Fionola Meredith: Why we need more male teachers who can act as role models for boys in our schools
Profession is in danger of becoming an all-female preserve, and that's not helping struggling boys, says Fionola Meredith
Male teachers are becoming an increasingly rare breed in our schools, with the latest statistics from the General Teaching Council showing that fewer than a quarter of teachers are men.
In primary schools only about one in six teachers is male, and there are no male nursery school teachers at all. And it's not just here in Northern Ireland. The steady disappearance of men from the profession has been observed around the world.
Well, so what, you might say - gender shouldn't matter when it comes to delivering good education, and aren't female teachers doing a perfectly satisfactory job?
No doubt they are, but the lack of men in these important roles has some serious implications, particularly for boys. Across the UK, at every point in their educational career, girls are currently out-performing their male counterparts, reversing centuries of prejudice and denied opportunities to romp home with stellar results.
Girls' success should be celebrated, of course, but not at the expense of boys' failure. Don't we want all our children, both daughters and sons, to do well?
A 2016 report by Save the Children stated that "boys are nearly twice as likely to fall behind girls by the time they start school". The issue of educational under-achievement in disadvantaged areas, particularly among Protestants boys, is of special concern in Northern Ireland.
Seeing a man's face at the front of the classroom is far from the only answer to these deeply-rooted and complex problems. But put it this way: the presence of a smart, motivated, caring and inspirational male teacher, who is invested in seeing each of the pupils in his charge fulfil their potential, has got to help boys feel like they have a stake in the learning game.
By contrast, a stark absence of male role models is only going to exacerbate disaffection with the education process among these young men.
It strikes me that the need for emotionally and intellectually healthy male mentors, whether in the teaching profession or beyond, is more vital than ever these days.
Following the MeToo campaign and the rugby rape trial, we are bombarded with references to the ill-defined phenomenon of 'toxic masculinity'. While some male behaviour towards women is obviously atrocious and indefensible, and must always be called out, there is the danger that outrage about particular incidents can build up into a wider hostility towards men in general.
The implicit message is that to be male is to be potentially culpable, potentially predatory, somehow suspect, guilty by association.
I don't imagine that idea does a lot of good to a growing boy's sense of selfhood, do you?
The dwindling numbers of male teachers is a bit of a mystery, but one rather depressing theory is that it's a self-reinforcing situation: the lack of men underscores the perception that this is predominantly a women's profession, and so still fewer men want to join. And we all know that women's jobs throughout history have been largely low-status, low-prestige and (relatively) low-paid - less desirable, in other words.
Nathan Kemp, who won the Teacher of the Year award a few years ago, identified the conundrum when he said: "Children are not only educated in school - this is also where they learn the vast majority of their social skills and begin to form opinions and beliefs. The gender imbalance only serves to further cement the belief that teachers are female, which, in turn, allows this myth to continue."
Perhaps it's not surprising that the one job in a school where men are extensively represented is the top one. Over 40% of our principals are men, and that figure stays at around 40% in primary schools too, even though men only make up around 15% of primary teachers. In post-primary schools, meanwhile, male head teachers actually outnumber female principals.
So what, if anything, can be done to encourage more men into teaching, especially the smart, committed ones who aren't simply interested in a fast-track to principalship, power and a fat salary?
Mary Curnock Cook, former chief executive of UCAS, the UK's universities and colleges admission service, believes that large-scale public action is needed. She said: "In the same way that we promote computer science and STEM careers to women - the group of subjects where women do remain behind - I'd like to see a concerted national campaign to attract men into teaching."
If nothing is done male teachers will eventually become a near-extinct species, a strange anomaly within the all-female educational preserve.
For struggling boys, desperately in need of a good role model, that would be a tragedy.