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Whose daddy are you?

A nursery head tells Linda Blackburne about being a man in a female world. Nursery schools are so dominated by women that it sometimes takes more than a male voice to convince a county council that a man might want to teach young children.

When Jamie Shaw, the new headteacher of Henry Allen nursery school in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, rang up the council for an application form for the job, he told an answering machine his name was "Mr Shaw". When the form arrived at his Windsor home, it was addressed to "Mrs Shaw".

It was the first time the New Zealand-born 33-year-old had come across presumptuousness as a man working in a female world. And it annoyed him.

Mr Shaw, former headteacher of the Norland private nursery school in Hungerford, Wiltshire, said his gender had never been a problem in his eight years working with young children. Nevertheless there had been other occasions when he had been acutely conscious of his sex.

As a class teacher at Houndsfield primary school in Edmonton, a colleague overheard the comment: "Why doesn't he get a proper job?" That didn't annoy him - he could understand it. The school was in the middle of a Greek and Turkish community with rigid male and female stereotypes.

Former primary school colleagues kept asking him: "Do you still want to go into early years?" - insinuating that he was making the wrong decision.

And it is not only adults who think he is unusual. Children have asked him: "Whose daddy are you?", quizzed him about shaving his beard, and made comments about how rough his face feels. Some children have even called him "mummy" when they have been so involved in their work they have forgotten where they were. He takes that as a compliment.

On one poignant occasion, a three-year-old girl, the daughter of a single mother, asked him if he was a man. The mother told him afterwards that there had not been many male figures in her life.

Overall Mr Shaw said he had nothing, but support from parents and colleagues. But he thinks male nursery nurses might have a more difficult life following the recent industrial tribunal in which nursery nurse Malcom Brown successfully claimed sex discrimination at the Flagship creche in Norwich's Castle Mall shopping centre over its policy that male staff were not allowed to take girls to the toilet.

Another case which still reverberates in early years circles is that of Charles Shields, aged 50, who won Pounds 600 compensation for sex discrimination in 1992 after being turned down for a nursery nurse job in after being told the Tuebrook Tots Nursery in Liverpool had no men's toilets. The Equal Opportunities Commission said the ruling "should be a clear signal that stereotyped ideas of women's work and men's work could land them in court".

Mr Shaw calls himself single-minded and is strong enough to withstand the peer group pressure which some male nursery nurses inevitably succumb to.

He has got both headships that he has applied for and said: "You are less likely to get discriminated against, the higher up the scale you go."

"Early years education suffers from a lot of people in senior positions making uninformed comments based on no experience and no relevant qualifications in the field. All people in early years think it is a very hard, demanding job," he said.

Mr Shaw keeps an open door at school so he can never be accused of being alone with a child - but he thinks that policy is just as important for women as it is for men.

But he would never refuse any physical contact with a child. After all, he says, parents would be more concerned if he didn't comfort his pupils when they hurt themselves or get upset. Young children needed physical assurance.

Contrary to some parents' views, Mr Shaw also thinks it is right for male early years workers to change children's clothes and take them to the toilet. It would not be practical to ban men from these jobs, because there might not be a female teacher available. In any case, to ban them would be to confirm the male and female stereotypes, he said.

Mr Shaw has an environmental studies degree from Middlesex University, a Diploma in Child Development from the Institute of Education in London and an MA in educational studies from Froebel College at the Roehampton Institute. He chose early years after developing a fascination for three and four-year-olds' inquiring minds.

"They just want to know. They want to know how the electricity switch works. They have these mega-important questions, but we often talk to them in such patronising ways. The child knows the colour is white and the adult does, so why ask the question? I think we could do a lot more with our four-year-olds, " he said.

Mr Shaw has never met another male nursery head and does not believe more men will want to teach young children until secondary school boys are given early years work experience and the teaching unions campaign on the issue.

Meanwhile, he will soon take control of Henry Allen, a 1940s nursery school, built to look after the children of women who were helping the war effort, and he will dream of one day teaching young children in a nursery purpose-built to today's standards.

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