Education-line Home Page

Role models, classroom leadership and the gendered battle for hearts and minds

Dr Martin Ashley
University of the West of England, Bristol

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002
BERA Symposium: Gender and Primary School Teachers: Role Models, Recruitment and Retention.


The axiom that there is a problem with the achievement and behaviour of boys seems to be the result of a decade of media interest in school league tables. A remedy that is frequently prescribed by the media for this "problem with boys" is to provide more male teachers who will act as role models. For reasons discussed in the study, this is a difficult hypothesis to investigate empirically. The study identifies from the literature that there is a gender based issue related to the balance between nurturing/caring and the development of subject knowledge in defining the role of primary teacher. Whilst data gathered from adult subjects, such as male primary teachers, are frequently analysed and discussed, there are fewer data from the boys themselves. This study used video material of male and female teachers, and a picture of a distressed nine year old boy to elicit the views of primary school pupils. It concludes that for primary school boys, the most significant nurturant figure is the mother, and the second most significant, a peer of the same gender. No evidence was found to support the notion that boys would behave or perform better with male teachers. Most boys were marginally more comfortable with female teachers, readily identified good qualities of a teacher as irrelevant to gender, and were somewhat bemused by the suggestion that they might be a "problem" and in need of more men.


Two media inspired discourses have come regularly to dominate the month of August. There is the standards-must-have-fallen-because-pass-rates-have-gone-up discourse, and there is the problem-with-boys discourse. In addition to the panic status accorded them by the media, these discourses are also supported by "common sense", and by a susceptibility to the sensationalist polemics of self-publicity that might be called the Byers-Woodhead tendency (for example, Byers, 1998, Woodhead, 1996). A particular sub-variant of the problem-with-boys discourse in which common sense features particularly strongly is the more-male-teachers-will-solve-the problem-with-boys hypothesis.

Empirical evidence or rigorous theoretical analysis in support of the more-male-teachers-will-solve-the-problem-with-boys hypothesis is less often encountered than the common sense that is so frequently proffered. Crudely put, common sense about role models would seem to suppose that if boys see men reading books and doing lots of neat writing, then boys will avidly read books and produce volumes of neat writing. Common sense about the supposed "feminisation" of primary schools might suggest that boys, in trying to construct their masculinity, might dis-identify with the attitudes and values of girls and female teachers. Both of these common sense notions will be subject to interrogation, based on data from a detailed ethnographic study undertaken in the late 1980s, and a further study which is current and ongoing. The views of primary school boys on the problem-with-boys discourse and the more-male -teachers-will-solve-the-problem-with-boys hypothesis have been sought and analysed. It will be shown that there is little support for the hypothesis from the boys themselves. Neither is there much support for the poor boys discourse referred to by Epstein et al (1998).

A common sense extrapolation of the presently reported trends in examination results might suggest that by the year 2030, women will dominate most of the high status positions in society. That the media should apparently be so fearful of this unspeakable possibility as to create a "panic" speaks volumes. The common sense extrapolation of KS2 SAT results can be comprehensively demolished by examination of what was being written twenty odd years ago. A highly detailed series of investigations was carried out by the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) between 1978 and 1982. The conclusions were remarkably similar to the present day pattern of SAT results and make sobering reading for any who might be tempted to believe that recent initiatives in education have had any real or serious impact on patterns of achievement. What matters is not the results themselves, but the significance that is attached to them. Croll & Moses (1990) in their summary of research on gender and achievement in the 1970s and 80s reveal that the concern in academic writing was with the fact that girls "flourish in the primary school" yet later in life fail to "enjoy the same degree of occupational success and financial rewards as their male peers" (Croll & Moses, 1990, p191). It seems that a different significance is now attached.

Theoretical Framework.

Common sense has led to speculation that girls may do better at school because they thrive in a female environment, whilst boys struggle with the ambiguities and contradictions of coping with something called the "male wound", tragically without the aid of caring male staff (Head, 1999:21 -24). In a previous paper (Ashley, 2003, forthcoming), I revisited an ethnographic study of a primary school which was based upon attachment theory (Ashley, 1993). The results of this study suggested that children do not form parent substitute attachments to teachers and, by extension, do not therefore subconciously identify with the values, attitudes or goals of their teachers. Boys were seen, in this study, to form attachments with other boys, and to model their behaviour, values and attitudes primarily upon those of other boys, with whom attachments were formed.

