Nursing suspicion

A climate of fear and paranoia is making men wary of joining the childcare profession.

Julian Grenier

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Topics Politics

How would you like to work in a job where you are so mistrusted that every time you carry out a basic task someone is watching over you? Where you have to undergo a programme of ‘personal reconstruction’? In case you’re tempted, you also need to know that you will be paid less than factory workers at Walkers Crisps.

No wonder it is an uphill struggle to get men to work in childcare. The UK government is trying to encourage more men into the sector, with brochures, TV advertising and a new website (1). Men make up just three per cent of the childcare workforce, and the government wants an increase to six per cent by 2004. But despite this modest target of reaching six men for every 94 women, there is little evidence that it will be achieved. For example, the proportion of male qualified nursery nurses has remained at one per cent since 1991.

It will take more than a change of childcare’s image to encourage more men into the profession. The main reason men don’t want to work with young children is because they don’t want to be accused of child abuse. There is a climate of fear in the childcare sector, where male workers feel as if they are constantly under suspicion.

Yet abuse of children by male careworkers is extremely rare. A detailed study, carried out by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education in London in 1999, discovered a total of two instances in England where it had been proven that children had been abused while in daycare (2). Since then, two nursery nurses (one female) accused of sexually abusing children in a council nursery in Newcastle have been very publicly vindicated (3). That leaves one substantiated case of child abuse in daycare.

This doesn’t mean that there have not been other cases that haven’t been investigated, or have fallen through because of problems with finding evidence. But there is no justification for thinking that having men in a daycare setting poses a significant risk to children. Still the fearful climate remains. As Andy, a teacher in a London nursery, told me: ‘I do live in fear – even today, even now – that I am one false accusation away from losing the job that I really love.’

Rather than making childcare workers feel paranoid, it would be more sensible to ensure that nurseries and other daycare settings are professionally managed in order to safeguard children’s wellbeing. Such settings should have good, robust systems and procedures: for example, allowing parents to come and visit any time, and developing programmes that encourage children to be strong and assertive.

You might think that organisations concerned with children’s welfare would promote a discussion about how children are best cared for in nurseries. Instead, the NSPCC chose to flag up hysterical fears about men working in childcare, holding a conference in 1994 which concluded that the question of whether men should work in daycare at all was ‘a difficult issue’ (4).

In their attempts to avoid being accused of untoward behaviour, many male childcare workers refrain from touching or cuddling children, or having them sit on their laps. If you have spent any time in the company of a baby or toddler, you will know how foolish this is. Toddlers fall over; they get tired and upset. They want cuddles. Sterile, safety-first daycare settings put the fear of an allegation before a child’s need for human warmth and affection. They are simply not looking after the children properly.

Increasingly, female staff are called upon to ‘witness’ male workers changing nappies or taking children to the toilet. The UK Observer recently ran a report on the Sheffield Children’s Centre, where staff are monitored by CCTV and where two members of staff have to be present during all ‘intimate care’ (5). Do we really want our kids to grow up thinking it is normal for two adults to watch over them while they get dressed and undressed?

It gets worse. Another consequence of the ‘witnessing’ policy is that there are so many adults witnessing that there aren’t enough left to look after the children properly. For example, if the children are under two, daycare regulations require that there should be one adult for every three children. In an average-sized baby and toddler room, this means that if one adult is changing a nappy and another is witnessing, there will be eight children under two left in the care of the third member of staff. Have you ever tried looking after eight toddlers on your own?

For children over three in daycare, the ratio is one adult to every eight children. So if one member of staff is changing a child and another witnessing, the third adult could be left with 23 young children to care for. As a result, staff end up taking groups of children into the toilets so that their colleagues are not left overstretched. Duncan, a male childcarer interviewed by the Thomas Coram Research team, understated the case somewhat as he recalled ‘taking big groups of children to the bathroom, which again creates issues….taking 15 children to the bathroom at times is not the easiest of things to do.’ (6).

The second major barrier to men working in childcare is usually identified as pay. Research carried out by the Greater Manchester Low Pay Unit shows that qualified childcare staff can be paid as little as £5.32 an hour – where Walkers Crisps pays its unskilled staff £5.68 an hour. It is remarkable that the safe handling of deep fried potato slices commands a higher wage than the loving care and education of young children.

Women have been looking after young children in nurseries for decades, for a pittance. Surely they deserve to be paid more because their work is valuable, not just because it suddenly seems like a good idea to get more men in the profession?

There is also the argument that boys need men in nurseries as ‘positive male role models’. But who decides what makes a ‘positive’ role model? Chrissy Meleady, chair of Sheffield Children’s Centre, told the Observer that the male staff she works with are ‘real men…not the ones with small glasses and sandals’. Can you really tell a good role model for children by looking at their choice of eyewear and footwear?

All of these references to positive role models, to real men, to men having to go through ‘personal reconstruction’ in order to work in childcare, have one theme in common: they are an unwarranted intrusion into people’s private lives. They intrude on individual’s choices about how they want to look and act, and how they get on with doing a good job for the children in their care.

There is little evidence that bringing men into nurseries will create positive role models for boys. There is some research that suggests poor nursery settings have a worse effect on boys than on girls. But it is unlikely that simply bringing in more men will improve poor nurseries. Indeed, the opposite might happen, if nurseries take on male workers simply to meet government-imposed targets rather than selecting the most capable people for the job.

So what should the government do to persuade more men into childcare? The simple answer is: absolutely nothing. But if the government wants to make working with young children a more attractive career for women and men, then it isn’t difficult to suggest what should be done.

Firstly, it needs to stop fuelling the paranoid culture of fear around children. Last September, new teachers were barred by the government from taking up their jobs until their Criminal Record Bureau checks had been completed (7). This looked less like a sensible measure to protect children, than an ill-thought-out response to the tragic murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

Secondly, the government should stay out of issues that are not its concern. It is not the business of the government to talk about ‘positive role models’ or to place implicit controls on how people look and act. Childcare workers should be expected to be good at their jobs – nothing more.

Thirdly, instead of fiddling around with images and advertising, the government should use its influence properly. Many nursery nurses and childcare workers are employed by the state, working in council-run schools, nurseries and family centres. The private sector is heavily subsidised by the government through direct grants, and through the childcare tax credits that help parents pay fees. Here is a proper sphere for government intervention: to ensure that staff are properly paid, work for well-funded and managed organisations, and have good training programmes.

Working with young children can be a good job. As nursery assistant Craig told me: ‘I didn’t realise how much I’d enjoy working with three- and four-year olds – how complex they are. It’s a great job. It’s the first job I’ve found where you get a sense of achievement at the end of the day.’

Developing good jobs in childcare will create a more satisfied, dynamic and talented workforce – and maybe then, both men and women will want to join.

Julian Grenier is the headteacher of a Nursery Centre in London.

(1) Surestart – working with children and young people

(2) See Men in the nursery by Claire Cameron, Peter Moss and Charlie Owen

(3) Nine years that ‘ruined’ two lives

(4) Men in the nursery by Claire Cameron, Peter Moss and Charlie Owen

(5) Are you tough enough?, Observer, 11 May 2003

(6) Men in the nursery by Claire Cameron, Peter Moss and Charlie Owen

(7) Treating teachers like paedophiles, by Jennie Bristow

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