Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early childhood education.“
This week we are on episode 35 of the Preschool Podcast. We discuss the inclusion of men in childcare with David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nursery and organizer of the first ever National Men in Early Years Conference in the UK.
We talk about the perception of men in childcare, the challenges they face as professionals, and why he is an advocate for a more gender-diverse workforce. David emphasizes that children have the right to be educated by both female and male educators at an early-years level, making for a more socially balanced learning experience.
If you want to learn about how you can advocate for a more gender-equal work force in early-childhood education, then stay tuned for this episode of the Preschool Podcast.
David, welcome to the Preschool Podcast. So great to have you on the show.
Laterally in the UK we’ve now started referring to the job roles as “early-years educators,” and “early-years teachers”. And you can see that there’s a change in terminology towards more of a professional teaching job that we’re encouraging people into. My concern with that is that we’re kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater there because, then, are we getting men who aren’t expecting to care for children? And we really do need to make sure that whoever comes in to look after young children – to develop and educate them – loves those children above everything else. And they need to be comfortable with caring for them and providing for them in that respect.
So there’s a bit of a balance there. But I think it’s a question of how those roles are put across. My work that I’ve been doing over the last number of years is to address that culture, really, at different levels. Within society, are we clear about what roles we want men and women to have, what status we afford those jobs, and how that’s reflected in the pay? And that’s quite a big barrier to men, certainly if they are the main earner in the household. Can they afford to take a job in our sector?
But also for women it does them a disservice to say, “Well, we’ll start paying you properly if the men come along.” There’s a whole equality issue going on there. I think the other thing to recognize is, given where we are at the moment with such a low level of men in the work force, typically internationally it’s way down. In the UK it’s about less than 2% at the moment. I’m sure the figures are similar in Canada?
I would think so, yeah.
So for any young man that’s entertaining taking this up as a job… you don’t get many seven-year-old boys who say to themselves, “When I grow up I want to go work in daycare.” That’s quite an unusual thing. It’s usually, in my experience, somebody who’s fallen into it by accident. They’ve got a relative, a sister, a mother, or a partner or a friend who says, “Hey, do you fancy coming along to volunteer? We need somebody at our holiday club for a few weeks while you’re out of school.” And they find they get it, that they can relate to those children and see that they’re making a difference in their lives. And then they start thinking about it. But prior to that it’s not on the radar, I would say, typically.
And so once they’ve got that and then they want to pursue it further they come up against peer pressure. What do they say to their friends? “I’m working with young children.” And there might be some suspicion around that. There might be some people saying, “Is that a proper thing for you to consider?” And similarly parents, teachers, careers advisers… and we’ve had young women come to work for us and their teachers have tried to discourage them. And the common phrase is, “You’re better than that.” And my take on this is: we are engaged in the most important profession in the world.
We know that 85% of brain development happens before the age of five. Once upon a time we talked about child development theories, but with the advance of science now and scanning and all of the evidence that we have, we know how crucial the early years for children’s brain development, and what causes growth, and that they need those repeated positive experiences in order for good well-being and a good start in life. And in order to do that we need the best people, men and women. And if society is saying to people who want to come and do this job, “Well actually it’s a very low status job,” that’s not right. We need the best men and women.
And so men have this issue, I think – particularly young men – that if they fought their way through and managed to get on a training course or get into a job, they’re very isolated. You are going to be the only man in a class of 30 females. You’re going to be the only man in your placement at a setting. So you go along to a day nursery, and once you get through the door you’re not quite sure what kind of reception you’re going to get. Are people going to welcome you? Are they going to be suspicious of you? Are they going to question your motives? And also what’s the culture going to be there? You are entering an all-female environment as a male, and again that’s not to judge anybody; that’s just a statement of fact.
And these are big barriers, I think, for men to come in. And I think we’ve got to recognize that we’ve got a big job to do in culture, generally within the childcare / early-education sector and within individual settings that men have to prove themselves, that they’re guilty until proven innocent in many respects. And I think that’s a big challenge.
And the other thing I think I’d say is, it’s about the role of the media. Particularly in the UK and the last few years we’ve had a lot of sensationalist headlines about the fears of men and their interactions with young children. And the problem is that these things are extrapolated so that we’re now giving everybody almost a sense of paranoia about men in general and their roles: “Can we trust any man?” Because there was one terrible incident on one occasion, we’re now saying, “Well that’s all, then and we should be suspicious of [men].” And of course we need safeguarding; of course we need to make sure that children are protected, and that has to be our main focus. But we can’t then say – and it would be ridiculous to say – “Therefore we should never have men working with children.” And again I think that is a real big problem, particularly when men have false allegations made against them. Now I’m not saying that women don’t. But disproportionately more allegations made against men, and for some of them that can destroy their lives.
