Just 14 per cent of the nursery and primary teaching workforce in state-maintained schools in England is male, according to the Department for Education.
Many small primary schools have no male teachers (or even any male staff) and so from a young age many children perceive primary teaching as exclusively female. As primary schools struggle to fill teaching vacancies, now more than ever we need to seek ways to address this gender imbalance.
So why is this and how can we break the cycle? It is important to be clear that we face both a recruitment crisis and a retention crisis. Too few males apply to become primary school teachers and once they begin their teacher training, many struggle to “fit in” in their placement school, which causes them to become more prone to drop out.
Recruitment is perhaps the harder of the two issues to solve. However, if we can find a way to retain male teachers, we can begin to equalise the current gender imbalance. This, in turn, would help more men to see primary teaching as a valid career option and to address the recruitment problem.
In my role, I work closely with male teacher trainees, and I think there’s a number of key issues contributing towards high drop-out rates. Male trainee teachers frequently lack a strong relationship with their mentors compared to their female counterparts, as the mentors themselves tend to be female.
In addition, men can struggle to fit in with the staffroom culture of their predominantly female colleagues. Many male trainees reported avoiding the staffroom as they felt they had little in common with other staff and the conversations they have.
Finally, male trainees also felt that the higher up the school they climbed, the stronger a teacher they were perceived to be. If they were in key stage 1 or nursery, their subject knowledge would be seen as weak. We need to address all of these issues if we hope to support males during their training and retain them in the primary setting.
Firstly, it is vitally important that we improve the relationship between male teacher trainees and their mentors. One way of achieving this is by setting male trainees up in a “community of practice” so they can support each other. A male tutor can meet them as a group in their induction period and before they go into school so they feel better prepared and supported. The tutor would then visit them on their placements so that they have consistency, challenge and support throughout their training.
Secondly, we have to recognise how vital it is to have a good, supportive staffroom culture. The more we can make staffrooms welcoming for all, the more we can encourage male teachers to go in and have some “headspace” time in a place where they can reflect with others, share and glean ideas.
Some schools are working to address this already: some headteachers are introducing regular social gatherings for every teacher after school on Fridays in the staffroom and serving them hot drinks, cakes and sandwiches to encourage them to talk to each other, to wind down and to get used to using the staffroom as a place of support and reflection.
Other staffrooms in some schools have been refurbished and set up as large open spaces with bright and welcoming interiors and with workstations around the edge, to encourage all staff to use them regularly.
Finally, we also need to combat the perception that males can only be seen as strong teachers if they swiftly rise up the ranks by focusing on the positive aspects of teaching at all levels of the system. Overall there can be a great deal of negativity in the profession and this can become self-reinforcing. The fact remains that many teachers do greatly enjoy teaching and positive messages can have a great impact.
It is important to get this point cross by highlighting positive male role models and looking at what is going well and the joys and rewards of teaching. For example, at the University of Bedfordshire, we have produced a video of some recent male primary trainee teachers, focusing on their positive experiences. The video is being used both in recruitment campaigns and also to support mentors in understanding what causes male trainees “to wobble” and what they find most supportive from a mentor.
While much more work needs to be done to address the issue of the lack of males and male role models in the UK primary school system, if we can begin to understand their experiences better, we can hopefully support them better. This will allow us to reduce the drop-out rate and transform the image of the profession, attracting more male applicants in the future.
Maria McArdle is the PCGE primary co-ordinator and a senior lecturer in maths education at the University of Bedfordshire.