Research published this month by Warwick Business School shows a quarter of all state-funded schools in England had no male teachers, with some areas reporting more than half their primary schools lack a single male teacher. It seems men aren’t becoming teachers, especially when it comes to the youngest children.
We are fixated on the classroom but what happens outside of it is much more important, particularly in the home. It is worth repeating then, that between the ages of four to 16, a typical child will spend more than 80 per cent of their time outside school. Most teachers will tell you this but it is rarely discussed in the corridors of power. Much easier to boss teachers around with a memo from the department.
Take a look at the latest official data on family make up and you will find almost a million and a half boys growing up without a father figure at home, about one in five boys, or roughly half a dozen in every class.
Boys turn into men (although this is also increasingly contested) but too little thought is given to the sort of men we want them to be. It isn’t male teachers we need, it is dads.
Look at our prisons and virtually all young male prisoners will tell you they grew up without a dad. Children with highly involved fathers do better at school, have higher self-esteem,and are less likely to get into trouble in adolescence. We need to talk about missing dads every bit as much as missing male teachers in the classroom.
One radical campaigner for dads, Sonia Shaljean of the charity ‘Lads Need Dads’, thinks that boys without a dad at home should be considered disadvantaged, and with it a special ‘flag’ triggering additional support. Not having a dad at home should be considered an ‘additional need’ according to a report commissioned by Shaljean and her award-winningcharity. Imagine special needs teachers getting together to discuss the lack of dads at home. It would be a bold change of direction for most schools.
It starts early, with most dads saying there is little interest in their role. There are plenty of organisations and groups targeted at new mums, but where are the parenting groups for dads? Some years ago I polled dads-to-be and only a quarter said they were given any sort of support, while almost half felt society dismissed their role.
One leading headteacher is now apparently putting an end to calling male teachers (those that are left) ‘Sir’, claiming it is an outdated phrase that conjures up images of knights and a ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ approach to running a school. On the contrary, the concept of gentlemanly manners and respect for the opposite sex needs a reboot for the modern age. It’s a phrase that has disappeared in favour of toxic masculinity;‘manners maketh man’ was once a code for life and we need much more of it. Being a gentleman was once a very real conception of masculinity – not that the word masculinity was much in use until very recently.
Recently nearly a third of boys admitted they were taught about ‘toxic masculinity’ at school, most likely by a female teacher or external group with very little interest in the prospects of the boys in front of them. More worrying still is almost half of teenage boys have been told that ‘men are a problem for society’ – imagine saying that about any other group. It is little wonder they search online for inspiration and come back with a warped version of masculinity.
We will soon celebrate fathers’ day, but there is little to celebrate in modern masculinity. The biggest signal that men are intent on leaving the family home is plummeting marriage rates (nothing says ‘I don’t’ more than a willingness to procreate but refuse to stick around once the baby is born). 2021 was the first year on record where more babies were born to unmarried couples than to couples that had wed before their first child arrived; for a lot of men it is seemingly much easier to leave the exit door slightly ajar.
Some claim marriage is an institution designed to trap women, but why wouldn’t you expect the man you are sleeping with and intent on starting a family with to commit to staying with you ‘for better or for worse’? By all means junk the church and white dress; get married in a night club if you want – but expect the man in your life to commitment to you, it couldn’t be more feminist.
The solution is unlikely to be more finger wagging at boys, with single–sex lessons for boys only where they can be chastised for being male and the things they may be tempted to do because of their male-ness. These may or may not be needed, but we should be just as worried about disappearing dads at home and what it means to be a man in the modern world. Courtesy and good manners are the traditional behaviours that used to define being a gentleman. It is nothing to do with knowing the difference between a dessert fork and a fish fork, it is everything to do with how you treat other people.
We need higher expectations of men to step up to their role as fathers. Sticking around is a good place to start and that will mean a potentially uncomfortable conversation about marriage, a taboo in modern Britain. It will also mean a return to codes of chivalry as something to aspire to, not dismiss as outdated. Being a gentleman should be an ambition rather than something that was important a hundred years ago. It couldn’t be more important now. We don’t need lessons for boys, as some are calling for and seems likely very soon; we should look instead to increase the number of dads in the home and expect them to talk to their sons about what it means to be a man.
Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity.