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Men in Early Childhood Education: Why we are where we are- perhaps?

In 2007 I was invited to join in a round table discussion in Christchurch New Zealand, around the table were members of various stakeholder groups and representatives of the New Zealand Government. The objective of the discussion was to create an action plan for increasing the representation of males in the early childhood sector. At the outset I asked the question "But do we want more men?" and was promptly chastised by all at the table. What followed was four to five hours of productive conversation and just when it seemed like there was general agreement forming about increasing the number of males, one of the female participants interjected "But if we increase the number of men that will mean less jobs for women" and the discussion then went off on a tangent discussing the merits of males in early childhood services. This is symptomatic of what I see as the real issue within the discourse on men in early childhood: the lack of a consensus about the need for more males.

There can be no debating that the early years profession is imbalanced along gender lines with males only making up somewhere between 2 - 4% of the early years workforce, depending on which figures you use (see table 1) This imbalance does need to be addressed, if only to make the early years work force more representational of the distribution of men and woman in the community and to widen the pool of possible early years professionals.

Table 1: Estimate of the number of males working within the various early years services. Source: DCSF: (2007).










Child Minders


















Children's Centres


















Full Day Care


















Nursery Schools


















After School Clubs


















Holiday Club


















Primary School Reception Only

















Primary School Reception and Nursery

















Sessional Providers


































Total (without holiday clubs)












Within the European context, there have been consistent calls for an increase in the number of men who work with young children. (Ashton et al 2002; BBC 2005; Cunningham and Watson 2002; Day Care Trust 2004; Department of Education Science and Training 2004; Equal Opportunities Commission 2005; Higgins 2002; McBride et al 2001; Mills et al 2004; Monkcom 2003). These calls have led to the establishment of many initiatives aimed specifically at increasing the number of men, ranging from advertising campaigns through to specific training courses being provided solely for men. (BBC 2005; Cameron 2004; Day Care Trust 2004; Department of Education Science and Training 2004; Equal Opportunities Commission 2005; Monkcom 2003; Owen 2003) However these initiatives have not been without their critics;

"Significant questions are begged when being male is seen as a teaching speciality, when male elementary teachers are valued primarily as role models, and when "quality education" is defined as dependent upon the presence of male teachers" (Coulter and McNally, 1993:399)

"The 'catch all' solutions ... ... such as simply increasing the number of men primary teachers, are inappropriate and, in many cases, ill conceived..." (Skelton, 2002:29)

Regardless of this criticism the call has remained strong, with the discourse surrounding the calls for more men to work within the early years being organised around three main principles. The first of these is that an increase in the number of men will benefit society as a whole by disrupting traditional assumptions about gender roles and responsibilities in a predominately female industry. Secondly it is proposed that higher participation by men will benefit the early childhood profession by enhancing the status of the profession, and thus the status of those who work within the profession. Finally it has been suggested that men will act as positive male role models to counteract the absent or marginalised men in many children's homes (Owen et al., 1998, Sumsion, 2000).

Of these principles it is the third, that men will act as positive male role models that is most often used to justify the inclusion of men within both the academic and popular discourse. However there is some confusion as to exactly what is meant by the term 'male role model'. Burn (2001) for example suggested that, rather than emerging from the academic discourse on the role of teachers, the notion of the male role model might have it origins in the common stereotype of the female early years teacher as a substitute mother. She suggests that given this stereotype the male teacher is then simply left with the role of substitute father by default.

Popperell and Smeldley (1998) made the point that the concept of the role model, and its place within socialisation theory, while challenged in the academic discourse on gender, is used rather simplistically in what they termed the 'common-sense comment in the press' surrounding teacher recruitment. Five years later this confusion was still evident with Jones (2003) concluding that there needed to be greater clarity within the public discourse as to what is meant when referring to male role models working with young children.

It is this confusion that continues to undermine the discourse on men workers in services for young children. While there is a plethora of writing forming both the academic and popular discourse on men working in the early childhood sector, and while there is a general agreement that more men should be encouraged to work within services for young children, there is a lack of evidenced writing as to why there should be more men. This was highlighted by Owen (1998) who in introducing the collected proceedings of an international seminar on men as workers in services for young children commented that;

"I think it is fair to say that there was a fair degree of consensus in the meeting that we wanted more men to be working in the care of young children. However, there was less agreement as to why there should be more men."(pp4)

Because of the relatively small number of men in the early years workforce what writing does exist would seem to be confounded by the same methodological constraints identified by Houde's (2002) review of the literature surrounding male nurses, in that it is limited by relatively small sample sizes and the prevalence of convenience sampling. The relative absence of male workers within the early years does make it impossible to gain large sample groups, or to randomly select subjects.

