The Teaching Agency reported this week that the number of men training to become primary school teachers has increased by more than 50% in England in the last four years and was rising at five times the rate of women trainees.
Throughout the twentieth century, primary teaching in England was a largely feminised profession, with the proportion of male teachers in the primary classroom generally around 15%. In recent years, governments have worked hard to turn the demographics of primary teaching round, and recent evidence suggests that there has been a substantial increase.
Why is it so difficult to recruit men into primary teaching?
Much of the answer almost certainly turns on primary education’s strong associations with nurturing and pastoral care and this often plays into assumptions about women’s career motivations. The pattern is repeated across Europe. In Italy, over 94% of primary teachers are female; in France over 82%. But not all countries exhibit so feminised a primary workforce. In Finland only 69% of primary teachers are women, in Greece just 57% and the Netherlands just 53%. Moreover, the pattern can change: in France, in the mid-1950s, almost 35% of primary teachers were men.
This pattern has deep historical and cultural roots. French evidence suggests that in the 1960s and 1970s, men opted for other careers because they felt that primary teaching had “lost prestige” as a male profession – a perverse side effect of attempts to even up career and promotion opportunities for women. Moreover, the strong connections between primary teaching and nurturing made it attractive in many ways to women in a highly gendered society. And one should never forget the attractions of a career which, in a society marked by sharp gender differences, allowed for a good balance between personal and professional lives – not least in terms of school holidays and the benefits for teachers’ own childcare arrangements. Put like this, what often needs to be explained is not the decline in the attractiveness of primary teaching to men but the relative attractiveness to women.
The recent upturn in the recruitment of men into primary education can be attributed to a number of things: current challenges in the graduate labour market consequent on the global economic crisis, a vigorous government advertising campaign, and some general erosion of traditional gender roles and assumptions. Of these, it’s likely that the first is the most powerful driver; in tough times for graduate recruitment, traditional assumptions are increasingly questioned. But, as the French experience suggests, perceptions can change over time and the advertising campaign should not be under-estimated.
There is a recurring concern about the absence of men in primary schools, and the claimed lack of role models for boys. The evidence on the importance of gender role models in primary school is mixed. It’s important, for all sorts of reasons, that public service professions are not gendered. But in the classroom, what really matters is the quality of teaching.