school without the expected skills in reading, writing and maths, as compared to two-thirds of girls, so the discrepancy of 10 per cent once they are 16 suggests that boys are later starters and capable of catching up. The pity is that for a proportion of them, the battle is already lost, their confidence has gone, and they have already rejected education. All the evidence suggests that the input that tempers this has to come from home as well as school, and at root, one suspects, it is not male teachers young boys need to give them confidence, but available and supportive dads. Again, their widespread absence is often put down to "feminisation". Again, the problem seems instead to be the refusal of it.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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