Looking after young children is still seen as a low-status job for low-achieving, non-academic women, despite widespread recognition of the crucial importance of the early years for later success, according to a new report from the Institute of Education.
The research also found that the perception of men as potential paedophiles is keeping the profession almost exclusively female.
Interviews with 125 students and eight tutors on various nursery-nurse and childcare training courses at two London colleges of further education reveals that the students' low opinion of themselves and of the job is shared by the tutors.
The report, by Dr Helen Penn and Susan McQuail, estimates that only 1 per cent of childcare workers are male, and the few men working in the field are acutely aware of the risk of being accused of child abuse. Colleges' equal opportunities policies appeared to have made no difference over the past 10 years.
Male childcare students also find it difficult to get work placements because there are no compulsory police checks on students to weed out sex offenders, so nurseries are unwilling to take the risk. The Home Office says that police checks are not necessary because the student should never be unsupervised, but the Association of Colleges says this is unrealistic and is lobbying for a change.
Men wanting to work in childcare were seen as, at best, a bit odd and at worst as potential abusers: "There is a stigma attached to wanting to care for children which involves physical contact. Men are more likely to be abusers, " said one female student. Men themselves reported that parents, teachers and careers staff had tried to put them off working with young children.
In general, the students saw childcare work as an extension of women's mothering instincts, a profession in which natural aptitudes are more important than training. Many of the female students had been academic failures at school and had negative attitudes to teachers. As one put it: "They can teach, but they don't know much about children; they don't like them."
The female students had chosen nursery-nurse or childcare training because they saw it as easy and unthreatening, building on skills they thought they already possessed. Many had problems with the theoretical aspects of the course, some of them showing a lack of faith in the written word: "Studying and reading books is not going to help you understand children."
The tutors saw almost all the new students as low achievers: "They can't think. Some have never read a book, have never researched anything"; "If the job carried higher status we would attract more able applicants. They are low achievers so they struggle."
Some tutors seemed to see the training courses as a form of remedial education for the students. "They have tremendous emotional needs in terms of their own background that have to be satisfied," said one, while another said she had persuaded an able and experienced student not to pursue a course.
The authors recommend keeping concern over child abuse in perspective: "Far more children are killed or maimed in accidents."
They also recommend upgrading training to bridge the traditional divide between early-years education and simple childcare. The National Nursery Examination Board qualification and other forms of training could be seen as first steps toward a more demanding academic course such as a degree in early childhood studies.
Childcare as a Gendered Occupation by Dr Helen Penn and Susan McQuail. DFEE Research series no 23 available from Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, 18 Woburn Square, London WC1H ONS