The study also suggested, very tentatively, that this situation pertained regardless of the gender of the teacher. Having a male teacher did not increase the likelihood of boy-teacher attachment or identification. Similarly, girls were not advantaged by girl-teacher attachment and identification. These possibilities are obviously significant in the present context, so it is entirely appropriate that further study be carried out with the aim of confirming or refuting the original findings, and shedding further light on them as part of the present debate.

The Primary Teacher as Carer . The notion of primary teacher as carer is crucial to understanding gender and achievement through attachment theory. Texts such as King (1998) or Cameron et al. (1999) suggest that the association with caring is significant in defining primary teaching as a low status, women's occupation. Several of the men in King's study were preoccupied in the main with establishing the legitimacy of their role and credentials as carers, rather than refuting the idea that primary teaching is, per se, predominantly a caring occupation. In terms of pastoral organisation, the teacher as carer is highly significant in demarcating primary from secondary schooling. Secondary school teaching is a "more suitable occupation for men" because it involves a cognitively focussed delivery of subject knowledge. Pastoral care, where it occurs in the secondary school, often has less to do with nurture than with the subjection of obstreperous adolescent boys, a task that some women, according to Askew & Ross (1988), have traditionally found difficult.

If attachment theory forces a re-evaluation of the teacher as carer notion, then it holds the prospect of significant progress in the way we view all these difficulties. As a preliminary to reporting research on primary school boys' experience of teachers as carers, it is perhaps desirable to define more closely what is meant by "caring". King (op. cit.) suggests a gendered distinction between caring about and caring for. The former is a high status activity undertaken by managers (often male) who care about their schools and pupils and thus engage in activities such as the strategic planning of an effective curriculum or the recruitment of good staff. Caring for, on the other hand, involves the more intimate aspects of individual contact with pupils, such as tying shoelaces or wiping noses, and this is seen as being of lower status than caring about.

The stigma that can sometimes attach to male teachers of young children would, according to this quotation from one of King's subjects be related to the question of caring for, which leads to the poor men discourse:

"It's easier for women to be open. For a man to be sensitive and open with children, people see it as strange. "Why is he doing this? Why is he always touching my child?" Whereas when women do it, it's OK. I'm not angry. I just feel left out and discriminated against because I can't be as open with a child as a woman is". (King, 1998, p81.)

There is an assumption here, that a fairly intimate relationship with children is part of the primary teacher's job and that part, furthermore, which particularly defines it as a woman's job. This assumption needs to be questioned. If it is true that an intimate relationship with children is necessary, then surely children who are taught by men and deprived of physical contact by cautious school policies are disadvantaged? Logically, we should not be recruiting more male teachers, particularly in the early years. If, on the other hand, it is not true, then why the poor men discourse? Much is written about the immaturity of young men. However, it may be that some immature young women are attracted to teaching, particularly in the early years, because it is perceived more in terms of mothering than the delivery of a curriculum.

Attachment theory provides an answer to this question. The act of intimate care is instrumental to the achievement of the attachment state. This is normally in the form of a bond between child and principal carer (normally the mother, but fathers or other substitute carers can also form this bond). Intimate care is physically necessary during infancy and, in rapidly decreasing amounts, during the pre-school years. Beyond that, its purpose is uncertain. The original ethnography (Ashley, 1993) would seem to suggest that attachment states are achieved only with the principal home carer, subsequent attachment development being with peers rather than other adults. Whilst some early years teachers like to "mother" their children, there are plenty of others who would see this as inappropriate and an impediment to the child's achievement of independence. In terms of attachment theory, intimate care would be justified if it were shown that any resultant bond were associated with greater achievement or higher self esteem. The evidence from the original study, however, is that it is not.

There is thus a case for viewing with concern women who maintain excessive intimate contact with children as much as men. Caring for can be looked at in two ways. The first is as in attachment behaviour, where it serves the purpose of promoting a legitimate emotional bond between the child and its principal carer or protector. The second is as in the universal duty of care, which is incumbent upon all in a civilised society. This universal duty of care is particularly significant when working with vulnerable members of society, and primary schoolchildren with their impetuous behaviour patterns would certainly fall into this category. Men and women are equally capable of maintaining appropriate conditions for children's welfare, and are equally expected to do so. This is the ungendered model of teacher as carer that was suggested by the original study and which is now tested by the new study which I describe in the next section.

The Present Study.

