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Men in childcare, an ongoing debate

For those of us interested in such matters, the received wisdom is that the number of men actually working with young children as part of the Early Years workforce in England represents around 2% of the total. This figure, despite much hand-wringing, round-table forum discussions, Facebook groups, campaigns, initiatives and promotional photos of smiling male practitioners engaged in purposeful activities with children, has remained unchanged for decades. It was heartening and surprising therefore, to read a tweet from CEEDA highlighting a finding from their recent analysis of 3,930 individuals working in the private and voluntary nursery sector, which shows that 5% of them are male (CEEDA, 2017). It begs the question whether this is a representative sample of the total national Early Years workforce nevertheless on the face of it, it is an encouraging statistic. 

We should not forget that it is only just over a year since Government Minister, Andrea Leadsom’s much publicised warning that men represent a potential threat to our children –

'Your odds are stacked against you if you employ a man. We know paedophiles are attracted to working with children. I'm sorry but they're the facts.' Sunday Times, July 15 2016

‘A man’ in this quote implies every man. This view suggests that the zeitgeist of paranoia and suspicion in a post-Jimmy Saville Britain is alive and well, that not only is it inappropriate for men to undertake what has been traditionally considered “women’s work” (Nutbrown, 2012, P40) but it is prudent and responsible of us all to ensure that they do not. By contrast, surveys of parents such as the UK Major Providers’ Group survey in 2011, have shown very strong support (98%) for more men to be working with young children in day nurseries (Preschool Learning Alliance 2011) however, the younger the child, the less comfortable we seem to be about male involvement, particularly when it comes to nappy changes and ‘intimate care’. BD photo for articles 2.jpgReviewing the evidence, we appear to be conflicted in our thinking. Men and women comment regularly on social media in support of more men working in Early Years but there are also examples of posts expressing disquiet and concern. Perhaps there is a difference between support for the principle and the consideration of the potential implications for my child? Here is an example from a US online discussion forum that typifies this confused thinking –

“I worked in daycare some years back and there was a male teacher, the little boys loved him, women loved him. He loved the kids, too and he was a great male role model. My sons thought he was cool and I also raised my sons to love children so if either one of them wanted to work in daycare it wouldn't surprise me. I guess I don't have any suspicion at all. But maybe would if I had daughters.” (mamapedia 2011)

Even though this person has worked with a male Early Years colleague, and acknowledges that he was loved by children and adults and was a great role model, even though she raised her own sons to love children, yet still she expresses potential disquiet at the prospect of any man working with young girls.   

A key question is whether it matters that so few men work in Early Years. If we are fearful of having men involved in the care and education of our young children outside the home, should we heed Andrea Leadsom’s warning and restrict the workforce to women only?       

Several reasons are usually advanced in support of the case for more men (Rolfe 2005). Some of these are controversial –

·         to be a  male figure role model – particularly for boys;

·         to provide ‘rough or wild’ activities for children;

·         to challenge stereotypes and demonstrate gender equality.

The counter arguments to these points challenge the notion that there is a deficit in children’s care and development directly attributable to the lack of experience that only men can provide by virtue of their gender. Is it not possible, for example, for women to engage in rough and tumble activities with children? In the absence of men, are women not able to challenge gender stereotypes? The notion of male role model is particularly problematic. It implies a single undefined model (of masculinity?) for male practitioners to exemplify in their interactions with children and colleagues. Are all men expected to be keen footballers, sporty types and outdoors men?

Brownhill, 2015 asks if being a role model is indeed part of the job of an educator, does that mean that females are strong role models for children? If this is so then what does the female role model look like? How, is it distinct from the male equivalent? It can be seen that a lone man entering a predominantly female world might struggle to decide what form of identity to adopt in order to meet the seemingly opposing aims of fitting in whilst at the same time meeting expectations about his masculinity.    

Recently published research from Austria (Huber & Traxl 2017) points to ‘clear gender-specific effects between educators and children’ with what they describe as the ‘man-boy effect’, that is, boys demonstrating a preference for time spent with male practitioners whereas girls did not show partiality for a specific gender of educator. Could this be because male educators, being in a minority, are considered to be a novelty? These researchers conclude that ‘boys have a fundamental need for same-gender exchange and identification.’       

It is all quite confusing. On the one hand, parents, practitioners and academics support the idea of a gender-balanced Early Years workforce but they are not too sure why and the potential paedophile elephant is still in the room.  We want role models but we can’t define these. We want stereotypes challenged and yet we are suspicious of anyone who attempts to do so.

My belief is that boys and girls need men and women, that children have the right to be cared for and educated by both sexes and that men have a right to a career in Early Years education. It is a matter of gender equality and diversity, creating a more tolerant and open-minded society and providing the opportunity for children to interact with the widest range of characteristics across the gender spectrum. Children in Early Years settings are preparing for life, not just school and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that as they do so, they have the opportunity to build relationships with adults who reflect the make-up of our communities in terms of race, culture, age and gender.  Such adults need to be the best person for the job, skilled and knowledgeable individuals who are passionate about the welfare and development of the children they care for.

Of the many men I have interviewed who have made a success of their career in Early Years, a common observation from them is that they never realised the difference they could make in a child’s life and the fulfilment this brings. Most men fall into a job in our sector by accident. I do not know many men whose ambition at age 5 was to grow up to work in a preschool but those who end up doing so and staying there, attest to the privilege of being involved in the lives of children at this age.

