A few weeks ago Wave Trust in partnership with the DfE published its report Conception to Age 2 – The Age of Opportunity. I was part of the Special Interest Group that helped shape the report, along with an eclectic group of colleagues representing a variety of areas affecting babies – such as mental health, training, health visiting and psychology. I learned much from this group, chaired by the erudite and softly spoken George Hosking, CEO of Wave Trust. The full report is 135 pages long and a text book in its own right, but the shortened version designed for local busy commissioners is a useful summary with reference to all the relevant links.
I am breaking my rule of one blog post a week, because tweeting simply cannot give credibility to the confusion in the media elicited by the annual childcare cost survey.
The survey tells us what parents pay for childcare. It does not address either the actual cost to provide childcare or who should bear that cost. ’Nurseries are more expensive than public schools’ scream the headlines. Guys, nurseries cost what they cost.
Nurseries are not great generators of profit. LEYF does not cream off a load of profit so we can all be paid more than 900 times that of our lowest staff member like Sir Terry Leahy at Tesco. Nurseries do not operate like banks with the Chancellor crawling to Brussels to justify bankers keeping large bonuses. If the £600m about to be spent at RBS on bonuses for bankers were available to the childcare sector, we could double the number of two year olds getting their free 15 hours, or even double the time to 30 hours for those already using the nurseries. (A much better use of money in my humble opinion.)
Here is the reality: nursery costs are made up of 77% staff cost; the rest is rent, food, equipment, training and the unexpected. There is little opportunity for vast profits; and in our case, as a social enterprise, any profit we make is reinvested to keep fees low and quality high, support parents in difficulty, develop training opportunities for apprentices and increase our contribution to local communities.
No one complains about what schools cost. That is because we have agreed as tax payers to fund education. If we had to pay for our education, we would be paying the same as private school fees (which is the real cost of education). The question therefore is this: should we pay for childcare as part of the education offer??
Mainland Europe has decided to do this, and pays up to 100% of the costs. It would certainly make my life easier trying to keep fees low and quality high if the UK would follow suit. But what about the free offer I hear you say? We have been complaining for nearly 10 years that the free offer is insufficient. The NDNA pointed out in a recent report that members are making a loss of £500 per year for every child in receipt of free nursery entitlement hours. In London a childcare place costs at least £6 per hour for high quality childcare. The Government pays anything between £3.66 and £4.80. Even those of us without a C in GCSE Maths can do the sums: yep, a shortfall of £1.80 per hour per child. Add that up and it soon becomes a big gap.
The issue of what childcare costs will never go away until we have a big discussion and decide whether we as tax payers should fund the central costs of childcare. It’s certainly worth the outlay, and the return on such an investment is great. For those taxpayers who see having children as a private matter, then let me remind them it is these children who will be funding their pensions during a long old age.
This week LEYF hosted a visit for our Minister Elizabeth Truss MP. We were pleased to welcome her and ensured she spent time in the Baby Room with 14 under 2s and 5 members of staff! As expected, the children were all complete angels, behaving like well-briefed civil servants; chuckling, smiling and engaging the Minister and her small team with aplomb. Of course, what I actually wanted was them all crying, pooing and falling over to help us bring the critical issue of staff to child ratios to the fore; allowing our Minister to see first-hand how it would feel to play the role of a French auxiliary staff member trained to step in when there was a shortage of staff.
The Minister and I called truce on the ratios issue during the visit. We didn’t talk about it much, as we will never agree that even a flexible change is a good thing. As far as I’m concerned, any such flexibility runs the risk of a slow shift from the norm to the present proposals, which will in turn then become custom and practice. Not only will this see all the issues raised, such as a decline in quality and the creation of a two-tier system, but for those most hard-hearted about the issue, we will see our funding based on staff costs. Less staff means less funding, and soon we will have gone from £6 to £5.09 and the trend of a downward spiral will continue. I support Penny Webb’s efforts and hope you read and sign the e-petition.
Ratios aside, the Minister is keen to raise the profile of the sector and understands that we need help to get the public to understand the importance of what we do and therefore raise the calibre of those wanting to work in the sector. We agreed that we need to change hearts and minds about the enormity of the role of Early Years in the future of society. I suggested that she focus her energy on that and create a dramatic and wide-ranging marketing campaign to push the notion further. The underlying issue of funding never quite goes away though, because it really is at the heart of the matter.
