Linda Blackburne reports on an industrial tribunal case in Norwich which reflects a deep split in the world of child care. Nurseries and creches may be forced to amend their policies on intimate contact between young children and male workers after an industrial tribunal upheld claims of sex discrimination.
Malcolm Brown left his job as deputy assistant manager at the Flagship cr che in Norwich's Castle Mall shopping centre over its policy that male staff were not allowed to take girls to the toilet. Mr Brown, a qualified child carer, told the industrial tribunal that the policy was distressing because young children could often wet or soil themselves if they had to wait for another child carer to be free.
The tribunal will make a formal written judgment soon, but in the meantime, the Flagship creche has had to scrap its policy and Mr Brown, 34, who has yet to be compensated, is looking for another job.
With the Government's voucher scheme intended to expand the pre-school sector, the case could have implications for private and state nurseries. Flagship is considering an appeal against the ruling.
Laurie Coppersmith, Flagship's managing director, said: "We were really reflecting the attitudes of a number of parents. The rule was not made out of any desire to protect the child. We would not employ anybody if we had any doubts."
Private nurseries and creches are under pressure to conform to parents' views because they can lose business if they resist.
But Susan Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks, which has five private London nurseries, took a different line when two British parents tried to persuade her to ban a male NNEB student from any intimate or toileting contact with their children.
Nurseryworks supported the student because it believed there was no risk to the children. The couple, who could understand Susan Hay's point of view "rationally but not emotionally", she says, eventually withdrew their children.
The student later dropped out of the course because of family and peer-group pressures over his choice of career, but Susan Hay also fears that the Nurseryworks incident may have contributed to his decision to leave.
She condemned discriminatory policies: "I don't think we will get anywhere if we work in a defensive way. The best service is provided positively, not defensively."
Jamie Robinson, 24, an NNEB and Montessori-qualified teacher at the Noddy Nursery in the London borough of Wandsworth, believes that discriminating between men and women workers in early-years institutions is "ridiculous".
He is one of three male workers at the Noddy Nursery. One of his male colleagues has sole responsibility for changing nappies and toileting so that the teachers can get on with the job of teaching.
Jamie Robinson, who is currently looking after the two-year-olds who are nearly all on potty training, said his job would be a "nightmare" if he had to constantly find a female member of staff to take them to the toilet.
Peter Elfer, a development officer for the National Children's Bureau, believes sensible precautions are necessary in creches and nurseries because of the number of sexual abuse cases.
He said: "Discriminatory policies probably do seem unfair. But if you set that against the number of young children abused by men who have been checked out we just know that it is not enough. As a male member of staff you might be prepared to accept that some restrictions on what you can do with children are necessary."
He referred to the Jason Dabbs case in Newcastle three years ago. Dabbs, a nursery nurse student, was sentenced to seven years in jail, after being convicted of indecently assaulting children in his nursery.
Newcastle was also rocked by a second multiple child sex abuse case last year when a man and a woman were cleared of assaulting children in a day nursery after the judge refused to accept video evidence from the prosecution.
Jane Streather, assistant director of social services at Newcastle, defended her department's decision not to have specific rules for men in the city's day nurseries.
But she said: "It is very difficult for men to work with young children in today's climate. That is very, very sad, particularly in the inner cities where many children do not have male role models."
The issue was discussed at a seminar in Birmingham in June called "Men in Caring, Caring Men". It was organised by Chris Dallimore, registration officer for child-care facilities in Sefton.