by Kate Hilpern - The Independent, UK

Nearly one in 10 pupils at the Sunderland secondary school where Amer Sheikh works are from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds, and yet he is the only black teacher out of 100: “I’m constantly aware of my ethnicity. For the black students, I feel I need to be a role model and for the white students, I feel I need to do my bit in helping them cope in a diverse society.”

As a male primary school teacher in London, Edward Bradley also feels the strain of being a minority: “I’m quite lucky at my current school because there are three other male teachers, but that’s unusual. At a previous school, I was the only male teacher. For some children, a male teacher is their only male role model, so I would definitely like there to be more of us. It’s all part of the hidden curriculum – the implicit stuff the children pick up, like seeing men as people who can be in caring jobs.”

Diversity among teaching staff is a big problem. Men make up just 16 per cent of primary school teachers, and this year, 2,341 men entered primary teacher training, compared to 13,656 females. Meanwhile, the number of new entrants into both primary and secondary teaching from a BME background is down 12 per cent in the last year alone – from 4,293 to 3,753.

Bradley believes teaching simply isn’t on the radar for many males in terms of careers; others think men who want to work with young children may feel uneasy about how they’ll be perceived.

“It is a horrifying statistic that half of all children between five and 11 have no contact with male teachers,” admits Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA). “This is made worse in inner city areas where single parent families are much more common and there is frequently no male role model at home either. Parents are unequivocal: in a survey in 2005, three-quarters said they wanted to see more men teaching in primary schools.”

Because men seem to be more switched on by financial incentives, the TDA’s latest recruitment campaign emphasises the rewards of a good salary and career path for teachers, as well as the rewards of making a difference to young people’s lives. The TDA is also pushing its advocate service, whereby existing male teachers are on hand to provide advice, support and an honest account of their working lives. In addition, the TDA offers men the opportunity to spend a “day in the life of” a school. Then there’s the male primary taster courses, where men get a chance to network with other men interested in primary teaching.

Mike Watkins, director of initial teacher training recruitment at the TDA, points out the shortage is nothing new. “If you look at figures of men going into primary education since 1900, you see a virtually static horizontal line, apart from in the war years, where it dips. In the last five to eight years, it’s inched up but it’s still not as high as we’d like.”

Watkins is equally keen to improve BME figures, especially in certain areas. “If you look at the South-west, the figures are really quite low, whereas you tend to get a much more balanced teaching workforce in London,” he says.

The TDA has a number of specific initiatives in place – including emphasising BME groups in its marketing and advertising and offering advocate, observation and taster schemes for BME groups, similar to those offered to men.

Other institutions are also doing their bit. Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Centre for Urban Education has just delivered a project called “Is teaching for me?”, which focuses on encouraging more young teenagers from BME origins to consider a career in teaching. “I think the key is getting them young,” says Caroline Davies, research associate at MMU. “Often, initiatives aren’t put in place until people are doing their A-levels, but by then many have started making their career and university decisions.”

Because there is a particular shortage of BME teachers in leadership positions, efforts are also being made to tackle this issue. Nicole Haynes, deputy head at George Green’s School in Tower Hamlets, is on the Future Leaders programme, a four-year scheme in which participants commit to a very steep learning curve combining training, support, coaching and a residency placement. “Thirty per cent of us are from BME backgrounds, which is good because I constantly feel in a minority. When I go to meetings, I’m usually the only person of colour there,” she says.