THE GOVERNMENT'S recent policy document, Meeting the Childcare Challenge, recognises that preschool childcare is predominantly staffed by women. As the last census showed, only 1 per cent of nursery nurses are men.
The policy also notes that "male carers have much to offer, including acting as positive role models for boys - especially from families where the father is absent."
This notion of role models comes up again and again. In research conducted with my colleagues we found that parents, childcare tutors and the nursery staff themselves all think men can provide role models.
But it is not entirely clear what roles men are meant to model. Are they meant to be different to the women? We know that fathers tend to go in for more rough play with their children: is this what they are meant to do as childcare workers? Or are they meant to challenge the gender stereotypes by showing that, like the women, they can be gentle carers too? New men in the nursery, as it were.
We know that young children often see little of their fathers at home. This is partly a result of the increasing number of lone and lesbian mothers, but also because fathers of young children work, on average, the longest hours. However, no research has yet shown that children are adversely affected by a lack of male contact.
What then are the benefits of having more men working in nurseries? Many benefits have been claimed: for children, for staff, for parents, for men, for the labour market and for society as a whole. There are also arguments against, and these focus on the dangers of men as potential abusers. Last week's report from Newcastle, that staff in a nursery conspired to procure children for sexual abuse, has served to bring this to the front of our attention.
If nursery nursing were seen as a job like any other, then we would expect a more equal gender balance. But it is not a job like any other. It involves the care of very young children, including intimate care such as changing nappies. Consequently nursery nursing is seen as essentially "women's work". Women are still felt by many to be more appropriate as carers of young children and, conversely, men are felt not to be appropriate, and possibly suspect.
While it is widely accepted that men should play a greater part in the rearing of their own children, there is much less agreement about men caring for other people's children as a job.
If it is not clear what we want men to do in the nursery, it is very clear what we are worried they might do. The horrific, and mounting, revelations of abuse in residential children's homes only serve to reinforce the dangers of men as potential abusers.
A national survey conducted in the USA found that the small number of male workers were responsible for a disproportionate amount of sexual abuse.
However, the research also had two other important findings. One was that many of the men involved were not childcare workers at all, but other men: cleaners, bus drivers, volunteers and especially the partners and teenage sons of family daycare workers, who in this country we would call childminders.
Second, 40 per cent of the identified abusers were women, and more children were abused by a woman than by a man.
The potential of women to sexually abuse is something society has found it hard to face up to. Yet the terrible activities of Rosemary West and the fact that in Newcastle it was a man and a woman working together who were accused, serve to make this possibility painfully clear.
The positive lesson from these cases is that removing the men does not remove the danger to children. That has to be done in other ways. These include better vetting and recruitment, a more open and collegial practice within childcare, and, very importantly, empowering and respecting children so that they are able to speak out on their own behalf.
In Britain we continue to argue about the employment of men as childcare workers, but Scandinavian countries demonstrate a different, and more positive, attitude. In Norway, for example, the Government has adopted a target of 20 per cent male workers in preschool childcare by 2000. In Sweden, colleges have taken a responsibility for recruiting more male childcare students. Denmark and Finland have their own initiatives.
If our Government is serious about wanting to more men in childcare - whether or not they make good role models - then someone is going to have to take responsibility to see that it happens.
Charlie Owen is a senior research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. "Men as Workers in Services for Young Children", edited by Charlie Owen, Claire Cameron and Peter Moss, is published this week. Price Pounds 14.99, from The Bookshop at the IoE:0171 612 6050