Saturday, 31 January 2009

Men in child care and early years education

I fear that the recent publicity drive from the CWDC has done little to argue the case for bringing in more men to work with young children. I agree with the aim of having a more balanced workforce, but the discussion makes me uncomfortable.

The first and most obvious argument is that children in nurseries need male role models, but only 2% of the workforce is male. Personally, I have never much liked this “role model” argument. It implies that a man working in a nursery is not simply there as a member of staff: he must represent men and masculinity in general. Yet many men who work with young children would feel uncomfortable about this. Some may wish to be there to play football, make things out of wood and have fun playing superheroes; some may not. Equally, there are many terrific female nursery staff who do all these things with children, and more.

A second proposition runs like this: we want men in childcare, so we must raise wages and improve conditions. But we should want these changes for a more straightforward reason: because the work is important and requires a high level of expertise. I can think of few graver insults to the 98% of staff working with young children who are women, than to say that pay should rise to bring in more men.

It is easy to be critical, and I agree with the CWDC’s aim of achieving a more balanced workforce. So I have two positive suggestions to make. Firstly, could we please stop talking about “childcare”? Childcare is just part of the job: the word erases the other parts, like early education, for example, and gives no hint of the complexity of the role. Childcare sounds like something that would come naturally to a woman, and would be a bit weird for a man to do. Different organisations have come up with alternatives: early education worker, family worker or pedagogue, for example. I am not sure that any of these is quite right, but I think they are all, without exception, a better alternative to a job called childcare. Secondly, we should value work with young children for its own sake, because it matters, and because it requires a high level of skill, commitment and expertise. If that encourages more men into the profession, so much the better.