A man's place...is in the nursery

Men are being recruited into pre-school classes to provide gender balance and positive role models, reports Karen Shead

If you look around a staffroom in a secondary school there will invariably be an equal number of male and female teachers, more or less. The staffroom in a nursery school, however, is a different matter. The staff consists overwhelmingly of women.

The most recent figures from the Teacher Training Agency show that in March 2001 there were 28,000 men teaching in nursery and primary schools, compared to 168,200 women. To counter this imbalance, the TTA recently announced a drive to increase the number of men taking up teaching this age group by 20 per cent a year over the next three years.

Already in Scotland, Edinburgh in particular, the number of male nursery teachers has been steadily increasing, thanks to an initiative introduced last year.

When the Men In Childcare programme was first discussed in 1999, there were only two men training to become nursery nurses in the Lothians. Just three of the 200 staff running Edinburgh's children's centres, and less than 1 per cent of nursery school staff, were men.

In January 2001, the education department teamed with Edinburgh's Telford, Jewel and Esk and Stevenson colleges to boost numbers. They launched an advertisement aimed at men and a 10-week taster programme in childcare followed. More than 20 men took part and 17 went on to take further childcare qualifications.

Since then scores of Scottish men - attracted by free tuition - have started training as nursery teachers. The number of male childcare students has also gone up from one or two a year to 85 and, due to its success, the scheme is set to expand across Scotland.

Kenny Spence, who has worked in childcare for the past 15 years, manages both the Men in Childcare scheme and Gilmerton Children's Centre. He helped persuade Edinburgh City Council to offer a free, accredited childcare induction course specifically aimed at men, although women can also participate. The course can lead to a National Certificate in Childcare and Education. Mr Spence is now in talks with West Lothian College, East Lothian Council and Anniesland College in Glasgow to expand the scheme.

"Men In Childcare is part-funded by the City of Edinburgh Council. We have just received more funding which will enable us to continue for at least another three years. We pay for men's childcare training and have got a fast track National Certificate in Childcare," he says.

He has long felt there are too few men working with young children. "There are a large number of children who do not meet any men until they reach secondary school. There are not many men who work in primary schools, so boys brought up in single parent households do not get a role model to follow," he says.

"It is now known that men can be good carers. It isn't seen as strange that men are nurses any more, but childcare remains the most gender segregated profession, with 99.7 per cent of childcare workers in Scotland being women."

He says that many people think men don't want to be nursery teachers or registered childminders, but he believes this isn't the case and men may be put off by the fact that childcare is traditionally a woman's domain.

"People say if men want to do it, why don't they as there is nothing stopping them. But encouraging men does make a difference."

Childcare and education experts have welcomed the increase in male students, saying it is crucial that young children are exposed to positive male role models.

Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University, says: "There is a lack of male role models in many children's lives and one of the functions of education is to teach children how to socialise. Both men and women are needed to do this."

He agrees that men should be encouraged to seek careers in nursery education. "I think the fact that it is a female culture tends to put men off from applying."

Mr Spence, however, believes that the Men in Childcare scheme has encouraged many men to go into careers such as nursery teaching, and hopes it will continue to do so.

"Stevenson College now has the first all-male class. There are 12 guys on the course and the number of men interested in the courses has grown. It is very rewarding to see this change. A male role model is crucial and I think that the more guys do the training, the more other guys will also want to do it."

Alice Sharp, early years executive with the Scottish Independent Nurseries Association in Glasgow, agrees that a male role model is essential. She says: "We definitely need more men in nursery teaching. Many children lack a positive male role model. There are an awful lot of fathers who work away, for example."

"There are a lot of children who come into the centres who don't have a positive male role model around and the more staff try to do to compensate this the better."

Registered childminder Tracy Thomson, of Dalkeith, says she would be happy for her four-year-old daughter to be taught by a male nursery teacher. Zoe goes to Thornybank nursery school, where Tracy says there are currently no male teachers.

"If other parents did have a problem with it, I wouldn't understand why. A male nursery teacher would definitely be a good role model.

"Both parents can register to be a childminder, which shows that men are playing a more active role in bringing up children, so I don't see why this shouldn't be the same with nursery teaching."

www.meninchildcare.com

* One man who recently changed his career path is Graham Wylie, aged 24, from Galashiels. He is now a trainee nursery assistant at the Corner House Nursery in Morningside, Edinburgh, working Mondays to Fridays with three to five-year-olds, and attends two evening classes a week at Telford College, in the city.

"I have always been interested in a career in teaching as I like working with people, but it is only recently that I have been able to afford to give up my other job to do the training. I've got another year and a half before I am fully qualified."

He previously worked in advertising and as a salesman and says he has no regrets about the career change as he gets a great sense of satisfaction from teaching a child.

"I love working with kids. The age group I work with is great. It's really good to see them do things like write their first word or when they draw a face and know where to put the eyes and the nose."

He is the only man among a staff of 20. "I've had a fantastic reaction from parents. Everybody has been great with me.

"I did feel they might think it was weird that I was here, but their reactions have made my job so much easier."

It seems that the parents agree that it is good to have a positive male role model around. "A lot of parents say it's been a benefit having a man in the school. They say it's great to have both sides."

Mr Wylie believes that men should be encouraged to do the job. "Men have become more involved in the upbringing of children and family life and I feel it is good to mirror that in the nursery.

"In areas with a lot of one-parent families, I also think it is a benefit because children have male role models in the nursery even if they have no father figure."

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