To my delight Elizabeth Truss was interested in Men in Childcare (MiC) and so I invited her to meet the men who are part of the London Men in Childcare Network. I also asked her to read the LEYF report.
The inaugural MiC meeting itself was on Thursday 28 February, and a very happy and uplifting experience it was too (although rather odd to be one of four women in a room full of male practitioners). It highlighted a number of issues; not least the role we have as women to ensure that all female practitioners are open and willing to fully welcome male colleagues, not just as token males but as serious contributors to the sector. I hope the Minister comes and speaks at a national conference LEYF is keen to support later in the year.
My final concern as regards the Minister was that we consider how we manage her demand that all future staff come with A to C in Maths and English. This is not a fool-proof means of ensuring we get staff with a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy, so we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have some way to go before we can recruit staff with the right attitude and experience, and to get staff with the proposed A to C qualifications as well may be a huge hurdle. I am also worried about losing otherwise great apprentices that have the ability but not the suggested entry qualifications. In this respect, the Minister was very impressed with our apprenticeship programme and its positive contribution to creating an engaged and high quality workforce in the Early Years sector; many LEYF apprentices have moved up the ranks and so help to maintain our fantastically low staff turnover.
The Minister’s suggestion on qualifications is very much a double edged sword and we in the sector need to help her find a solution that suits us all. Remember what happened in the past when Tony Blair announced the need for 100,000 new staff? In order to achieve that we watered down the NVQ to the point that in the end we had a qualification that was more trouble than it was worth. With Nutbrown having considered all these issues and announced the need for a new full and relevant qualification, we need to see that happens. Consultation on this very matter was launched this week by the Department of Education; Consultation on the criteria for Early Years Education qualifications (Level 3). I hope you all find time to respond.
My message to the Minister (apart from relinquishing the proposed changes to ratios) is to launch a national conversation about the importance of Early Years to the future of our society – in fact the very time she should copy the French. It would also help her ambition to raise both our and her profile. A possible win win all round, I would say.
Valentine’s Day in Paris. Yep, there I was. Not arm in arm with my beloved, but trudging across the otherwise romantic capital of France visiting nurseries. Part of a group of nursery providers, we had arranged at our own cost to hear directly from the French on how they are successfully able to manage ratios of 1 to 6 babies and 1 to 10 toddlers.
Maybe they are as turbo-charged as we read about. Remember we are still smarting from being told that French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano and French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, or French Children Don’t Talk Back by Catherine Crawford. This is of course nonsense, as we have plenty of French children across all LEYF nurseries and they follow the same patterns of behaviour as any other child; and not all their mothers are a slim size 8.
However, as we crisscrossed a cold and wet Paris to visit nurseries, the real picture emerged: the French were charming and pleasant. Between us we visited a cadre of day care centres made up of social enterprise, public and private nurseries. LEYF already had a good relationship with Mouvement des entrepreneurs sociaux (the French Association for Social Enterprises), and the co-ordinator had arranged a most interesting timetable including meeting the equivalent Head of Early Years for Paris. Very much the Entente Cordiale.
The findings: the French do not like the ratios; it limits their opportunities to educate children under the age of 3 years. The nurseries were spotless and the principle of cleanliness next to godliness rules. Lots of plastic and safety surfaces, both indoors and outside. Strict restrictions operate around creative play: no sand indoors or outdoors; limited water play and limited usage of food in play; for example no spaghetti swamps, or vegetables in the role play area. Some child carers were trying to bathe their babies without water. This is all part of the system they have created and embedded to manage the higher ratios. Despite having access to a large number of support staff, they admitted to struggling with ratios and were left open-mouthed when they found out how we currently operate.
Paris has its own approach and is busy examining best practice examples. Their current objective is introducing non-stereotyped play. They admire the EYFS as setting out good principles of practice. Of course, we met some creative leaders as well as signing up the first European member of the London Network of Men in Childcare.
Fees are much more complex because of the tax and employer subsidies. Parents pay less but that is because the state pays the correct cost of a place. None of your average £3.66 doled out to UK providers! They were looking at rates of between 9 and 11 euros per hour.
