How do you get more men into childcare? Angela Youngman investigates some initiatives designed to involve men in careers with young children

How do you get more men into childcare? This is a perennial question in an industry in which less than 3% of the workforce is male. Possible solutions are beginning to surface and it is clear that it will be a long, hard journey.

Data from National Daycare Trust indicate that:

  • 97.5% of the childcare workforce is female
  • 3% of those on foundation modern apprenticeships and 2% of those on advanced modern apprenticeships are men
  • 1% of nursery nurses are men, and this has been the figure for 10 years.

The situation facing men in childcare is very reminiscent of the situation facing men entering nursing 20 years ago. Nursing had been perceived as a female occupation and men were rare. Nowadays, about 14% of the nursing workforce is male and it is quite common to find male nurses at all levels of the profession.

Roger Olley of Children-North East was one of those first male nurses into the profession. Now he is assistant director (Father Work) of Children-North East and involved in projects designed to increase men’s involvement in childcare at all levels, from new fathers through to professional opportunities.

The first step, he believes is to recognise the role already played by men in childcare. Men routinely change nappies, feed babies, help care for toddlers and children within their own families. Yet childcare professionals who aim their talks and activities at women often forget this. A further barrier is the language used in careers literature and on childcare courses.

Roger explains, ‘Men are often viewed with anxiety and suspicion. Alternatively, they are viewed as ‘honorary women’. My background is in health visiting and there was an expectation that I would join in and operate at a female level. Men bring different things into childcare and this has to be recognised. The number of men on courses who survive the first year are less than those who sign up at the beginning. It is an infrastructure issue.’

As a result, a new initiative was set up at Bishop Auckland College and Stockton College in which regular meetings were held between Children-North East, local childcare providers, Sure Start and health visitors. The aim was to develop a strategy that could lead to meaningful work with men in the childcare sector. The result has been an increase in the numbers of men getting involved.

It began at a very basic level involving a group of men involved in a Sure Start programme. These men had been asking questions about the care of the children they were looking after; so the suggestion was made that they should get some specialists to talk to them. A simple course was set up at Stockton College designed to get the men through Level 1 Childcare. This proved successful. Now the group is working on Level 2.

A key finding from this process was that childcare professionals wanting to attract men into childcare need to consider exactly how they are delivering the courses. Literature had to be rewritten or rephrased to make it less feminine.

‘We had a day at a local school when kids were told bring your dad to school dinner. One of the guys wandered into the playground and found the children all over him. The teacher next to me was saying “stop that, we don’t play like that”. I pointed out that I did play with kids like that – men have a more physical approach to children and childcare,’ comments Roger Olley. ‘We then held an event for men and their families called Who Cares Wins, at Durham Cricket Club. It included storytellers, a drama group, and martial arts display, face painting. Men realised that childcare was useful, that they could get down on the floor and work with kids. It is a culture shift that we are trying to create. Men are interested if you offer gender-differentiated services. We put on two days at Beamish Open Air Museum entitled Celebrating 2005 Fatherhood Past & Present. Over 4,000 dads turned up.

‘Childcare also suffers from being perceived as a low pay/low status career, suitable mainly for less academic girls. To deal with this, the need is to talk from the beginning in terms of career development. Men need to see where a career in childcare could lead. Careers literature needs to show positive images of men working in childcare.

‘A further problem is that of child protection. Initially, men tend to be viewed more suspiciously than women yet as the Daycare Trust points out – they should be treated the same as women. The risk is no greater.’

Where men are employed in childcare, the results have been very promising. Parents comment that it provides a valuable role model for their children. Zale Taylor who works for Teddies Nursery in West Hampstead comments, ‘Some of my friends laugh at the thought of working with kids. I care for two to three year old children and enjoy it. Parents tell me it is good to have a role model and all the kids take to you. I do encourage others to consider it as a career. A man can bring a lot to childcare. It is not about being masculine or feminine; it is what you can bring to the job. When people see me out in the street with the children people react very positively – no one laughs.’

It is a similar situation for Barrington Mason who, with his wife, runs a child minding service for 11 children. Ofsted are reported to be amazed that he sits happily on the floor with the children and plays with them, saying he is a good role model. A former tube train driver, he is popular with both children and parents.

Men in childcare still have a long way to go but the long-term potential is now looking better than ever before. Catch them early, especially as new fathers and there is a good chance that some will be interested in childcare careers.