The trouble with boys is NOT female teachers

14 September 2012 -


If the next generation of male workers doesn’t fulfil its potential, it won’t be because there are too many women teaching them, writes Catherine Gaunt

The headlines have screamed at us for years. “Feminising education is of benefit to no one,” trumpeted the Daily Telegraph in 2007. “The REAL gender gap scandal: Why boys are now the true victims of discrimination,” shouted the Daily Mail two years later. It all seems to be the fault of women. “Young boys ‘turned off books’ by lack of male teachers,” said the Daily Telegraph in June this year.

The endless conveyor belt of headlines is triggered by continued female dominance in exams. What is undeniable is that girls outshine boys at every stage of education. The die is cast by age five – government figures show boys are less likely than girls to be able to read basic words or to recite the alphabet by the time they begin school. By age 16, the gap is pronounced. Only 59% of boys gained a good GSCE in English last year, compared to 73% of girls. In subjects that were traditionally considered masculine, the gap is still evident. Research released in the summer showed girls fared better in vocational courses designed to lead to a job in traditionally male-dominated industries. Maths is one of the few remaining disciplines where boys have the upper hand, but even here the gap is negligible.

Speaking before the launch of a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into reading failure among boys, Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy (APPGL) added his voice to the chorus. “The primary-school workforce is heavily feminised and it is rare to have more than one male teacher,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I have boys of my own and when I want to recommend books for them I think of what I read when I was their age: The Hobbit, the Famous Five books or something by Roald Dahl. It may well be that schools – with the workforce being all female – are going to struggle to pick up on the stuff that appeals to boys because they’ve not read it themselves.”

Placing the blame

There’s no denying the early years workforce is comprised predominantly of women. There are more men working in primary schools, but those who are tend to be heads or in management roles, rather than frontline teaching positions. Government figures show 32% of men in nursery schools and primary schools are in senior management jobs, compared to just 16% of women. Much of the popular press may be eager to blame the gender achievement gap on this imbalance. But is this fair? The evidence suggests it is not.

Early years expert Penny Tassoni says the word “feminisation” is “very misleading”, because it implies something comparatively new. “In reality, it has always been the traditional role of women to care and educate young children,” she points out. “Nannies, governesses and infant teachers were usually female roles in what was otherwise a very male society – and one where boys were expected to outperform girls. I am concerned there is an implicit accusation here that goes along the lines of ‘women are to blame for some men’s underperformance’, when, actually, the issues around boys’ underperformance are far more complex. Having said that, it’s great to see men in early years, as children benefit from being with both men and women.”

In other words, while getting more men into teaching and childcare roles is no bad thing, there is simply no evidence that it is likely to solve the problem of boys underachieving. A 2005 Durham University study of nearly 9,000 boys and girls in 413 classes in English primary schools found no difference in the standards achieved between pupils taught by men and those taught by women.In fact, it found that all children taught by female teachers had a more positive attitude.

“Being taught by women is not the issue,” says Kate Atkins, headteacher at Rosendale Primary School, south London. “Although having male staff can add another dimension, the important thing is about understanding what interests learners.”

Finding a solution

What boys may be missing is their fathers helping to ignite their interest in their education. A 2010 government-funded project run by the Fatherhood Institute in five primary schools in Harrow, with underachieving boys and their fathers learning how to make a short animated film, was particularly successful in engaging boys. A study by the local authority found that 73% of the boys reached the expected level of learning at the end of the following school year, up from just 15% the previous year. “Yes, you need more male teachers, but you also need to think about families and particularly fathers,” says Jeremy Davies at the Fatherhood Institute. “You will get a much better result if you involve both parents.”

Back at the APPGL, Barwell told the Daily Telegraph that boys were held back because of a “number of gender stereotypes that seem to kick in early”.

“Dads are much less likely to read with their sons and they are also much less likely than mum to be seen reading themselves,” he said. “So, from a very young age, boys will clearly pick up in a home environment that reading is not a masculine thing.”

There may, too, be an advantage in recognising that, because boys develop slower than girls, early educational provision needs to reflect this. Boys also take longer to develop fine motor skills needed to, for example, hold and control a pencil.

Boys will be boys

Boys and girls develop different skills at different rates,” says Sally Goddard Blythe, director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology. “Girls are slightly ahead in fine motor skills and speech, while boys need more opportunity for robust physical activities to get them ‘ready’ to sit still and pay attention. Boys are potentially placed at a disadvantage if funnelled into long periods of sitting still and focusing on fine motor activities before other skills are in place to support them.”

Indeed, early years consultant and president of the Association for the Professional Development of Early Years Educators Wendy Scott, a former chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education and an adviser to the previous Labour administration on early years policy, says a reluctance to accept the evidence on boys’ needs means many are diagnosed with special educational needs at a young age, partly because expectations of their behaviour is unrealistic.” There should be an allowance, she adds, “for children’s need to change, and an understanding that this promotes learning – particularly in boys”.

Where they are deemed necessary, those allowances can and are being made by teachers, regardless of their sex. “Right now they’re playing with bricks,” says Cathy Carley, who runs Parade Community Pre-School in Portsmouth, describing what the boys are up to. “They enjoy construction, cars, trains, Lego and action figures. You can do maths anywhere – we build ramps for their cars to see how far they travel.” Other teachers point out that girls enjoy outdoor learning, too. The key is the appropriateness of the teaching, not the sex of the teacher.

Helen Bilton, PGCE primary programme director at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education, agrees. The assumption, she says, that female teachers are the problem is lazy. “My experience of training students to be early years and primary teachers is that women make very good teachers [of boys],” she says. “There is no evidence that men make better teachers.”

Catherine Gaunt is news editor of Nursery World magazine

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