Men needed in children's world

THE TELEGRAPH - 4TH NOVEMBER 2004

Why are there so few male teachers in our primary schools, asks Tom Moggach.

Despite the frustrations, difficulties and occasional raised eyebrows, I feel I have landed on my feet. Every male teacher I know thinks his gender is an asset, and the children's world becomes a degree more real each time a man joins the school staff. What a tragedy then, that our primary schools have so few men.

Just 17 per cent of primary school teachers are men. Some children reach the age of 11 without having had a male teacher. This is clearly a particular problem for the boys - they are looking for role models and finding very few. Before me is a class of impressionable five-year-olds who have to spend the whole day with one teacher. Many do not have a father at home, and they desperately need a male influence.

At best, it can be disorientating to spend most of your waking hours in a school with no men. At worst, it can set you up for serious difficulties as you grow older. I am valuable to these children just by coming to work every day. I offer a different perspective. For the boys, I can help dismantle some of the stereotypes and preconceptions that surround "being a man", although this is hardly straightforward. What does our society want from our men now? I am still confused, and I'm 25 years older than the children.

The confusion for boys is compounded if the school ethos appears to frown upon the many urges that come naturally to them - the urge to be competitive, to be more physical when they play and fight. Boys watch as the girls seem to find more success, scoring higher marks in an assessment system that suits their way of working.

Too often, boys arrive at secondary school unmotivated and uninspired, drawn towards macho clich├ęs and cliques. We know that the worries don't stop there: the achievement of boys in literacy is a national concern, and suicide among young men is on the increase. advertisement I have, therefore, a particular feeling of responsibility as a male teacher in a primary school. The school management also has a responsibility to think about what the school offers and how it deploys its men. My school is unusual for an inner-city primary in that it offers a huge amount of sport, and boys and girls are encouraged to be competitive (and to be good losers). A man teaches the children to sing. As part of a push to promote reading, all the men will stand up in assembly to describe their favourite books.

Men in schools also have some inherent advantages. Just being taller and having a deeper voice can confer an aura of authority. The children notice - I overheard two girls on the stairs discussing which of the men on our staff was the tallest. Mums appear less likely to offer criticism, either out of pity (believing you to be so out of your depth that you are best left alone), or not wanting to contradict your confidently expressed views.

So why are so few men choosing primary school teaching as a profession? The out-of-date reputation of teaching as a job for women, or as an indicator of your sexuality, must still be playing a part. I suppose teaching is still perceived by some as a low-status job, and the pay is certainly nothing to brag about. But all the male teachers I know love what they do. I never get bored at work, even for a minute. I laugh a lot, use my brain, and never wonder why I am getting out of bed in the morning.

The process of teacher training must bear some responsibility. For me, that year was embarrassing and unbearable at times. My most excruciating memories are of learning to teach dance: 48 women and me (I counted, horrified), pretending to be bursting balloons. I walked in to the staff rooms at some schools and found myself the only man. Being out of your element is one thing, but then it got worse. I remember, clearly, the awful moment when I was warned that as a man I must be careful: keep your distance, don't touch, don't put yourself in situations when you are alone with a child, make sure there is another adult present as your witness. I felt guilty, then upset, then angry - why should I feel like this?

Anyone with experience of five-year-olds knows that they look for physical affection, and I still resent the fact that I have to train myself to be almost inhumanly un-tactile. Female teachers of this age group don't have to override their natural instincts. They can choose to be as physical and comforting as a mother, but I cannot be the fatherly equivalent. I can think of countless examples of children who were upset or behaving badly who essentially needed the one thing I cannot give - some physical affection.

Our schools need more men but, of course, quality of teaching is most important. However, if the male recruits are good enough, they can only help to bring more balance and reality into our schools.