Despite the low fees, however, French mothers are up in arms at the moment, as they are short 500,000 places to meet their needs. La Loterie, ca suffit is the call. The French birth rate is one of the highest in Europe and 84% of mothers work. I met some campaigners who demonstrated their fury with Nadine Morano and her 2010 Act, which introduced flexible ratios as a way of putting 100,000 more childcare places into circulation at no cost to the state. The new Government placated parents with a National Consultation which announces its findings this week; an outcome I will be very interested to hear.
However I feel it merits a deeper look, especially as I have had to tolerate articles produced by ill-informed journalists and commentators all weekend pronouncing on this report from a position of ignorance. It’s true the Minister shares laudable ambitions with the sector, not least the view that:
Every parent wants the best for their child. They expect childcare to be safe and of good quality, because high quality childcare promotes children’s development in the early years. The availability of affordable, safe and stimulating care is crucial in supporting families by enabling parents to work. It is equally crucial to the development of babies and young children as the foundation for their future success at school and in life.
(Childcare report, 2013).
However, it is the Minister’s rather clumsy attempt to use same single stone to solve the complex issues of childcare costs and quality that is her undoing. The report is her response to two reviews; the Nutbrown Review which examined the robustness of childcare qualifications and the Childcare Commission which looked at cost of childcare.
By using the same stone, the Minister risks killing both birds (the issues of childcare qualifications and the cost of childcare). The problem is the birds are very different; one a swan and the other a skylark. The swan represents childcare for parents, helping them glide into their return to work and masking all the busy paddling underneath to balance the often competing challenges of the working parent. The skylark on the other hand is high quality childcare, which helps children soar, find their voice and expand their horizons. Re-read Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ beautiful poem The Caged Skylark which captures the consequences of being caged and trapped.
I have tried to simplify the report by highlighting what I consider the eight key points:
1. We need more qualified staff to improve the status and quality of the workforce.
Indeed we do. We have been saying this for an age, and fully support Professor Nutbrown. However, 84% staff have level 3 diploma so let’s not demotivate them.
2. Many staff lack basic skills, so the entry level will include English and Maths A to C.
I agree. Again we have been saying this for a long time and I recall being lambasted for suggesting such. I continue to believe we need to introduce basic teaching for staff, so they spell and clearly articulate in a grammatically correct way. How can children learn a minimum of 5000 words if staff cannot string a sentence together? What are some schools doing I wonder??
3. Introduce Early Years Teachers.
OK, but make sure we don’t abandon the 11,000 EYPs and ensure all graduate staff are able to complete this if they want. Most staff cannot afford post graduate training. Employers cannot fund this either, as about 70% do not expect to make any profit this year according to NDNA Business Survey.
4. Deregulate so we can decrease the number of staff to children, particularly under 3s. This means up to one staff member with 6 toddlers and 1 staff member with 4 babies. There are provisos to applying these ratios, such as needing a qualified staff member. A consultation will be launched to decide what qualifications staff should have and the findings will be implemented in September 2013.
This will lead to big problems, not least in the UK where education is child led and based on quality of engagement and suitable environment. There is a genuine fear that we may see lines of chairs with children strapped in for large portions of the day. In addition there are real risks of accidents and an increase in stress levels for both children and members of staff. Children coming from poor families are at particular risk. We know the right pedagogical approach ensures we can play a huge role in helping them soar like skylarks. I could go on…
5. Reduced ratios will mean we can charge less to parents and free up more places.
We absolutely cannot make the figures work here. Reducing the number of staff will only affect the quality of output and standards (see above point).
6. Ofsted is now the sole barometer of quality.
Risky it offers little more than a snapshot once every 47 months.
7. Set up Childminders’ Agencies like Denmark.
I know little about this except Denmark found its methods were cumbersome and expensive and are changing their model. Ask Birgitte Nyborg from Borgen!
8. Make it easier for schools to take younger children.
Why? Being in school does not in itself guarantee quality. Is this a move towards universal childcare? Better check on the Nursery Education Grant rates then, as schools may prove quite expensive.
So there is much to debate, and I would urge we all respond to the consultation. In the meantime, I would challenge the Minister to continue investigating how the full £5 - £7 billion is spent on childcare (it seems the figure changes depending where you read it). Page 16 of the childcare report is too vague in my opinion.