I invite you to listen to some of the interviews with male practitioners recorded at the first UK national Men in Early Years conference in Southampton in February 2016 -  http://www.samey.uk/conference/ (scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the recordings.

Some of the common reasons cited for there being so few men, include –

·         a lack of awareness by men of careers in Early Years being open to them;

·         cultural attitudes as displayed by parents, teachers, careers advisors and peers acting as a deterrent;

·         generally poor levels of pay making it an unaffordable option where men are still regarded as the main household “breadwinner”;

·         the challenge of entering a “women’s world”;

·         and low status. 

It is interesting to consider how far these items relate to gender – either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones (Oxford English Dictionary). It does a disservice to the current predominantly female workforce to suggest that both status and pay would increase significantly were more men to be included in it. Our role should be recognised for the vital responsibility it carries.

If we are to achieve a better gender balance, we must see attitudes change both inside our sector and in our national culture that recognises the professional function performed by Early Years educators.  We need to achieve a critical mass of men that keeps them in their job and makes it easier for other men to join them. At the same time we need to campaign for better pay and status for the role.           BD photo for articles 1.jpg

This week I received an invitation from the Department for Education to a first meeting of a promised task and finish group to discuss gender diversity in the Early Years workforce. This group was first mentioned in the Early Years Workforce Strategy document published in March 2017. (DfE 2017 p25) The remit of the group is to –

·         report to the department on the factors influencing the number of men in childcare and  present possible solutions to increase this number.

·         work with the department and sector stakeholders to promote career opportunities for men in childcare.

·         link with existing, and support the development of, networks for men working in childcare.

Having participated in previous round-table discussions, initiatives, surveys and projects, It may be tempting to think, here we go again but I am optimistic that having managed to achieve the inclusion of gender diversity in the Workforce Strategy, there is an opportunity to build on the momentum. What if the CEEDA figure of 5% men does indicate genuine improvement in the Early Years workforce balance?  There is still a long way to go but maybe there is a wind of change. As parents see the benefits of men and women working together in Early Years teams, as their children come home and tell them of the great day they have had with their teacher John, maybe some of the suspicion will diminish. Maybe some of them will tell their friends how great the team of men and women are at their child’s nursery. With the lack of available staff we are experiencing in Early Years right now, maybe John and John’s team will encourage more men to apply for the vacancies we so desperately need filling.   

You can be assured that we will continue to build on the good work done to date, to coordinate support for men, to publicise good news and to promote careers for men as well as women in Early Years.  

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all male and female early years practitioners are created equal. I have a dream that our little children will one day live in a nation where they will be cared for by adults who won’t be judged according to their gender but by the content of their character.’ 



Huber, J. and Traxl, B. (2017)  Pedagogical differences and similarities between male and female educators, and their impact on boys’ and girls’ behaviour in early childhood education and care institutions in Austria, Research Papers in Education, DOI:10.1080/02671522.2017.1353674

Brownhill, S. (2015). Male role models in education-based settings (0-8): an English perspective. In: Brownhill, S., Warin, J. and Wernersson, I. (Eds.). Men, masculinities and teaching in early childhood education: international perspectives on gender and care (pp. 26-35). London: Routledge.

CEEDA (2017). 'About Early Years’ [Online]. Available at http://aboutearlyyears.co.uk/early-years-workforce/ (Accessed: 13 October 2017)

DfE (Department for Education) (2017). Early Years Workforce Strategy [Online]. Available at:  

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/596884/Workforce_strategy_02-03-2017.pdf (Accessed: 13 October 2017).

Mamapedia (2011). Do Male Daycare/Preschool Providers Bother You? [Online]. Available at: https://www.mamapedia.com/article/do-male-daycare-preschool-providers-bother-you (Accessed: 14 October 2017)

Nutbrown, C. (2012). Foundations for quality: the independent review of early education and childcare qualifications - Nutbrown review, Ref: DFE-00068-2012

Oxford English Dictionary. (2017). Oxford University Press [Online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gender (Accessed: 14 October 2017)

Pre-school Learning Alliance (2011). Parents “want men to work as childcarers in day nurseries”, 21 July. [Online]. Available at: https://shop.pre-school.org.uk/media/press-releases/255/parents-want-men-to-work-as-childcarers-in-day-nurseries (Accessed: 14 October 2017)

Rolfe, H. (2005). Men in Childcare, Occupational segregation Working Paper Series

No. 35, National Institute of Economic and Social Research

David Wright
David has recently been appointed national rep for the World Forum on Early Years. In this capacity, he will be attending the next World Forum conference in Macao in May 2019. Both David and Anna attended the forum in New Zealand, last year. David is also part of the leadership team for the working group on Men in Early Childhood Education and is one of the founders of Southampton area 'Men in Early Years'. David helped organise the first ever national Men in Early Years conference in Southampton in 2016. He is currently working with the Department for Education, chairing a Task & Finish group which has recently produced a report on how to recruit more men into the Early Years sector. He is a regular contributor to Early Years publications and online fora. He also speaks at  conferences both nationally and internationally. David has just co-authored a book with Simon Brownhill entitled 'Men in Early Years Settings: Building the Mixed Gender Workforce', due for publication in November 2018 by Jessica Kingsley Publishing. He is also an advisor to the NAHT Early Years council. Both David and Anna Wright appear on TV and radio speaking about Early Years.

Edited by Rebecca

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