'What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.' Cicero
Five years ago, in August 2012, I wrote my first blog about men in childcare. It was prompted by a LEYF male colleague, David Stevens who said we should not just concentrate on increasing men into childcare at LEYF (8 per cent of LEYF workforce were male) but open up the debate.
At the time he was managing a nursery with four male staff out of a team of five. People were amazed and we received lots of comments about men in childcare which both reflected a positive approach and the usual stereotyped anxiety that men saw as a barrier to entry. These included poor pay, lack of promotion opportunities, poor status, fear of accusations of abuse and paedophilia, discomfort at working in such a highly female work environment and an expectation that one man can address the shortfall of positive male roles in so many children’s lives. In fact, reading the list, one would wonder why any man wanted to work in the sector?
We decided to stop asking others and ask the men themselves. 'Why do you want to work with children?' Despite the range of age and backgrounds, the overwhelming response was that they had all come into childcare because they were interested in child development and wanted to teach small children. They generally found the views of the sector annoying. People talking for us and about us! They noted that the proportion of male teachers and headteachers in primary schools was higher but nobody commented on that!
In the wider world there was more happening. David represented us at the Men in Childcare conference in Dublin and was the only UK representative and had to cope with the high jinks of the Irish, the Danes and the Scots! However, the Daycare Trust now rebranded as the Family and Childcare Trust brought interested organisations together with the support of the DfE. However, unlike Europe where Manner in Kitas received 14 million euros for theory-based research into the benefit of men in childcare, we were doing it for the usual barter and free gratis approach.
The more we drilled into the subject, the more interested we became. As LEYF CEO, I was constantly urged not to take the subject off the radar. We broadened our thinking into the wider issue of equality. This was also to mitigate a common knee-jerk response suggesting we would never get properly remunerated nor our status raised unless the sector had men! How depressing for a female led sector?
We decided what was needed was for the public and policy makers to better understand what do we do when we talk about education in the early years. Yes it’s more than smiling, washing hands and being patient while our male colleagues play really good rough and tumble while acting as surrogate uncle to all the children in female led families!
To move this forward, we did two things. With the support and encouragement of many male and female colleagues we launched the London Men in Childcare Network on the 19th of November 2012 which is International Men's Day. The date also coincided with the Jimmy Saville scandal, the news of which had broken that week. We decided to brave it out and the result was a useful article in the Evening Standard to say that 'no, not all men were paedophiles'.
We set ourselves some targets:
• Support male childcare workers
• Present a positive coherent message to London that men who work with children are doing so because they are keen to support all children and give the best education possible
• Conduct action research on ways to improve education for boys
• Disseminate ideas about better gender balanced workplaces
• Engage Dads in some of the research
• Build a London focus to working in childcare
• Fund a national men in childcare network
Sue Chambers wrote the Men in Childcare report for LEYF. The key findings from our research was that 60.7% of staff said they felt the main reason for the low numbers of men in the sector was because men were not encouraged to join the profession by people and 52 per cent thought that it was because of society’s attitude to men in childcare. However, when considering the benefits of men working in childcare, 75 per cent believed it was very important for men to be seen as nurturing and sensitive role models and another 66 per cent felt they could change society’s attitudes towards men working with children.
We did other work including podcasts with http://www.kathybrodie.com/men-in-childcare-podcast/ which were a series of inspirational stories from successful men in childcare including those who have been in the industry for decades as well as those at the beginning of their career with the aim to encourage more men to enter the sector.
A further report 2012 from the Pre-school Learning Alliance confirmed that parents were quite supportive of men in the nurseries. When we asked four-year-olds what they liked to do with male staff, it was interesting that the only time children commented about staff gender was a reference to who could wear jewellery and pink. Worryingly, children saw reading and singing as a female activity. At this stage, we needed our male colleagues to be positive role models to help challenge this view given the worrying data about boys’ literacy skills and the continuing negative attitude that reading is for girls only! Given success in education is predicated on competent literacy – failing to address this almost confirms failure for many male children.
2013 was a good year for us. In June we held our first conference and later that year in September we won the Nursery World Inclusive Practice Award. We were commended for our bravery for raising the issue and developing the argument through an inclusivity lens including identifying the benefits to business of a gender balanced workplace. That was also the year we had a chapter in 'Well-being in the early years: critical appraoches' looking at the benefit of men in childcare to the wellbeing of the nursery.
Have things changed? There has been movement and some other groups have been created especially in Southampton and Bristol. David Wright in Southampton took up the mantle and has moved the debate further. He has since led two national conferences: one in Southampton and one in Bradford and he represents men in childcare at the World Forum. David is writing a book on Men in Childcare with Dr Simon Brownhill. Our previous Minister, Caroline Dineage was publicly supportive of this and ensured there was a section on encouraging men into childcare in the 2017 Workforce Strategy. The DfE Task and Finish group referenced in the strategy has now been formed to push the agenda forward.
Jo Swinson MP talked about including a chapter on men in childcare in her book on equality and inclusion.
The Fatherhood Institute is developing a campaign to encourage men into childcare #MITEY. My great friend Alice Sharp, is creating some great work in Glasgow encouraging dads into childcare. Last month in the Evening Standard there was an article by Rohan Silva saying why he was attempting to employ 50 per cent men and women at his new workplace creche.
This year, CEEDA has just reported that 5 per cent of the 3,930 staff working in the PVI sector were male. That is positive as we still have a target across the sector to achieve 2 per cent. That said, it's but a drop in the ocean. We make progress and then take two steps back when we are confronted by unhelpful comments like those of Andrea Leadsom in July 2016 when she suggested we should not appoint males for childcare duties because they may be pedophiles. Sadly, there are plenty more where these came from.
In the light of the somewhat hysterical, headline grabbing press coverage about sexual harassment we need to be alert as to how that response can close down debate, simplify argument and encourage reliance on safe and often negative stereotypical responses which closes down discussion. Issues such as men in childcare are prey to this.
So, to avoid this let’s have a rounded conversation on the 28th November. Join us at 40 The Strand at 6.30pm to take up the gauntlet and lead a thoughtful debate that focuses on the benefits for children and business of having a gender balanced workforce.
- The annual 'Margaret Horne debate: Gender balanced workforce', organised by LEYF, takes place on Tuesday 28 November and is free to attend. Register to attend here