In the meantime, perhaps those of you caring for under threes should consider recruiting Michael Rosen‘s Mary Anne…
She would leave the room
And you wouldn’t mind
But then you’d discover
She’d left her eyes behind
However even Mary Anne could not keep up the pace (no matter her qualifications)…
It was a terrible shame
That it was all so drastic
But that’s what happens
When you are made of elastic!
Michael Rosen, Book of Nonsense
Childcare is flavour of the week and quickly becoming a political football. I wish we had an equivalent Robin Van Persie to either land the childcare ball in the net, or kick it so far into the distance that we have to begin a debate that gets us to really consider what we want from childcare.
At the moment the media and the sector are making a fuss as to why it’s taking so long for the Government to respond to the Childcare Commission. I have no idea why people are investing so much energy into this anticipated announcement. It’s not going to solve the fundamental question as to why childcare is so expensive.
The Commission was set up by Sarah Teather MP when she was Minister of State in the Department of Education. Her approach was quite different to that of our new Minister Elizabeth Truss, unsurprisingly given that she is a Conservative and Ms Teather a Lib Dem. I might also remind everyone that when the Childcare Commission was launched just before the summer there was great annoyance from the sector about the timing, the questions and the purpose. The issue will never be resolved until we have a big conversation with ourselves about what we want for our children. At the moment two parallel drivers dictate childcare policy framed within rather confused thinking about how it can help reduce child poverty. The first policy strand focuses on enabling women to work, and the second to support social mobility in an attempt to help break inequality.
This week the challenges of both policy approaches reflected my week. First of all I attended the Child Poverty Alliance and was roused by My Fair London campaign’s reminder of the invidious consequences of inequality. Quoting statistics to make your head roll, I was reminded that London has the largest gap between rich and poor of any city in the developed world, with two thirds of all wealth in London held by just 10% of Londoners. I was reminded that the consequences of this inequality is bad for us all on so many levels, not least creating a lack of trust between the economic classes, poor child wellbeing (remember the UK came last in UNICEF’s report), poor health, increased cases of mental ill-health and general all around human misery.
Statistics show that in countries with the lowest levels of inequality, trust levels are five times higher and involvement in the community much greater than in countries where inequality levels are highest. What’s more, where inequality levels are high, children of families on the lowest incomes are already a year behind in their development by the age of five when compared with those who are better off (a fact that made me put down my current book Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens to re-read The Spirit Level; to be honest all of a similar theme).
Given that early education is considered a key factor in addressing this inequality - because it gets people to a place where they are more likely to succeed, and ultimately people with more education earn more, pay more taxes, are more productive, vote and are generally happier - a then access to childcare and education for young children as a driver of social mobility makes sense.
Midweek, I went to hear the Resolution Foundation research about improving childcare to be an even more effective policy driver for getting people, especially women, into work. They told us their findings that showed that two parent households of low to middle incomes (£17,000 to £41,000) are little better off than those on poor incomes. In fact they confirmed what we already know, that instead of taking working parents out of poverty, childcare costs were driving working parents into debt and poverty (an already all too familiar picture at LEYF). At this point, it is worth recalling the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who showed the link between inequality and the financial crises. He pointed out, it is no accident that both major modern crises - the first beginning in 1929, the second in 2008 -coincided with historic levels of inequality.
While there was much ooing and aahing from the Resolution Foundation audience of media, policy makers and charities, the question remained what to do. A key solution from was to offer parents an extra 10 hours a week at £1/hour for children aged 2, 3 and 4. I was slightly dismayed by this idea, given that Governments past and present have so far steadfastly refused to pay even the going rate for childcare, meaning providers like ourselves already subsidise the cost of childcare to families by up to £500 per child per annum. How then would we get any Government to pay for an additional properly costed contribution of a further £3billion? This and finding out what happens to the current £7billion is what the Childcare Commission should be addressing? Not tinkering with deregulation, alienating the sector and suggesting some regressive tax breaks.
In essence, the fundamental issue is exactly what David Cameron has already said himself:
More unequal countries do worse according to every quality of life indicator.
David Cameron, Hugo Young memorial lecture, November 2009.
The Government therefore needs to weave the two strands of its policies together more coherently. Employment and social mobility should be one, so all families are supported out of poverty, not into it; and early education is delivered in a way that supports the longer term aim of creating a more equal society with all its attendant benefits.
