Should it matter whether a teacher is male or female? Research out on Monday from the Education Policy Institute shows that teaching is becoming an overwhelmingly female-dominated profession. Men are far less likely than women to become teachers in the first place and those that do take the plunge are much more likely to quit the classroom than their female colleagues.
Primary schools have long been dominated by women. For the past five years the proportion of male primary teachers has remained constant at around 14 per cent of the workforce. But it is the ‘exodus of male teachers’ from secondary schools that is raising concern. The proportion of men in secondary schools has fallen year on year since 2010 and now stands at just 35.5 per cent.
We know that girls have been outperforming boys at school for almost three decades now. Last year, 72 per cent of female students achieved a GCSE pass (level 4 or above) compared to only 63 per cent of boys. As a result, 57 per cent of young women go on to university, compared to only 44 per cent of young men. Recently, there has been particular concern about the performance of white working-class boys. White boys who have free school meals achieve an average point score of 28.5 at GCSE, compared with a national average of 46.5. The gender imbalance in the teaching profession may offer one clue as to why boys are falling so far behind girls.
For as long as I can remember, there has been discussion about the importance of strong female role models for girls. ‘You have to see it to be it,’ is a popular feminist slogan and the idea behind children’s books like Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World. Personally, I’ve always been a little sceptical about this claim: if you really do have to see it to be it then no woman would ever be the first to achieve anything. It is possible to aspire to emulate a person’s achievements without feeling a deep-rooted connection to their genitals. And a good educator can teach both boys and girls equally well.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking why it is taken for granted that female role models are vital for girls, but there is very little discussion about the need for boys to have male role models. The achievements of famous women are showcased in school poster displays, inspirational women speakers are brought in to speak at assemblies, and girls-only science projects are standard fare. Schools treat girls like an oppressed minority when, in reality, it is boys who are underachieving.
Men are not disappearing from classrooms at the same rate across the country. Inner London has the highest proportion of male teachers while men are least likely to go into teaching in the north east of England. This correlates with pupils’ performance: we know that London schools outperform those in every other region of England. So perhaps it is not just boys who benefit from a more gender-balanced school experience. Maybe girls gain from having male teachers too.
One reason why primary schools have been so dominated by women is that schooling for the youngest children has long been associated with caring and nurturing. Rightly or wrongly, this emphasis has made primary teaching appear more like ‘women’s work’. Secondary school teachers, on the other hand, were more likely to see themselves first and foremost as subject specialists. Perhaps one reason for the declining number of men in the classroom might be that teachers today have little freedom to determine what or even how to teach.
When women outnumber men across the whole of the education sector, they wield considerable power. The so-called ‘feminisation’ of education refers not just to the presence of more women, but to the fact that everything from book choices to assessment methods, to the shape of the timetable, to punishments for bad behaviour and the length of time for break, are all set with the needs and preferences of girls in mind. What’s more, these choices tend to promote traditionally female values – such as co-operation, neatness and sensitivity – above more traditionally male values such as competitiveness, determination and stoicism.
When gold stars are given out for ‘sitting nicely’ and ‘lovely handwriting,’ rather than being the quickest to come up with an answer or the first in line for lunch, it’s hardly surprising that it’s girls who get the praise. None of this is to suggest that a cunning feminist plot has been instigated to take over schools and keep boys down. But when women dominate the teaching profession, their choices of books, assessment methods, and discipline come to seem like simple common sense.
We should all be concerned about the exodus of male secondary school teachers. Speaking up for the education of boys shouldn’t be a once-a-year concern of those with a political axe to grind.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.