The present study is aiming to interrogate the "common sense" views of role models for boys and boys' developmental separation from females primarily through seeking the views, understandings and perspectives of children. It is doing so within the theoretical framework of attachment theory, and has thus presented children with the possibility of relating to their teachers both as deliverers of the curriculum and as carers. Four primary schools have so far been visited in the course of the study, and a number of boys have been interviewed in some depth at home. A broad range of social, cultural and economic backgrounds has been aimed for, although choice of school has been influenced by the need to contact children from working class or socially difficult backgrounds. Home interviews have generally been easier to arrange with children from middle class backgrounds.

The principal research instruments consisted of a compilation of short video sequences of various male and female teachers at work, and a large colour photograph of a tearful boy, aged about nine, sitting on the ground in some evident distress. The video sequences were shown by class teachers to their children, who completed feedback questionnaires on their impressions of the teaching. These were then used later as a basis for individual interviews in which the children freely contrasted the video scenes with their own experiences of teachers. The photograph was used in these sessions to stimulate further discussion when reviewing with individual children their responses to the videos, and to elicit from the boys who they would turn to for care if they felt like the boy in the picture. A structured interview schedule was used to direct the discussion through the areas of boys' achievement, boys' behaviour and boys' relationships with teachers and peers. Three Y6 classes and three Y4 classes have participated to date.


Views on work and achievement : Content analysis of interview is revealing some clear and important patterns which triangulate well with questionnaire responses. It can be said with considerable confidence that boys consistently make judgements by the criterion of teacher quality and not gender. The qualities of a good teacher were repeatedly articulated (reasonably strict, fair, sense of humour, explain things well, helps you with your work) and differed little from school to school or class to class. The view that a male or female was equally capable of possessing these qualities was virtually universal, as was contentment with being taught by females. No boy expressed the view that they might have done better with a male. Not all boys, of course, had experienced a male teacher. Those that had were generally articulate and reflective in evaluating the qualities of teaching they had experienced, quite clearly disentangling gender from teaching quality.

A Y4 boy who was particularly forthcoming had identified the issue with equality of opportunity. "No. Like I said, that man's better than the woman, but in this class the woman's better than the man. It's nothing to do with that. That'd be like racism and that's illegal." (Y4, sch. 3). Another Y4 boy was quite clear that a shortage of male teachers did not present a problem. I: "Do you think it matters if there aren't many men teachers?" J: "No. I don't care who I have. A man or a woman." I: "How come?" J: "Because they teach you as much as any other teacher would." Another would not be impressed by a government policy to recruit males. I: "Would boys be better with men teachers? "NO." (He says this very confidently.) I: "So if the government were trying to make more men be teachers, what would you think? "I'd just say that I don't mind. I like any teacher."

In this Y6 class, the children had the experience of a male teacher (the deputy head) and a female PG student on final practice. After discussion of the video scenes revealed no preference for male or female teachers, this conversation continued about the actual teaching experienced. I: "You have Mr J and Miss C teaching you this term. Does it matter which one you have? S: "Not really." I: "So which would you choose if you could?" S: "Miss C." I: "Oh,,,why?" S: "'Cos I think she's a good teacher and she wants to be a teacher and she'll learn more about how to be a teacher." I: "But will you learn as much from her?" S: "I don't know really. They're both good teachers." The choice of Miss C does not appear to be explained here in terms of teaching quality. Another pupil in the class volunteered the following without being asked: "We have a lady and a man teacher here." I: "So which would you rather have? "Miss C." Why's that? "Because Mr J's more likely to go mental."

The perceived likelihood of male volatility emerged as a negative theme, and is noted here by a Y6 boy in another school: "Women are calmer, and they don't have a go at you that much." I: "So when you go to secondary school?" E: "A woman." (said confidently and emphatically). "Why?" "I can't say, (thinks) I'd rather have a woman tutor. They'd be calmer." The idea that men would be stricter or more disciplinarian was upheld by eight unsolicited comments about male strictness as opposed to two about female strictness. It was recognised, however, that men could be gentle and kind, whilst women could be strict. Men were simply more likely to be strict. Male volatility and strictness, however, were not generally regarded as virtues in terms of work and achievement. A Y6 boy interviewed at home with a friend commented: "Men are too strict. They shout at you loads." The boys were asked, in relation to a teacher they knew, whether this might nevertheless be a good thing in terms of achievement: I: "So if he's strict, would you work better or worse?" b1: "Worse...definitely." I: " Why?" b1: "Dunno." I: "Are you scared of him?" b1: "No." b2: "He puts me off. We like the teacher we normally have and we miss her."

