The female in tuition

School for Women
April 26, 1996

Some 74 per cent of primary school teachers and 41 per cent of secondary school teachers are women; and yet the female contribution of teachers towards improving the cultural life of our society has yet to be fully appreciated. People barely reflect on these facts, because women are supposed to be naturally suited to the job of teaching. Now Jane Miller, a teacher-turned-academic, has felt sufficiently provoked to do so by her personal experiences, and this book is the stimulating result.

Culling historical, literary, contemporary and autobiographical materials she examines the aspirations, frustrations and changing perceptions of women in schools at all levels of western education from the 1850s to the present day. She reminds us that it was not until 1961 that parity in salary between the sexes in teaching was achieved. And she shows how political parties of all shades have failed to strive for a significant change in outlook towards women in the teaching profession.

In 1990, the then Department of Education and Science issued a recruitment poster with a slogan "The reason you left teaching is the reason you should return". This was perhaps some Sir Humphrey's brilliant idea for dispensing with the need to train women teachers. Instead of all the paraphernalia of so-called professionalism, all a woman teacher had to do was deconstruct herself as a mother of her own children and reconstruct herself as a mother to a classful of children. Old Plato had thought of it for his republic. But is it true?

If teaching is a career specially suited to women, why do so many leave it in mid-career, when their children are already grown up? A recent national league table rated teaching as having an eight out of ten stress factor, second only to mining at 8.3. Part of the reason for this stress, Miller suggests, is that teaching involves making judgements about human beings at a crucial time in their development. To do this properly a teacher needs a huge amount of personal information on her pupils. Miller gives some vivid examples from her own class of 1973: "I'm never sure whether I know too much or too little about the children in my class. Byron, for instance, lives in a residential home, but spends the weekends with his grandmother. Bella lives with her father and his elderly lover, and David's father died last year of leukaemia. Carlton has frightening asthma, and lives with his father and brother. His mother killed herself when the boys were still at primary school. Debbie, who is clever and unkind, has a mother known to be on the game."

The situation is even more complex in 1996. Unlike the author in 1973, today's teachers are faced with the demands of ongoing assessment, mission statements on achievement targets and a good many other "edspeak" accountabilities. But I wonder if this perplexing jargon will change society's perception of women in the education industry. Will it alter the undoubted fact that the majority of women in teaching have low self-esteem?

Meanwhile girls in schools are doing better and anxieties about boys are growing rapidly. So is the prognosis really that "The future is female", as the title of a recent Panorama television programme implied? So far teaching has allowed women scope for relatively interesting work and access into public life in addition to greater economic freedom, but it has not brought them into direct competition with men; instead the notion of the female presence as a "civilised influence" in the school has prevailed. Now more and more women at every level of education are becoming powerful enough to exert influence, make decisions and take responsibilities. Society needs to recognise and value this. Miller's book is a highly readable and well-argued contribution to the debate. She has charted a territory I thought I knew well, and helped me to see it anew.

Krishna Dutta has been teaching and advising teachers in London for the past 20 years.

School for Women

Author - Jane Miller
ISBN - 1 85381 713 9
Publisher - Virago
Price - £8.99
Pages - 328

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