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Reflections on research about men working in early years

In this blog I will share some of the reflections and practices that emerged in my PhD study researching the life experiences of five male teachers working in contemporary British early years. The overarching question is: why are there so few men in this profession? I have worked in the early years for almost 9 years, and I was lucky to teach in international settings (Italy, USA, and UK). Only once I worked with a man. This should not come as a surprise, as latest government figures show that only 2-5% of the early years workforce is made up of men (Bonetti, 2018). The percentage of Black male nursery teachers is even lower, as they count only 0.3% of the workforce (Carly-Campbell, 2021). The absence of men in the profession is problematic for gender equitable arguments, as well as recruitment and retainment purposes. We need richer insights into the life experiences of male teachers in early years environments to make transformative changes in policies and pedagogical practices. In turn, this has the potential to create an equitable and sustainable environment for both male and female teachers. Making early years an economically and culturally desirable place to work, for men and women equally, is vital to ensure the best talent is recruited and retained and make a positive impact in children’s lives.




Current Early Years policy context

The early years sector plays a critical role in children’s lives. The sector caters to children aged 0-5, pivotal years in which children develop their sense of self, curiosity, and boosts confidence. As an early years educator, I have seen first-hand how early years can facilitate children’s progress through engaging, active, and inclusive practices and pedagogies. It is therefore crucial that early years services are equipped with the best talent, to give all children the best possible start in life.  However, in Britain, early years has consistently remained low on governments’ policy agenda, as societal discourses placed young children as a family matter, with women better suited to take care for them. Similarly, while women found employment in the early years, they were often under-paid and lower qualified, which led the early years to be considered primarily as a field for working-class women.

To increase the number of male staff, the Early Years Workforce Strategy (DfE, 2017) stated: ‘we want more men to choose to work in the early years sector’ (DfE, 2017: 25). Based on this strategy, the DfE is proactively looking to recruit and retain more men in the early years. The stories I collected with five male teachers currently working in British early years, show these men’s desire and passion for the profession, but they also point out the barriers and challenges the sector faces in retaining good talent due to continued gendered perceptions.


Meeting the men who work in early years settings

The men I have interviewed came from different professional backgrounds, however, they all had experiences teaching in primary or secondary. They are also all British, and the age range is 27-50. They transitioned to early years due to discontent with the prescriptiveness of the National Curriculum. Working in the early years, instead, allowed them to explore creative and fun approaches to teaching and learning. One of the teachers said: “you don’t really need to sit down at your desk and follow standard procedures. You have more freedom to create, and you can help children develop confidence, and let them think and reflect”. Alongside their perceived freedom and creativity, these men appreciated having a real impact on children. They all placed children at the centre of their teaching pedagogy, showing a desire to help them grow and become more independent. They felt this aspect lacked while teaching in primary and secondary - as one of them said: “in primary, you focus too much on the academic side of teaching, you are focused on targets, and you miss what’s most important, the emotional aspect of working with children”. As such, concepts of care and love became the main drive in their work, shaping their understanding of childhood and lesson plans. In early years, both teachers and children work together as a family: “we learn together, we play together, we make friends, and, at times, we also ‘fail’ together, learning from our mistakes”.




From these experiences, one would assume that working in the early years is a blast. Why, then, aren’t more men involved? As one of the teachers claimed: “no boy would ever dream of working in the early years!”. Simply put, none of these men thought that this career was open to men. They all grew up with female teachers in the early years of their lives. One of them, as he enrolled in his teaching qualification, was given brochures for a BA Primary with QTS. However, he desired to work with young children, but assumed that there were no courses for teaching in early years. As such, it took him 18 months to switch to a BA in Early Years. Others, struggle to stay in the role due to pressures to get a promotion. According to the government provider survey (2016), female teachers make up 85% of the workforce, but are less represented in leadership roles. Only 70% of the primary headteachers are female, and data shows that females tend to take up their first as middle leaders in primary after 10 years of experience, while men get promoted with only 8 years of experience. Pay, however, is also cited as an obstacle to enter and remain in this profession. This, however, opens a broader debate about the current crisis in the early years sector caused by the low pay and low status of the profession.

The presence of men in the early years can benefit greatly both teachers and children. The male teachers have recognised how their understanding of teaching grew when working with young children: “in the EYFS I understood how children learn, I can almost see how they are developing inside their head, through curiosity and play, and I think most men are missing out on great learning opportunities”. Also, these men reflected on how their presence can tackle gender stereotypes within the classroom: “I can change the perception of what males do or don’t do. You know, sometimes I’m like ‘I’m busy playing with dolls’, and I say it like that. Like it’s normal. And if more people did it, children would accept it as normal”. And this is central to the debate of men in early years, and to a more diverse and inclusive early years workforce.  The involvement of men in children’s lives – both at school and at home - should be normalised and welcomed to support children’s learning and progress. Their presence is a matter of representativeness. If more children saw that both men and women are included in their education journey, it would be possible to tackle gender stereotypes from the very early days. As this blog has shown, there could be great benefits from the presence of men in early years, it is therefore important to raise awareness about their journey, perspectives, and experiences, and use these to tackle gender stereotypes.

Clarissa Frigerio
Clarissa is an early years educator and academic.

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