Last week Ofsted produced its Annual Report, the first from her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children Services and Skills, Sir Michael Wilshaw. It also had the First Ofsted Annual Lecture on Early Years given by the Director of Education, Sue Gregory. The report admittedly was slightly overshadowed by the news of the Royal pregnancy, but the findings merit as much attention as the Duchess of Cambridge’s morning sickness.
The report used findings from 24,559 inspections of which 6074 were in nurseries or childcare on non-domestic premises. The report was framed within the usual context that good quality early education is critical to children’s subsequent educational progress and life chances, and that education in the Early Years has an impact on children’s later learning and achievement. And so say all of us.
The report confirmed what we always knew, namely that the large majority of the 1.3 million places available for children under the age of 5 are provided by nurseries, that the sufficiency of places is variable across the country and there remains considerable turnover in the sector.
On the standard of service, the report noted that 74% of Early Years provision is now good or better, compared with 65% three years ago. There was, however, little improvement between this year and last in terms of proportion of good or outstanding. This suggests that improvements brought about by the introduction of the EYFS are levelling off. A third of children had not reached the required standard in language and literacy by the age of 5, a figure that rose to two fifths in deprived areas. Overall, nurseries were rated better at preparing children for school than childminders.
Unsurprisingly, the provision remains weakest in areas of highest deprivation. This is particularly true in the case of childminders, where the gap between the quality of provision of high and low deprivation is wider than for any other type of childcare provider. In the UK, children from the poorest fifth of homes are on average 19 months behind children from richer homes in their use of vocabulary by the age of five. This is worse than two of the three major English speaking countries (in Canada the gap is 10.6 months, and Australia 14.5 months).
In her lecture, Sue Gregory commented on the disproportionate funding for schools and alluded to a special premium for those Early Years providers operating in poorer neighbourhoods or with higher proportions of families living in poverty. In its recent report, the IPPR said that Early Years and youth have seen cuts of 20%. At the Daycare Trust Annual Conference on Tuesday, Lucy Lee of Policy Exchange noted that since 2000 funds to Early Years had gone up just 5.6% while schools had received increases of 55%. So for all the talk about how important we are in setting the scene for successful education, we are still short changed both in reputation, funding and correct support. Is it any wonder that the poorest areas are still feeling the pinch and getting the worse deal?
The Ofsted report findings show that what makes the most difference is the quality of the interaction between adults and children, which leads them to developing good quality early skills. In the best settings, children’s interest is constantly stimulated and adult intervention is well timed so as to respond to children’s curiosity and to challenge their thinking. That will only happen with the involvement of well qualified professionals with at least a relevant Level 3 qualification. The Nutbrown Review 10 year timescale is considered unambitious because it is longer than most children spend in the whole of their early years and primary school education. The report also found that the quality and type of local authority (LA) support for early years provision was variable and often not targeted effectively at those providers that most needed improvement. They listed the top ten LAs and the worse ten. Luckily LEYF is neither operating in the top 10 LAs or the bottom ten LAs. This suggests we are in the satisfactory majority of 132 LAs. Apparently, what makes for outstanding is where LAs offer tailored support to meet the requested needs of particular groups or providers.
Overall, the report notes that too many children are still entering school without the basic skills they need to learn. However, pre-schools and nurseries are better than childminders at preparing children for their next stage. While most childminders provide children with good level of care, many have found it more challenging to provide for the learning and development set out in the EYFS.
The report includes a suggestion that the quality of early learning would benefit from strong links between weaker and stronger providers. It also suggests that good and outstanding providers with high quality leadership and management should operate as nuclei or hubs for networks of childminders and weaker group care providers in their area.
So, what does this report say that we don’t already know?
- The Early Years matters a great deal
- To get the best from the sector we need well qualified staff who have all received relevant and robust training
- Funds need to reflect what we do and be equitable to schools
- Pay attention to our poorest children, they deserve the best
- Make all nurseries communication-rich environments at every level
- Ensure the quality of the interaction between adults and children is rich, stimulating and well-timed so as to respond to children’s curiosity and challenge their thinking (a critical factor for high quality)
The Minister, Elizabeth Truss, had obviously read the report because her speech at the Daycare Trust Conference reflected these very points. Unfortunately, she tempers her thought with continual references to deregulation and reduced ratios. In my view, this will be the unraveling of all the work we have done to get to 74% good and outstanding, with still much to do to get 100% in all areas.