Moss et al (1988) lamented the fact that the early childhood sector suffered from a deficit of information, stating that even on the most basic issues there is either no information or the information that does exist is unreliable. Within the discourse on men who work in early years services this would still appear to be the case, with the vast majority of the literature focusing on the attitudes to and experiences of men, and the relative absence of any measure qualifying the effect of male teachers on children's opinions or abilities (Harty 2007). Sumsion (2005) reported a similar pattern in the literature she reviewed, leading her to make the assertion that the calls for more males to be involved in the early years are made on the back of assumption and rhetoric. (see also Burn 2001)

For me this is the issue when it comes to the calls to recruit more men into early childhood services, the reliance on assumption and rhetoric to provide a persuasive supporting argument. One only needs to look at the discussion threads on the various networking sites to see comments along the lines of 'the children love him' or 'we are fortunate to have a man' or 'I am a man and I do a good job'. From these beginnings the discourse invariably descends into discussions about sexuality, pay and the perception that everyone is looking on suspiciously and then that is that; as soon as it started the network is finished.

Perhaps the reason that this is happening is that for far too long there have be a multitude of voices independently arguing the necessity to include more men within early childhood services, each voice has its own motivation and desired outcome, however there is seldom a united voice espousing a well-developed stance on the need to increase the numbers of men in all children's services settings as part of the agenda to improve the early years workforce.

The experience in New Zealand is very much the opposite. In 2007 supported by the Early Childhood Research Group, Childforum, a working party met and developed the plans for what would become the first annual men in early childhood summitt. This meeting brought together men from around New Zealand and overseas to discuss what they wanted to do to promote recruitment and to keep men in early childhood. After two days the framework of EC-MENz (Men in Early Childhood Education (New Zealand)) had been developed, and an elected committee had replaced the working party. A year later in 2008 this group was formalised and EC-MENz is now registered as an incorporated body, and has been granted full charitable status.

EC-MENz has provided a national body uniting 10 regional networks for men in early childhood education and has become a focal point for the promotion and support of men involved in the early childhood sector within New Zealand. This network has been able to collect and disseminate the experiences of its many members along with a growing body of research and publicity material. Through this process it has developed a united and coherent voice, it is this voice that enables it to advocate on behalf of men and to lobby for initiatives to increase the numbers of men working within early years services, and because of this;

"...for the first time a group of representatives and leaders got together to begin planning a campaign to get more men into the sector including teaching education providers... ... the NZ Childcare Association and the Early Childhood Council. TeachNZ and and the Ministry of Education are right behind the call for more male teachers..." Farqhar (2007:iv)

There is an old saying that one cannot see the wood for the trees. However I think in this case it is perhaps fair to say that we cannot resolve the issues for the men. There are far too many disjointed voices, and that is why I have taken this opportunity to call for the establishment of a national, men in early child group because to my mind this is what is missing in the UK, a united group committed to the support and promotion of men in all early years sectors. Some groups do exist, with varying degrees of success, however these groups appear to operate as autonomous bodies with little networking between them. As with the New Zealand experience the creation of a single body would provide a focus for the development of a common discourse, which supports and encourages the participation of men. It is only with the establishment of a national body that a consistent voice can be established to lobby policy makers both locally and nationally.

Unlike Owen (1998) we need to be able to say, that not only do we want more men involved in services for young children, but that we know why we want this and why this would be a good idea.

To support this process, through the Men in Childcare forum on this site I have offered to facilitate the organisation of a working party to work towards a summit and invite anyone interested in becoming involved to join in the discussion here.

Richard Harty is an experienced early years practitioner who has teaching and managerial experience within a variety of early years settings in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. He has also worked as a reviewer for the National Childcare Accreditation Council in Australia. Richard's first degree was in Psychology. He then qualified with a Bachelors of Education and Diploma of Teaching (NZ), he has a MEd in Early Childhood Research and is studying towards his PhD. He is currently a senior lecturer in the Cass School of Education at the University of East London.


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