Sex and the Primary School Teacher

Article excerpt

IN April, male primary teachers were in the spotlight after the Federal Government announced that it would introduce an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act to allow schools to offer male-only teaching scholarships in a bid to tackle male teacher shortages.

It has caused a flurry of protests and commentary. The Government's aim was to tackle what it considers to be 'a significant problem in Australian education'-the shortage of male teachers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of male school teachers has declined in the decade to 2002. Between 1992 and 2002, the proportion of male school teachers (in full-time equivalent measure) declined from 25.8 per cent to 20.9 per cent in primary schools and from 49.4 per cent to 44.9 per cent in secondary schools. Of the 22,915 students training to be primary school teachers, only 18.8 per cent are men. In Catholic primary schools in NSW, just 14 per cent of teachers are men. According to one source, 250 public or government schools in New South Wales alone have no male teachers at all.

The facts pose several questions. Is the lack of male teachers a significant problem? In other words, are male teachers important both as role models and for boys' performance? What are the causes of this decline? And will scholarships help?

Educational researcher Jennifer Buckingham suggests that male teachers may help boys perform better, but that there is no hard evidence to back the claim. She also goes on to emphasize that a different, and more structured approach to literacy teaching has a beneficial effect on boys; for example, if they are told what is expected and how their work will be marked. In other words, it is the method, not the male teacher, that is the answer.

This calls into question the syllabus itself, which over 20 years has been changing; testing regimes, expectation and outcomes in education have been radically feminized. This, in itself, may explain the poor performance of boys. In any case, boys' performance is poor through secondary schooling as well, where the male teacher ratio is much higher.

Maralyn Parker, a Daily Telegraph columnist on education, claims that it is the quality of teaching, not the sex of the teacher, that makes a difference. She cites a huge study carried out in Queensland (led by University of Queensland's Professor Bob Lingard) which shows that quality teaching consists of quite definable techniques and methods, none of them related to the sex of the teacher.

Parker also cites the University of Melbourne's Professor Richard Teese, who has carried out extensive research in NSW and Victorian schools. He also suggests that the presence of male role models in primary school is not the answer to the problems boys have with school. 'If lack of male role models damaged boys, then most boys would arrive at school damaged. Most boys up to five-year-olds (including those with fathers at home) have women as dominant carers.' Ken Rowe, a research director with the Australian Council for Educational Research agrees that it is the quality of teaching, not the teacher's sex, that is important.

However, Dr Peter West (head of the Research Group on Men and Families at the University of Western Sydney) points out that 'the paucity of males in teaching is linked to a decline in school discipline. But he is often criticized for inferring that only a man can understand that boys 'create a mess, get untidy, and crawl all over the place ... and that they need to be engaged by people who understand male energy'.

But before rushing in with affirmative action campaigns-much maligned in any case when applied to women and other minorities-it should be essential to understand the underlying reasons for the decline in male numbers. It is true that male trainee numbers are very low, but as one experienced teacher observed, it is not just a matter of getting in. 'The problem is that men are leaving the profession. …