To have high engagement with small children, you need a lot of capable staff. I spent the day with two year olds the other day to remind myself of the demands they place on staff, both physically and emotionally. We had twelve children and four staff with a fifth available… and me! We worked hard to ensure we were responding to those children, following their schemas, playing and talking to them, giving them cuddles while keeping them safe, fed and clean. Fewer staff would have been a high-risk strategy. Babies also need hips and we each have just two.
The Minister is fond of quoting Europe, but the OECD has admitted that the statistics that often finds the UK towards the end of the league tables are old, unreliable and insecure. In fact the OECD is about to re-do them. The European child-adult ratios are lower than ours, but that does not make them right. French visitors to LEYF last week noted how they admire our ratios and want to follow us, especially in their crèches which offer services to those under the age of 3 years.
Let me leave you with the thoughts of a young struggling teacher, Ursula Brangwen in DH Lawrence’s book The Rainbow. In the light of all our research, ask yourself is this what you want for staff and children?
And before this inhuman number of children she was always at bay. She could not get away from it. There it was, this class of fifty collective children, depending on her for command… there were so many that they were not children. They were a squadron. She could not speak as she would to a child. Because they were not individual children; they were a collective inhuman thing.
The Rainbow, DH Lawrence (p376)
Could more men in childcare have a real and lasting effect on the inherent prejudices of society (or only as long as the media take an interest)?
What nobler employment, or more valuable to the state, than that of the man who instructs the rising generation.
Was it fortuitous or bad timing that we launched the London Network of Men in Childcare amid the Jimmy Savile scandal, not to mention the misguided Philip Schofield/David Cameron television interview and the Newsnight debacle? Ironically perhaps, we actually chose November 19 for the London Network launch because it was International Men’s Day! Either way, mishandling of the child abuse scandal has been wholly unhelpful, since it has unlocked some incredibly ignorant thinking about men working with children – including comments from too many of those who should know better, affirming and embedding some pretty negative mind-sets and a mob mentality.
Worst of all (but unfortunately not unsurprisingly), we have many people assuming that an allegation is sufficient proof of a charge of abuse. Have they forgotten that in this country the rule of law declares you are innocent until proven guilty? This week the call to ignore this basic human right has been staggering, though sadly very familiar to men working with children who almost inevitably have to prove their innocence once an allegation is made. Surely the point of a police force is to find evidence to support an allegation before charging a person, and for a judge or jury to then decide on their innocence or guilt. It is this very process that ensures well-founded allegations are distinguishable from the false variety. This is the law and the rights of all men.
We have been supporting the notion of men into childcare for many years in our own LEYF way. We think it’s a good idea to have gender-balanced workforces. We think it’s good for staff and good for children; what is more, we think it’s good for business. And now we can finally present research that bears that out: both staff and parents agree that having men in the nursery is a good thing.
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The journey to this apparently simple conclusion began with us taking advice from our own male staff. They told us they wanted to work in childcare because they were interested in child development and education, liked children and enjoyed the team spirit of working in a nursery. We learned a great deal from our male staff about the support they needed from colleagues, but also from management, to feel protected when or if they face unpleasant comments, allegations or negative parental responses. We then talked to parents, and heard how staff deal with the anxieties of fathers about men looking after their daughters, especially parents from more macho cultures. We considered issues such as isolation and how it feels to be a trophy staff member, and changed induction and recruitment policies to try and make sure we addressed these, including placing two men together in a nursery rather than spreading them thinly across more settings, and where possible giving a male apprentice a male mentor.
Previous research (what there was of it) identified the main barrier to entry as negative stereotypical attitudes, assuming that men who worked with children were more likely to be paedophiles. Our research confirmed this. We found that 60.7% of staff said they felt the main reason for low numbers of men in the sector was because men were not encouraged to join the profession by others, whilst 51.8% believed it was because of society’s attitude toward men in childcare. By contrast, when considering the benefits of men working in childcare, 75% believed it was very important for men to be seen as nurturing and sensitive role models, whilst 66% felt they could change society’s attitudes towards men working with children.
We also asked children (23) aged 4 what type of activities enjoyed most with male staff. It was interesting that the only time children commented about staff gender was in reference to very common examples of society’s gender-stereotyping, for instance the colour pink and wearing of jewellery.
