What does a 6ft 4in, 18-stone ex-miner do for a living? Jill Parkin tests some preconceptions about male nursery child carers. Let's play a sort of "What's My Line?" Steve Jackson, 28, has played it before. "Those of us in non-traditional jobs have to give clues and the young people try to come up with the job. I am a 6ft 4in, 18-stone ex-miner. I've never had a group say what my present job is yet," he says.
He's in the same job as Marcus Dennison, a 25-year-old father of two. "I tell another member of staff I'm about to do it, and while I'm doing it, I tend to keep up a stream of talk so anyone passing knows what's going on," he says.
How are your preconceptions? These two men are nursery child carers. They're in a field that makes primary schools look overrun with men. Both have had their share of interrogation from parents. After all, the task Mr Dennison talks through is nappy-changing and taking children to the lavatory. Both believe their job is good for them, good for men and good for children.
Dr Tony Bertram, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Early Years at Worcester College of Higher Education, believes men in nursery and infant teaching can help restore children's view of men, often distorted by family breakdown and popular culture.
He says: "Women find they have two jobs. Men are not taking on the household duties, particularly child-rearing. Men in the UK work longer hours than the rest of Europe. We don't even have any statutory paternity leave. The divorce rate is high. Men are not playing much of a part in children's lives."
According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, 82 per cent of fathers work full-time, for an average of 47 hours a week, excluding travel time. A third work more than 50 hours.
"A lot of children are growing up without any model of men as carers," says Dr Bertram. "Nothing shows them that manliness can include caring. There's a danger that children become frightened because the adults with whom they live portray men as macho brutes or, worse, beasts who may attack them."
Men going into early years as carers and teachers are often seen as wimpish or suspect, says Dr Bertram. He spent 30 years as an infant teacher and was widowed when his youngest child was eight.
He says men bring different qualities to childcare, as well as a sense of stability to children who may have serial father figures.
According to Chrissy Meleady, of the Sheffield Children's Centre, where half the staff are men, they bring another benefit, too. "We find they're calming, " she says. "It's not what you expect. You tend to think of men as throwing children in the air or whirling them round and getting them excited. In fact, they have a calming effect on them."
The centre has been going for 14 years as a childcare, play and family service. Men are recruited through adverts, word of mouth, and by getting into the schools pre-GCSE and suggesting caring careers to boys as well as girls.
It's on school careers days that Steve Jackson, who works at the Sheffield Children's Centre, goes in for his stereotype-busting in the "Guess My Job" line-up.
"They can't visualise my working with young children," he says. "Every time I tell them what my job is they laugh. I often pursue this and the stereotypes pour out of them. This is why I know that my work with children is so important, particularly during the formative years when gender roles are taking shape."
The centre operates a witnessing policy. It means that no member of staff, man or woman, can change a nappy without another member of staff of the other gender.
Chrissy Meleady says children of lone parents benefit from seeing men in a caring role. "In South Yorkshire there has been an increase in male workers in childcare probably because of the decline of the traditional male industries - the coal mines and the steelworks. Men are rethinking their role and that is having its impact on child-rearing," she says.
Marcus Dennison, a carer at the Pen Green Centre for Under Fives and their Families in Corby, Northants, took a national vocational qualification in childcare when he was made redundant from his factory packing job. It was a chance to fulfil an ambition to work with children.
One of the high points of the week at Pen Green is when Mr Dennison dances with the children. He's black and is challenging stereotypes on two fronts.
"I feel comfortable with my job," he says, "and I think it's a good start for the children to see a man in a caring role. The same goes for the fact I'm black. There aren't many black people in the town. In the early days parents would ask me why I was doing the job, but now I've been here for more than four years and they're used to me.
"I'm happy doing this, and I'd like to help recruit another male member of staff. As a man you have to guard against accusations." Hence the changing-mat chat.
Peter Moss, of the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the London Institute of Education, is co-ordinator of the European Commission Network on Childcare. The network proposes a 20 per cent target of male workers within 10 years.
The obstacle to parental acceptance of men in early years is sex abuse. Mr Moss stresses the importance of selection procedure and quotes the Sheffield witnessing policy as good practice.
Many parents have mixed feelings when they commit their child to the care of a man. "He doesn't take them to the loo, does he?" is the usual, understandable, question. In a recent UK case, a male worker in a private nursery took his employers to an industrial tribunal on the grounds of sex discrimination because he was not allowed to take girls to the lavatory. He won.
Trevor Chandler and Marcus Dennison, of the Pen Green Centre, have written: "The power of abuse lies in secrecy. If the culture of an institution is based upon empowerment and openness . . . then the potential for abuse is minimised. "
Dr Bertram hopes that a Labour government will encourage men into early years. The Labour party policy document Early Excellence: a head start for every child recognises the problem.
It says: "We will encourage fathers to play a greater role in the education and care of young children. With only five per cent of those working with the under-fives being men, children have few male role models to follow." It quotes a men's initiative in the East End of Newcastle, where the city council backs "A Dad's Place", a project for fathers and their children to go on day-trips and attend workshops.
The involvement of men with children won't happen by itself. At the Pen Green Centre, father involvement has risen from eight per cent to 70 per cent. Margy Whalley, research, training and development director, and her colleagues videoed parents coming into the centre with their children and compared male and female behaviour and staff behaviour towards the sexes.
"With an all-female staff the mothers get more support than the fathers, " she says. "Fathers were shy about coming in. Now we have posters with positive images of men.
"We invite fathers along to meetings to deal with particular issues and they come. When we had regular discussion groups, mainly mothers came." The Pen Green Centre, with its emphasis on family support, opened in 1983, three years after the local steelworks closed down and 5,000 men lost their jobs. They've been re-assessing gender roles in Corby for years.
The IPPR report, Men and Their Children, which was published last year, is in favour of increasing the number of men in early-years teaching. In 1993, 85 per cent of those starting to train for primary school teaching were women. With men holding more of the senior and management posts, the imbalance at classroom level is even greater.
It criticised the careers advisory services for making no particular attempts to suggest to boys part-time jobs and childcare.
The bad side of attempts to bring men into early years is that they will take a disproportionate number of the top jobs, as the IPPR report concedes. But men could change early years in positive ways, too, says Dr Bertram. "Look at the change we have had in nursing," he says. "No-one is surprised to find men in nursing now, as they were 15 years ago. In nursing you've got more militancy, more pay, more qualifications, more status. The problem is differential promotion. If you introduced more men into early years you would have a similar pattern."