All but one of the other comments about strictness equated excessive strictness with lower achievement, including one comment where a woman teacher in the video sequence was disliked for being "really strict" and compared unfavourably with a man perceived to be "really encouraging...She isn't." The Y6 boy who thought male strictness a good thing was obviously concerned by the fact that "...when Miss C is teaching, they think they can muck about." Perhaps on the basis of this experience, this boy preferred shouting to kindness: "Shouting. 'Cos they've gotta learn their lesson." "So you don't mind if your teachers shout?" "Not really." Kindness as a virtue occurred five other times in unsolicited comments, three times for females, and twice for males. It was again recognised that either gender could be kind. With the exception of the Y6 pupil above, kindness was linked to higher achievement, as in the case of this Y4 boy commenting at home on a National Literacy Strategy video showing a male teacher at work in KS1: "He was kind to all the children. He told them what they did wrong so they'd learn."

Table I below summarises the children's judgements of the four video teaching episodes which were taken from the TTA training videos of Zac and Lyndsey at work with primary classes, and Daniel and Julie with secondary classes. The Y4 pupils were asked to rate on a scale of 1 - 5 which teacher they would like in Y5. The Y6 pupils were asked to indicate how much they would have liked to have had Zac or Lyndsey in Y6, and which of the two secondary teachers they would prefer as their Y7 form tutor:

Table I

Pupil Ratings of Video Teaching Episodes

Boys Girls All


Sch 1

Sch 2

Sch 3

Sch 4

Sch 1

Sch 2

Sch 3

Sch 4




















































Statistical analysis reveals a large standard deviation, which confirms the degree to which pupil responses were idiosyncratic and centred upon personal preferences for teaching style rather than any trend towards gender identification and preference. The only significant preference was for Julie, who received the highest ratings of all four teachers, and was a clear preference amongst the Y6 pupils for their Y7 tutor. This was the judgement of both boys and girls. The qualitative data confirm that neither the gender nor the race of this teacher (she is black) were explicitly taken into account. It was her confident, enthusiastic teaching and visible rapport with the pupils that appealed to both boys and girls. The following comment is typical but also interesting in the way it likens Julie to a known male teacher: "That one. She taught it how it is. She was fun. She made the work fun like Mr K. does. I want more teachers like that. They teach what they're supposed to teach and make it fun too." (Y6 boy, sch. 4),

The absence of any tendency for boys to link better achievement to having a male teacher needs to be considered alongside an apparently clear indication that none of the boys in any of the four schools recognised the underachievement of boys as a problem. The rejection of the "boys don't work because it's not cool" sentiment was universal and the second and third extracts reveal surprise and strong feelings. I: "Another thing I sometimes hear is that boys think it's not cool to work hard at school." "I'm not that sort of person. I like doing neat work because I'm proud of my work. I take quite a long time to do it." (Y4, sch. 3). I: "I've heard that some people are saying girls do better than boys at school." "They do? Please tell me who said that!" "Well...some people to do with the government..." "Tony Blair! Phah! Big deal!" "So it's not right?" "No. I reckon it's just cruel." "OK. Well, I've also heard it said that people say boys think it's not cool to work hard at school." (He pulls a big, indignant frown.) "Why? Please can you tell me?" "Well, I'm hoping you can tell me!" "If it was somebody I knew, I'd have a word with them." (said menacingly). (Y4, sch. 3) I: "Well, some people are saying that boys aren't working very well at school." (He pulls an extremely expressive face.) "AS IF!" Some are saying that boys think it's not cool to work hard at school. "No! You have to work because you have to learn and if you don't learn when you grow up you'll have no job," OK, well, the government, you know who they are? (nods) are saying these boys might do better if there were more men. "Why are they saying that? I'd work for a man or a woman. I'd just get on." (Y4, sch 3.)