So you’ve clarified some of the unique challenges that men would face entering a role or starting a career in early-years education. It certainly paints a picture if you try to put yourself in that place. Now, why do you specifically advocate for early-years as a viable option for men? Why is it something that you care about?
There are two parts to it, really. It’s about rights. I think it’s children’s right to be educated by men and women, and I think men have the right to work with young children. And that’s quite a simple matter. But I also think it does make a difference. One of the interesting things is that there isn’t a great deal of research if you go out and do a review of the literature, nobody’s really look to see what difference it makes to children being educated by men and women. It’s the “So what?” question. I can be as passionate about this as I want and say, “We should have more men.” But if somebody says, “So what? Does it make any difference?”, that’s a really valid question to ask. So I can only go on my experience what people tell me.
And I can see that the dynamics of the team change in a mixed-gender work force. And I can see that it makes a difference to children. And the way I put it is this: that boys and girls need men and women. And again, I don’t want to stereotype anybody. Quite often you hear the phrase, “Men are really good as a role model, particularly for boys.” And if you un-pick that a little bit, what do we mean by a “role model”? “Am I the role model? Is Ron a role model?”
And there’s a spectrum of character types that are female and male. Not all men are outdoors guys who want to get out there in the rain and do sports. And not all women want to stay indoors doing dainty, arty things. We’ve all got a whole mix of those things. And what I’m saying at the moment is, if 98% of the experience of interactions between adults and children is restricted to females on the adult side, we’re limiting the opportunities children have to interact with different types of people. And not only that but we’re also limiting our workforce – almost 50% if you look at it that way, in terms of men and women, aren’t available to us to bring in and therefore add to the workforce.
I think what’s really interesting is the way you’ve put it in the perspective of, “It’s children’s right to interact and work with both men and women while they’re in preschool and childcare early-learning programs. And that’s totally the right way to think about it when you sort of step back. At first I was kind of thinking about more of the men’s right, which is, on the surface, the more obvious one. But at the end of the day you’re absolutely right in saying, “Why? So what? Who cares?” And I think that’s the answer to “Who cares?”, is about children’s rights.
And maybe it does have a positive impact on outcomes for children. You did say there’s not a lot of research or data behind that right now. Hopefully we can make some progress in that area going forward. But any anecdotal information that you have based on your own experiences or others experiences working with children in a preschool setting about their perception about who they think should be working in the early years, perhaps?
I think it’s interesting from children’s point of view, what I’ve experienced and observed, is that in some ways children are gender-blind. They don’t express a preference for a man or a woman, a male or female carer or educator in terms of the activities that they’re doing. But I would say they go to the person who shows an interest in them.
I always say this when we’re recruiting that we if we want to find out whether we’ve got a good candidate – somebody who’s going to be part of our team – we just put them in the room with the children. And the children will tell you very quickly tell you whether this is or this isn’t a good person to be working with them. Because they’ll be on the floor, they’ll be engaging with the children.
Now I would say – and again we’ve got to be very careful that we’re not stereotyping – but you can quite often see a difference in the way men and women interact with children. And I think that’s great because it’s just giving them different experiences of those… and so children tend to like to do different things with men and with women. But again I don’t want to say that is the way it’s set, because otherwise we’re in danger of stereotyping.
And I think the way that you frame it is probably the right way to frame it in terms of… I think it just increases the chance or the probability that they’ll have a wider diversity of interactions because they’re interacting with a more diverse group of people, which makes total sense.
Now what about the future for men in early-years? Is there a change happening now? Do you foresee a change where perhaps more men will be working in early-years childhood education?
Well I really hope so. I think… certainly where we are in the UK we’ve got an opportunity to piggyback on work that’s already been done on the equalities agenda, and diversity. And right now we have a minister in government for early-years, and she has done a lot of work for women in terms of equality for getting into science, technology and that kind of thing. And I went and had a chat with her back at the end of last year, back at the end of 2016, to talk about the campaign that we’ve had running for some time. And she’s very keen to support us.
And I think what we need is people to champion the cause, to publicize the fact that A: it is an issue, and B: we need to do something about it. So I’m hopeful that she’s going to come out with some announcements in the next few weeks, actually. There’s a paper being published in the UK – an early-years workforce strategy document – and she gave me her assurance that she would put in some of our proposals.
So the kind of things I’m looking for is an annual survey. We need some figures to say, “How many men have we got working now? Is it getting better or is it getting worse?” So if we’re measuring it we can actually start to do that. We do have some figures but they’re not particularly accurate and they’re not kept up-to-date.
