Men should be at home in the nursery

25th April 1997 at 01:00
Attention is drawn towards any headline that juxtaposes the words "men" and "child care". The present climate is hardly conducive to encouraging more men into care work, what with the post-Cullen consultation on abuse, the Home Office document Sex Offenders - A Ban on Working with Children and the universally worrying issue of paedophilia.

The Men and Childcare Scotland network aims to raise the profile of men working with young children and today (Friday) it is holding the third in a series of training seminars in Glasgow. The topics for discussion will focus on working with fathers, stereotyping and gender roles in childcare work and, inevitably, child protection.

The group was formed to bring together men working in the childcare and early education professions who saw the need for mutual support and promotion of male recruitment. Raising the profile is proving a more difficult task. A familiar problem is that few young men even consider care as a career option because of the lack of role models in nurseries and primary schools. With the huge rise in single-parent families where women occupy the main care-giving role, children perceive the message that caring is embedded in the so-called "feminine" set of skills, and this stereotypical view is reinforced in the education system.

As recently as the 1960s there were few women heads and deputies in primaries. We need to increase awareness that child care and education are jobs for both men and women. The gender situation in primaries was addressed in the seventies and eighties, and in reverse we need the same thinking about male nursery nurses, primary teachers and youth workers.

It is too glib to say: "Let's attract more men into early years work." The few who do enter professions working with children at present have to be survivors, prepared to go against the trend and demonstrate extra resilience because they will certainly be challenged on their career choice. Many will meet suspicion and have to cope in colleges with female-dominated class discussions, a problem that exists, for example, in childcare courses in further education.

Even if they make it through training, men face the problem of interviews where there may be worries about their motives. There are more men working in the area of after-school care than nurseries, which may reflect more flexible appointment procedures. In that sector, however, staff have to make real efforts to ensure that activities are not stereotyped, with young men always the ones asked to take the football as opposed to cookery.

In 1992, only 1 per cent of male teachers in Scottish nurseries were male, and men now account for just 8 per cent of primary staff. The Men and Childcare Scotland network tries to ensure a balance in training. Judging from previous seminars, it is not just men who come along, but also women keen to explore the concerns around the topic of men and child care. Only by mutual exploration of the issues can negative attitudes be countered.

Inevitably, the topic of child protection is fraught, but it must be confronted. There is still a lack of training despite the high profile in the media. A recent Edinburgh primary graduate said that she found her training inadequate to help her face the situation she encountered in her first teaching post. While other staff were supportive, the head was reluctant to confront the problem two little girls undoubtedly had in their family. As far as the head was concerned, her school was in a "nice" area where abuse did not happen, and anyway she was due to retire shortly.

When the support network meets, such blinkered and ill-judged thinking is discussed. Instead, positive guidelines must be developed. Those who are involved recognise that a paramount remit in child care is that children need to be protected from paedophiles, but this should not mean that men who genuinely want to work with pre-fives or teach nursery and primary-age children for all the right reasons end up avoiding a worthwhile and rewarding career because of the fear of both overt and subtle discrimination.

Sandra Brown is development and training manager with Children in Scotland. Ian Maxwell is information officer of One Parent Families Scotland.

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