Views on caring

Table II below summarises the children's responses to the picture of the crying boy. On a scale of 1 - 10 they were asked how likely they would be to share their feelings with the various agents suggested if they felt like the boy in the picture. There was little evidence in support of the commonly held view that boys don't share feelings (see, for, example, Sainsbury & Jackson 1996). When given the opportunity of "nobody", most boys agreed that this might be a possibility, but that they would be more likely to talk to "somebody". Several responded by saying they would make an evaluation of the seriousness of their feeling. All but one of the boys readily empathised with the boy in the picture and admitted to having similar feelings at some time in their life. Crying was generally viewed as a perfectly acceptable and natural thing for boys to do, although there was a recognition that to do so at school would be embarrassing. Open questioning failed to elicit any tendency to suggest that the boy was a wimp, although when pushed in this direction, several boys suggested that he might be a "nice" or a "kind" boy. "He's been bullied" was the near universally given explanation, although loneliness and being told off by the teacher were also mentioned.

Table II

Boys' Reported Preference for Emotional Support

1. Mother


2. Friend same age


3. Father


4. Male teacher


5. Female teacher


6. Older boy


7. Male youth leader


8. Nobody


9. Older girl


10. Sister


11. Brother


12. Female youth leader


These results uphold the findings of the original attachment study. The principal attachment figure at home, and a peer at school are most likely to be sought out when boys feel in need of emotional support. There is then a drop to teachers, who cluster at the top of a middle section of the table, seeming to form a second order perhaps qualitatively different from the first. Siblings come near the end of the table, and would appear to constitute a third order less likely to be confided in than teachers. There would appear to be little difference between male and female teachers. The qualitative data, however, reveal important nuances that cannot be gleaned from the quantitative data.

Mothers clearly remain the most important attachment figures in the lives of most Y6 boys. There is no evidence of dis-identification occurring here. Indeed, the data include two detailed diary accounts of occasions when challenging (and clearly "macho") working class boys in Y6 were reduced to tears by the arrival and intervention of their mothers. These incidents might be compared with the novel reported practice of a Cardiff secondary school which claims to have found a means of improving boys' performance and controlling difficult boys through requiring them to telephone their mothers (Passmore, 2001).

Generally, mothers appeared across the data as more consistent figures than fathers. Fathers were more likely to receive poor ratings than mothers, and inconsistency of availability or uncertainty about reliability or quality of care accounted for this. The possibility that fathers would make too much fuss at school figured several times.

However, in the majority of cases, fathers received high ratings only one or two points behind mothers, and in a few cases, fathers received higher ratings than mothers. The explanatory factors would seem to be those of familiarity and frequency of contact. This Y4 boy seemed unable to explain why he had rated his father 10 and his mother 9: "I don't know. I just prefer to talk to men. My dad would sit and talk to me and try and make me feel better. I only like him a bit more than my mum." However, background information reveals that the father is responsible for much of the care in this case, and is the parent who normally collects the boy from school. This would accord with attachment theory which acknowledges that the principal carer, though most often female, can equally be male. The relevant factor is the frequency of attachment promoting interactions.

Other data from the study seem both to support this principle, and to confirm that boys are happy with the care they are used to from females, as the following extracts show. This Y4 boy acknowledges that men can look after children, but clearly feels more confident in being cared for by a female: "Female teachers make me feel more better because I'm used to females looking after me." "OK, but can men look after children?" "Yeah. But I reckon ladies are better. Men really don't do exactly the same stuff as females."........."So what's this 'female stuff' you mentioned? "I don't know. They just have something about them that makes me feel happier and safer." The following comment by a Y6 boy is notable because it was offered as a reflective afterthought when the interview had been terminated and the boy thanked. "I actually think the woman teachers are more motherly. Not offensively, just kind and understanding, but I wouldn't mind a man." " can a man be kind?" "Yeah, if they want to."

These data, however, are challenged by other data that suggest boys nevertheless wonder whether a man might understand them better. The idea that men would have more insight because they had been boys was often behind higher ratings given to male teachers. For example: "Because men understand you better" (Y6 sch 2). "Men understand more because they've been boys." (Y4 sch 3) "I don't know. Probably because I'm a boy myself. They (w. teachers) might not understand." (Y6, sch 1). In particular: "'Cos boys can understand us boys, and girls can understand girls." (Y4, sch 3.) These comments, however, were as often as not speculative, coming sometimes from boys who had not had male teachers. The idea that girls were advantaged because they had same gender teachers received a firm riposte when it was put to two Y6 girls in school 1: "Some boys are saying men understand them better because they've been boys. Do lady teachers understand girls better?" "NO way! Because it's a long LONG time ago. It's not the same problems. They were different times." (Y6 girl, sch. 1).

