I've been involved in school nursing for four years now. I did a school placement as part of my Registered Sick Children's Nurse course and really enjoyed it so I thought: why should it only be women doing the job? After all, 50 per cent of the school population is male. Part of the problem is that many school nurse posts are term-time only, so it's tended to be seen as an ideal job for women with children. When I started I was only employed during the school term but I've worked all year round for the past two years. Extending contracts is vital if more men are to be attracted to the job. Although I'm still the only male school nurse employed by my primary care trust, it is working towards building a team that reflects the area's ethnic diversity. We now have a black school nurse and an Asian healthcare assistant.
When I used to answer the phone in the school nurses' office there was often a moment of puzzled silence at the other end of the line. Having a male school nurse may be a bit of a surprise, but for most people it's a pleasant one and parents are generally fine with it. It will take time to overcome the stereotypes, though. Because I'm a man, some parents and a lot of younger children assume I'm a doctor. I don't get that so much in secondary schools as the older ones are used to watching programmes such as Casualty so they're more familiar with the concept of the male nurse.
I work in mixed schools and there are a few giggles at first when I talk about issues such as puberty, contraception and sexual health because they're more used to having women cover these topics with them. But if you put yourself across as professional, approachable and a good listener, they soon start to focus on your nursing role and forget about the gender issue.
It also helps if they're familiar with you from primary school.
I work with a female colleague, which gives young people a choice about who they consult. In our drop-in sessions, confidentiality is high on their agenda. They sometimes come to you and say "My friend has this problem" and you know that they're really talking about themselves. As a man, I obviously have to tread carefully in my work with young girls, and there are some situations where I need to have a female member of staff present.
However, there are advantages too. You can perhaps empathise more with what boys are going through during adolescence as you've been through it yourself. Health promotion is a big part of the job and having a male role model helps get the message across to boys. They're generally less health aware than girls, and are more likely to indulge in risky behaviour and be involved in accidents.
It's also well known that males are far more reluctant to visit a doctor.
These are all things that we need to change and I tackle a range of issues with them from testicular cancer to drugs. When dealing with families you invariably end up talking to the mother. She's always the one who's clued up about the child's health and knows whether the vaccinations are up to date and so on. Male school nurses can help encourage fathers to engage in health issues too.
Health and welfare issues can have a big impact on achievement at school and it's rewarding to be able to make a positive change in a young person's life. If you're working in a hospital, you're usually dealing with a specific physical problem, but when you work in the community you're tackling emotional and social issues as well; it's a more holistic approach.
Some of the work is a lot of fun too. Recently, we piloted a scheme called "Ditch the Chips" in collaboration with a local comedy festival. It involved teaching a Year 2 class about healthy eating and they then worked with an animator to make a short cartoon about it.
Mick Chown is a school nurse in the East Midlands. He was talking to Caroline Roberts