In the midst of the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal last year, a group of early years professionals in London formed the London Men in Childcare Network. Frustrated that the image of men working with children was always demonised they decided to give themselves a voice - because they were rarely asked directly about what they actually do.
On 19 November - International Men's Day - we are celebrating the first anniversary of the network. I have learned a lot from my male staff over ten years as a leader of a childcare organisation. I have also supported nurseries with a majority of male staff for two years. Based on what they told me and what I saw, I decided to found the London Men in Childcare Network as a public affirmation of my belief that having men in childcare was good for children, parents and the sector. I also did it to support my London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) male staff, who argued that we needed to shine a light on their real motivation - which is to work in childcare because they are interested in children's development and education.
These men told me they appreciated being valued as part of the workforce and receiving support from the top down. It gave them confidence to deal with unpleasant comments, allegations or negative parental responses. You'd be surprised at the number of parents who may accept that a man will care for their children in a daycare setting. But will request, for example, that they aren't allowed to change children's nappies.
These men liked the clear message LEYF gave parents and how we helped staff deal with the anxieties of fathers worried about men providing care for their daughters, especially those parents from more macho cultures. We considered issues such as male staff feeling isolated in workplaces where their colleagues were predominantly female. And we heard that men didn't like to be treated as the trophy male member of a team. We changed induction and recruitment policies to make sure we addressed these concerns, such as placing male staff members in pairs in nurseries, and giving male apprentices a male mentor where possible. We published our findings in a report.
These men had advised and supported each other over the years and wanted to do more for their male colleagues. When these men and I held our first meeting last year, where we launched our plan to form a network, we thought we might attract a few men (the meeting was in a pub and we did offer a free pint). But instead 70 men turned up. I was also surprise by the age of these men and the length of time they had been in the sector. On average they were late 30s and had been working with children for ten years and beyond. It was quite astounding. What also touched me deeply was their sense of relief and appreciation that we would want to support them.
One year on and we have consolidated the group, formed a steering group, agreed two people to co-chair, organised the first National Men in Childcare conference in London, won the Nursery World Inclusion Award and presented to the Government All Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood. We have supported colleagues in other parts of England who want to form networks, and we are currently making a video to inform and enlighten others about the benefits of having a gender-balanced workforce. We are also building on the research LEYF began last year by asking children what they think about having male staff.
Over the next year, the London Network of Men in Childcare's priorities will be:
- To be brave and continue to support male childcare workers
- To get women to help their male colleagues by backing them when things are difficult
- To strengthen the will of nursery- and school-leaders so that they do not to crumble under pressure from parents who refuse to allow male carers
- To present a positive a coherent message that men who work with children are doing so because they are good practitioners. Like their female colleagues, they are keen to support all children to get the best education possible
- To conduct action research on ways to improve education for boys
- To disseminate ideas about better gender-balanced workplaces
- To engage dads in the research
The outcome will, I hope, be a gender balanced workforce that listens to children. Let the London Men in Childcare Network lead the way!