The data in Table II, however, remind us that it is peers, not teachers, who are mainly responsible for the "cared for" feelings of the attachment state at school. The quantitative data were explored qualitatively through asking the children what should happen next to the boy in the picture. The following interesting response came from a Y1 boy interviewed at home: "He should be helped by of his friends." "Suppose he didn't have a friend to help him, who else might?" "One of of his friend's friends." What about grown-ups? "No, I don't think so. Only if they're kind." Little evidence here, then, of the expectation that teachers are there to give you a get better hug. Similarly, a Y4 boy interviewed at home: "The person should apologise or you should go and tell a teacher." "Would he?" "Probably, if he felt like it." "Would you?" "I don't think I'd have a chance. My friend Sam sorts everything out. He's a good friend at school. Sam would sort it."

Boys interviewed at school tended to define a pragmatic interventionist role for teachers. For some, friends are the most significant "hands on" carers, but the presence of adult authority in the background is reassuring: "My other friend Jamie, he came over and helped. I feel safer when there's teachers looking after me, but I like friends around too, but not too many." (Y4, sch 3). The expectation of teachers would seem to be, not that they do the caring, but they intervene authoritatively when friends are unable to resolve the issue. The "tell a teacher" message seems to have struck home with this boy: "For him to tell someone and they'll sort it out for him." "Who would sort it?" "Teachers if its in school or if it's at home his mum and dad."

'Sorting it out', however, seems to be a management (caring about) role rather than a motherly (caring for) role, and, paradoxically, male teachers seemed to have greater competence ascribed here as in the following three examples.

"He'd be more strict to the person that done it. So it would work better." "So did you feel that bad?" "and he kicked me as well." "Was this at school? What did you do?" "I told the teacher. The teacher told him off. We shook hands and carried on." (Y6, sch 2.) "'Cos......(thinks), it doesn't matter. He'd be more grown up." What would more grown up be? "Let them,..just sit them down and calm down." (Y4, sch. 3). This last exchange concerns Zac and Lyndsey, the two video sequence teachers. The discussion was about which teacher might be preferred as someone who helps you if you feel like the boy in the picture: "So, if you felt bad, you would also go to him?" "Yeah." "What would he do?" "He'd say, don't worry, I'll have a word with the boy, don't you worry, you'll be all right. Be a brave lad." "Would you like that then?" "Yeah. He'd say get up, don't worry. If you were picked on he would have a word with them. She wouldn't."


There is clearly very little evidence in any of the above data to support either the Poor Boys discourse or the Boys Will be Boys discourse (Epstein et al, 1998). Neither is the notion that there is a problem with boys because schools have become feminised supported. On the contrary, when the boys themselves are asked, they seem generally content with their lot and quite taken aback by the suggestion that, as a gender, they might be a problem. One of the most consistent features of the data is the explicit tendency of boys not to identify gender as a problem. There was only weak and largely speculative evidence that boys identified with men, and there was no evidence to suggest boys felt they would do better at school if taught more frequently by men. In work and in caring, boys explicitly acknowledge that teacher quality is independent of gender, and by far the most important consideration. Boys seem quite content to be taught and cared for by women, provided that those women meet the not unreasonable standards of competence the boys specify. A competent woman is clearly preferred to an incompetent man.

No evidence has appeared, in this study of pre-pubescent school boys, of the so-called "male wound". The idea that boys might underachieve at school because they are going through some Freudian crisis of dis-identification with females seems entirely fanciful and quite unsupported by conversations with boys of primary school age. When the underlying framework of attachment theory is invoked, it would seem again that the gender of the teacher is not a problem. Boys will get on at school provided they have a secure attachment to a principal carer at home. This carer is usually the mother, but can equally be the father. Where there is a secure maternal bond, the absence of a father at home again does not seem to be the problem that the poor boys discourse suggests it to be, although disruptive fathers or poor male role models in the home can have a negative effect. It is the availability of peer bonds at school that gives boys the feeling of cared for wellbeing necessary for effective functioning. The gender of the teacher seems to be of apparently minimal relevance to this, but teachers seem to have a duty of care in providing the back-up to ensure peer bonds can flourish.

