Every year in the autumn I have for the past decade been presiding at degree conferring ceremonies at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, Dublin, which is a college of my university. The majority of the student who receive their parchments from me intend to become primary school teachers – and the overwhelming majority of them are women. I have not recently seen the gender breakdown of trainee teachers, but my guess is that typically over 80 per cent of these new graduates are female. I suspect that, for now, the majority of school principals are still men, but that will change over time.
One of the consequences of this is that primary school children often only experience women as educational role models. Is this good or bad, or does it matter? My guess is that it does, though not necessarily a much as some suggest. For example, a study has shown that female teachers are often nervous about mathematics, and convey this to their students, and to girls in particular. This then has onward implications for mathematics proficiency and the gender distribution in careers where this is important. Another issue is that boys are driven to a life of under-achievement because they see no male role models during these important formative years.
There may however be a slight change in the gender breakdown of students doing teacher training. According to a report, the recession and the resulting higher unemployment have pushed young men in Britain into considering the teaching profession. The number of men applying for teacher training courses rose by 52 per cent in 2008-09. We are still a good bit off an equal distribution between men and women, but it’s a start.
Generally in employment of all kinds there should be no male or female ghettos. But this is particularly true of teaching, where an unequal distribution may have a number of unpredictable effects. I don’t off-hand know what the trend is in Ireland, but I shall find out. And I hope that in Ireland, too, this unbalanced situation is being eroded.