The young ones
Historically, teaching has been one of the few skilled jobs to provide a career for women, and the statistics show it – out of the roughly 35,000 primary school teachers working in Scotland, the vast majority are women, with only 2,698 posts held by men.
Though secondary teaching was traditionally a male career, this is changing, with men now holding 34 per cent of these positions. The same cannot be said in primary school teaching – the number of men training to become primary teachers is falling – and with 92 per cent of positions held by the women, there are few careers as overwhelmingly gendered as primary teaching.
One explanation for the shortage of men lies in stereotypes over the respective personalities of men and women, with women considered generally considered to be more suitable for working with young children.
Women have been discriminated against historically and there have long been misperceptions over their capabilities. In some ways, the lack of male primary teachers is also a consequence of this. While men hold a small proportion of teaching positions, they are overrepresented in school leadership (14 per cent of primary heads are male).
Professor Sheila Riddell, Professor of Inclusion and Diversity at the University of Edinburgh, says: “There have always been low numbers of men in primary teaching because the assumption has always been that a large part of educating young children involves looking after and caring for young children. Now obviously, there is no reason that men can’t do that just as well as women, but it has always been considered that women are better suited to doing that. It is a social construction and one that could change, but not one that has been very susceptible to change.”
A traditional explanation lies in the relatively low pay of primary teaching as a career, meaning men – expected to act as the ‘breadwinner’ – would look elsewhere, or would aim for leadership positions upon entering education. But the perception of women as carers plays into this too.
Riddell says: “The other thing is that teachers’ pay has not been considered particularly brilliant and for women with degrees, sometimes it may be that there are other attractions – women are still expected to do the majority of childcare and this could be more evenly distributed, but sometimes the fact that teaching allows people to have school holidays and so on may be a feature that is more attractive to women than men. It used to be that we had a predominance of men in secondary and women in primary, but the number of men in secondary school teaching is declining and that is a big change.”
Male primary teachers have also had to contend with public suspicion over the motives of any man who wants to work with young children, particularly since society became increasingly aware of issues surrounding child protection. Roderick Munn, a primary teacher in Alloa, says that public suspicion is a problem he has encountered first hand.
“Very early on in my career I went to speak to a high school – my next-door neighbour taught maths and physics – and one of his colleagues in social science had a senior class with only one perception of any male who wanted to work with young children. I went in and told them why I was doing it and it was really interesting because the overwhelming theme of their questions was basically – are you a paedophile? That was it. He had tried and tried and couldn’t dissuade them from this perception. People are very, very suspicious of why men want to work with children.”
He continues: “For me, I am fairly recently converted to teaching but every job I have had prior to becoming a teacher has involved teaching in one way or another – I have been a trainer, I have been a facilitator, and finally, my wife got sick of it and said, ‘look, you are obviously a teacher so just go and do it’. Initially, I started in nursery – and if you think men are underrepresented in primary, you should look there.”
There is a correlation here – the younger the children involved, the fewer the number of men in the sector. But although Early Years has an even lower representation of men than primary teaching, the numbers in Scotland are on the up.
Kenny Spence is a project manager for Men in Childcare, a group that works to train and encourage men to take up careers caring for under-fives. Despite the negative perceptions of men who want to work with young children, he believes that there is an appetite to get involved. What men need is more encouragement.
“We have been running courses at various colleges across Scotland for the last 14 years and what we have seen is that men will not come unless they are invited. Since we set up courses specifically for men, we have had about 1800 men take up our offer of free college-based training. Men are interested, and it is significant that if you make it available for them, they will come.”
Spence sees the problem as a mirror of the shortage of women in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects. He says: “It has taken a long time for women to break through in these occupations and it is a matter of changing what is considered the norm. In the past, men just didn’t look at childcare as a job for them – as a matter of course.”
In fact, in recent years there has been a significant increase in the number of male applicants to primary teaching courses, the problem is that the high number of applications do not translate onto places on the course, though the number of spaces has generally increased.
While men are often not associated with jobs requiring ‘soft’ skills, the reverse of this is that traditionally, they were thought of as more effective disciplinarians. Though these myths have largely been dispelled, male primary school teachers are still in demand.
Sharon McLellan, the headteacher of a Dumfries and Galloway primary, rejects the idea that men are needed for discipline, but believes that they do bring something different to a child’s education.
She says: “I have three male class teachers and two deputies – who are class committed – and I also have a part-time male Support for Learning teacher, though he is not just aligned to this school. But I like having men on the staff. This is a big school – we have around 20 class teachers in total – but that is a high percentage.
She adds: “Male teachers do the same job as female ones – teaching will always be at the heart of what we do – but I think that sometimes some of the boys in the class might feel a connection with a male teacher that maybe they have not had before. As a headteacher, the more male teachers we have brought in, the more the dynamic has shifted – both inside and outside the staff room. Male teachers bring a different dimension in terms of how they approach the profession and children respond differently to male teachers, they relate well to them. Lots of children don’t have a male role model, and for some of these kids, some of these men could be the only male role model in their lives.”
This is a feeling echoed by Roderick Munn: “The way I viewed it when I worked in nursery, even if I did nothing else other than turn up every day, I made a difference – I had a positive impact there – because unfortunately, in some of the communities I was working with, a consistent, positive male role model was not something that a lot of the children had. So even my just being there – without considering my work as a teacher – that made a difference. And also the relationships that I was able to build with the children and the families made a big difference. But unfortunately, because teachers in nursery are not compulsory the funding was pretty much withdrawn.”
But despite the shortage of men in nursery, numbers are growing and Scotland has around double the proportion of men in early years compared to England (even if it is still four per cent). In contrast, the number of male primary school teachers is falling.
The under involvement of men in children’s lives generally is a problem that affects all of society, and until men hold more positions involving childcare it will be difficult to dispel the idea that some jobs are for men and some are for women.
As Kenny Spence puts it: “We need this effort to continue, not for men but for children. Imagine you were born a girl and your dad takes you home, and the only people you see in the house are your dad and his pals. Imagine your dad takes you to nursery and it’s all men, then you go to primary school and it’s just men there as well. The people you come into contact with are almost all men. This would hardly appear to be gender balanced.”