According to the Department for Education’s own statistics, only 2 per cent of the early years workforce are currently men. In any industry, this sort of gender imbalance should be a serious cause for concern, but it’s particularly troubling when it comes to early education.
Whenever this issue is discussed, people are usually quick to point to the need for young boys to have positive male role models in their lives. This is, of course, one compelling reason for trying to encourage more men into the sector, but it is perhaps too narrow a lens through which to look at the problem. It’s not just boys who benefit from positive male role models, but girls, too. A role model does not need to be someone who is the same gender as you.
The early years are, as we know, a critical phase in a child’s life, perhaps the most critical. It’s a time when they are beginning to try to make sense of the world around them and understand their place within it. Regular interaction with a range of role models, both men and women, can only be a good thing at this vital stage of development.
Tackling prejudice and misconceptions
When it comes to the reasons why the figure is so low, there are clearly deep-seated cultural issues at play. One of the biggest challenges we face in shifting this incredibly low figure is society’s perceptions of the profession and what it means to work with our youngest children. For far too long, working in the early years has been seen as something men "just don’t do". This then becomes self-perpetuating. Men tend not to know of any other men who work in the early years, so they don’t even consider it an option.
And then there are the issues around status and pay. I can think of few more important jobs than supporting the development and learning of our youngest children, and yet it remains a relatively low-paid profession, especially for those in pre-school settings. Improving pay would certainly help the situation, although we should be absolutely clear that both women and men working in early years should benefit equally from such a move.
Often, as unions, we call on the government to take action to solve problems and there certainly is action that could be taken at this level to help. I am pleased that the DfE has set up a working party to look at this very issue, and hope that it seriously considers acting on the recommendations. However, if we are going to make any significant progress on this issue, we need to change perceptions at a societal level, and this goes beyond a few small-scale initiatives. We need to tackle the misconceptions and prejudices that exist and find ways to actively promote working in the early years to men. Our hope is that by highlighting this issue, we start a public conversation.
Clearly, this is not going to be an easy problem to solve and we would be kidding ourselves if we were to expect that within the next five to 10 years we’ll suddenly have a 50/50 gender split. However, with such a low starting point, every percentage point increase would represent real progress.
James Bowen is director of the NAHT Edge middle leaders’ union, and a former head of an 'outstanding' primary. He tweets @JamesJkbowen