The nature of this duty of care is clearly more akin to caring about than caring for. It is primarily a function of management rather than a function of nurture or parent substitute. The parallel poor men discourse of male disadvantage in exclusion from the teaching of young children therefore also has little to support it. The issue is the image of teaching young children as primarily a caring for occupation. There are major issues to address in terms of this perception of teaching younger children as a caring for occupation, consequently associated with low status, women and men of questionable masculinity. The qualities approved of by the boys themselves are the ability to "sort things out and get on with it" rather than administer mother substitute hugs, cuddles and soft talk. Boys acknowledge that both males and females can "sort things out and get on with it" although if there is any slight gender preference, it may here be towards males.

So does this mean that all is well at school, and that the gender and education debate can be closed, at least as far as primary school boys' underachievement is concerned?

The fact that boys do not seem to perceive the same problem with themselves as does the media and Byers-Woodhead analysis does not necessarily mean that there is no problem. In terms of equity, equality of opportunity and the representation of society by schools, to argue that the Byers-Woodhead analysis is alarmist and ill-founded is not to argue against the principle of increasing male representation in primary teaching. There can never be gender equality if any one gender dominates another numerically in a sphere of employment. If we wish for more positive male representation in schools, then it is clear that there are criteria for good teachers that male and female recruits equally must meet. These have been clearly and simply stated by the boys in the study, seem largely reasonable, and do not include the kinds of discrimination that might arise from any ill-conceived initiatives to recruit macho footballing males to compensate for the supposed feminisation of schooling.

Skelton's account of Deneway primary school should alert us to the subtle dangers of playing to the prejudices boys are imagined to have through some accounts given by the problem with boys discourse (Skelton 2001). The belief that football is the way to secure boys' commitment to schooling can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy which marginalises the many boys for whom football is not the singular priority and, paradoxically, those girls who might genuinely enjoy football. The need is for teachers of either gender who will manage schools so that supportive peer relationships flourish and football does not become the only option for playtime. It is for teachers of either gender who understand that both girls and boys enjoy a wide range of activities which include sport, painting, music, drama, computing, technology and practical science, and who set appropriately high expectations for the inclusion of both boys and girls in all such activities.

Above all, the need is for teachers of either gender who understand that fundamentally, the issue of gender and primary schooling has not changed significantly in at least the last half century. Female teachers have always dominated primary schooling, yet girls have always outperformed boys in scholastic tests, only to be pushed out by boys in practically everything that is considered to have real status in the social world beyond the classroom. If the increased recruitment of males to primary teaching results in such a teaching force, then real progress will have been made.


Ashley, M. (1993) Peer Attachments and Social Deviancy in the Primary School. Unpublished M Phil thesis, Bristol: University of the West of England.

Ashley, M . (forthcoming) Primary School Boys' Identity Formation and the Male Role Model: An Exploration of Sexual Identity and Gender Identity Through Attachment Theory . The Journal of Sex Education. In press.

Askew, S. & Ross, C. (1988) Boys Don't Cry: Boys and Sexism in Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Byers, S. (1998) Co-ordinated Action to Tackle Boys' Underachievement. Speech presented to the Eleventh International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement. UMIST, 5th January.

Cameron, C. Moss, P. & Owen, C. (1999) Men in the Nursery: Gender and Caring Work. London: Paul Chapman.

Croll, P. & Moses, D. (1990) Sex Roles in the Primary Classroom. In C. Rogers & P. Kutnick (eds.) The Social Psychology of the Primary School. London: Routledge.

Epstein, D., Elwood, J., Hey, V., & Maw, J. (eds). (1998) Failing Boys? Issues in Gender and Achievement. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Head, J. (1999) Understanding the Boys: Issues of Behaviour and Achievement. London: Falmer.

Kincaid, J . (1992) Child-loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York: Routledge

King, J . (1998) Uncommon Caring: Learning from Men who Teach Young Children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Kutnick P. (1983) Relating to Learning: Towards a Developmental Social Psychology of the Primary School. London: Allen & Unwin.

Nias, J . (1989) Primary Teachers Talking. New York: Routledge.

Passmore, B , (2001) Mums Shame Errant Sons. The Times Educational Supplement, 4417, p5, 23rd. February.

Sainsbury, J. & Jackson, D . (1996) Challenging Macho Values: Practical ways of Working with Adolescent Boys. London: Falmer.

Skelton, C . (2001) Schooling the Boys: Masculinities and Primary Schooling. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Spender, D . (1986) Contemporary Women Teachers: Balancing School and Home. New York: Longman.

Woodhead, C . (1996) quoted in the Times Educational Supplement, 15th March.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 October 2002