Secondly we have an inspectorate in the UK that goes ‘round to make sure that we’re all following the right standards in terms of our education. And we’d like to see gender diversity put into that inspection so that there is a grading and it’s something that the inspectors are looking for. “Are we inviting dads, granddads, male carers into the setting? Are we making provision for that? Are we actively looking to recruit men?” We might not be able to get any but at least we’ve said that we can put on an advert: “We welcome applications from men as well as women.” Very simple things, but a demonstration that we’ve actually considered the issue when we’re doing something about it.
We’d like something included in early-years courses, in the guidance for tutors, to make it explicit support for male students; things in recruitment, mentoring and placements; and possibly some kind of accreditation. So you could get a certificate to say: “This is a gender-equal provider “ in some way.
We’re looking at setting up a UK national network for men in the early-years. There’s a lot of organic networking going on so there are kind of subgroups across the country. And internationally there’s a lot of groups now that are working together, and I think certainly online social media has really helped connect people across the world. So we’re looking to use that. And we’re obviously stronger together than we are working on our own, and I would really like to leverage that and get people to bring that together. And to have some funding for research, to answer that “So what?” question. Because I think that really having that evidence behind us to say, “It does make a difference. It’s worth doing for the children,” then that would really help our cause.
So that’s the big push that we’ve got here in the UK. And I think we want to try and not to be defensive about things, and to raise the issues in a very adult way, have that public debate about how we feel about men working in early-years. But also to promote the good-news stories. Because for every tabloid story of doom and gloom and horror there’s 99 excellent stories of parents who’ve had a male teacher for their young children that’s made a difference in their lives. We’re not seeing those in the press, not seeing those in the media. And I think that’s the right way to counter it: to come out with a lot of positive messages.
Well it sounds like some really positive progress. I mean it’s still very early days on this journey, I think, but it sounds like some great things are happening over in the UK. And I would love to see the output of that early-years workforce strategy, and hopefully it does mention some of the initiatives related to men in the workforce. That would be great.
Now we’re running a little bit out of time. I did want to get from you any practical advice or inspiration that you can provide to men who are perhaps thinking about a career in early-years or are in the very early stages of a career in early-years education..
I think for men it’s, just, go and find somewhere that’s welcoming. It really is to get that practical experience, to find people who are going to be supportive of you. And there are many routes and there are many roles. It’s a profession with a career path, and I think it’s to have that assurance that you do have that right to work in this area, that you are going to make a difference. And that you should have that status and be proud of what you’re doing. That would be my advice. Find a course, find somewhere that will take you on and support you. Because it’s all ultimately about the leadership that’s going to back you and push you through and really to be strong and confident about your role.
Because it is tough, I think, sometimes, to be a minority group, and to be sure of your identity and what you’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with being a man in a female world and presenting that in your interactions with children. And also to similarly working with parents, sometimes that can be suspicion. But it’s just about being yourself. And I think that makes a difference.
Awesome. Great advice. David, personally I find that the balance that you strike behind championing men in early-years education but also being very objective and open-minded in terms of how you approach the issue is very refreshing. I also love how you are looking for data on science to support the issue. That’s something that I am personally very passionate about in terms of how we’re going to make progress in early-years education. Thanks so much for coming on the show it’s been really great having you as a guest.
Well it’s been my privilege. It’s great to share and keep doing what we’re doing, really.
Exactly. On that note, if there’s people who are listening and they want to get in touch with you, David – maybe they want to continue this conversation – what’s the best way for them to find you online?
My email is: David@PaintPotsNursery.co.uk. I am @Mr_PaintPots on Twitter. And we have a website which is PaintPotsNursery.co.uk. And we also have a local men’s group – Southampton-area Men in Early-Years – and that is SAMEY.co.uk.
Wonderful. Thanks so much, David, been great having you on the show.
You’re really welcome. Thanks, Ron.
Can you expand on that a little bit more? You said you had some schools that were hesitant or resistant and then the adopted technology for parent communications. When do you think it was that they realized, “Oh. wow, this actually is super-helpful, and our concerns were exaggerated”?
I think it would vary per school. When I’m thinking about my schools it can vary. There are some that didn’t have any hesitation and they just jumped right in. And they still had that learning curve. But they knew; they had that vision of what it was going to be like in the long-term.
For some of my other schools that had that hesitancy that had that, “What if the parents complain? What if the teachers don’t like it and now the teachers are upset because there’s more things to do in the day?” For them I would say, honestly, it was probably about a month or two before they really kind of sunk in and said, “Okay, we’ve got this and this is a huge benefit to us.”