Nearly a quarter of all primary schools in the UK have no male teachers. In some areas of England, less than one in ten primary teachers is a male.
Is this a critical issue for a ‘role-modelling’ profession like teaching that men don’t seem to want to work in primary schools?
And why is this?
Is it that men perceive the role as ‘feminised’, requiring the kind of ‘soft skills’ that women are reputedly more adept at?
Is it that men see primary teaching as ‘lacking in intellectual challenge’? (as one academic colleague once suggested to me).
Or is it perhaps a more sinister reason… that men are increasingly perceived as untrustworthy around young children?
Teaching, like nursing and medicine, is a profession that relies implicitly on confidence and trust. It also operates at its best (especially in primary schools) when there is a level of intimacy.
Young children need to be motivated, encouraged, and congratulated. They also need sometimes to be cajoled, comforted and consoled.
It is, or should be, the most natural thing in the world that these emotionally intimate activities should be occasionally accompanied by (obviously appropriate) physical contact too.
Increasingly, however, physical contact of any sort between teachers and particularly male teachers, has become an object of suspicion.
When I used to train teachers, the few men we had on the course would sometimes ask my advice - singly, nervously and in confidence – about whether they should touch children when they give help, support or sympathy. I’d say: “Yes, of course – it’s part of the job..!”
But twenty years on, I’m not sure I could give the same advice.
Recently a primary teacher of 20 years exemplary service was dismissed after repeatedly allowing children to hug him. In spite of the fact that there was not a single incident of distress, no suggestion of sexual contact and that a campaign of parents and pupils describing him as “exemplary but eccentric” and “an inspirational teacher who made learning fun,” whom “children adored” – he was later banned from teaching indefinitely.
Times change… and so do the attitudes and cultures of acceptable conduct even in a profession, but such a situation does force us to consider whether a woman would have been treated the same way. I think the answer to that is a definite "No".
How have we got to the situation where the legitimate intimacy expected of a primary school teacher is viewed with suspicion and treated as sinister and even as misconduct when displayed by a male rather than a female? I don’t know.
But perhaps it’s not so surprising after all that men don’t want to be primary teachers.
What do you think?
Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for the DfE and the GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk. His book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.