We know that most people assume men will be better at football, rough and tumble and other similarly physical games, and so we should expect to see children showing a preferences for male staff in those areas. Not at all! Our research Men in Childcare: Does it matter to children? What do they say? in fact found children predominantly preferred to play football and rough and tumble games with women. They did not seek men out to play construction or trains, and chose men and women equally to cook with. Superhero play, on the other hand, confirmed research findings as an activity where men could bring something special, with almost all the children in the research project choosing to carry out this particular activity with a man.
Worryingly, children saw reading and singing as a female activity, with the majority choosing female staff for such activities. Challenging this view is critical, given the worrying data about boys’ literacy skills and the continuing negative attitude that reading is for girls only! Unless men provide positive gender-modelling in literacy, boys attending the nursery – particularly those who do not have male reading role-models at home – will continue to see reading and literacy as done only by girls and women. Considering future success in education is so often predicated on competence in literacy, failing to address will almost guarantee failure for a great many young boys.
As a result, a greater attention given to the role of men supporting children’s literacy – particularly boys – presents an exciting opportunity to devise new ways of working with fathers; helping to raise awareness of how important it is for them to read with their sons and being seen reading for pleasure. Again, this needs to be linked to broader strategies aimed at developing parent engagement and extending ways of enriching the home learning environment.
So the London Network of Men in Childcare has a number of things to do:
- Support male childcare workers
- Present a positive and coherent message to London; that men who work with children are doing so because they are good practitioners and, like their female colleagues, are keen to support every child receive the best education possible
- Conduct action research on ways to improve education for boys
- Disseminate ideas about better gender-balanced workplaces
- Engage Dads directly in some of the research
- Bring a London focus to working in childcare
Ultimately, I hope, the outcome will be a more gender-balanced workforce that listens to children.
So come on – let London lead the way!
Action research at LEYF is a key aspect of how we ensure quality. It’s all about asking questions of ourselves and checking how we can do things better to give children the best service.
One way of doing action research LEYF style is through our Sounding Boards, a phrase coined by our HR Director Neil King some years ago to better describe my ‘ideas dinners’ with staff. In essence, staff are invited to join us to discuss how we can improve or develop new ideas, and in return they get their dinner! In this, LEYF staff are to be congratulated for their generosity – both with their time and how far they will go for a free meal (or indeed simple Curly Wurly).
This week’s Sounding Board was all about men in childcare, and so I had specifically invited male staff. Richard from Furze hosted the meeting at his nursery in Chadwell Heath, on what turned out to be the wettest and stormiest night of the month (later we discovered another watery connection).
Our goal for the night was to agree how we might best establish children’s views in this area, both as part of our continuing exploration of the distinct role men play in Early Years provision and our plan to launch the London Men in Childcare Network on the 19 November. Unlike in Europe where Männer in Kitas received 14 million euros for theory based research into the benefit of men in childcare, we are doing our research using the LEYF model – namely by accessing our own considerable in-house talent! Amid great chat, crack and comments such as “OMG, it’s like doing a dissertation”, we put together a research plan with a really clever child-focused methodology. Such is the joy of having great practitioners in the room.
By eight o’clock I was desperate for my dinner, and so dragged the team to the most recommended restaurant in wind-swept Chadwell Heath: Weatherspoons Eva Hart, named after local resident Eva Hart MBE, survivor of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912. Despite a number of images of the famous vessel on display around the restaurant, there was sadly no sign of Leo di Caprio to help complete the experience. However, all was not lost during our rather lively Curry Night, since Rachel introduced us to a new heart throb: the rather dapper Ashley Banjo, leader of now famous dance troupe Diversity.
Action research LEYF style is to be recommended: a combination of intelligence, conversation and company… you could say, a better and more child-friendly version of Come Dine with Me.
A LEYF approach to Men in Childcare: not quite as quick as saying Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Not so long ago, David Stevens, Manager of the Angel Nursery, which for a while had 4 male staff out of a team of five, represented us at the Men in Childcare conference in Edinburgh. He had already been to the Men in Childcare Network Ireland International Conference, where he was the only UK representative and had to cope with the high jinks of the Irish and the Danes and the Scots! Enough said. Since then he has become even more interested in why there should be men in childcare and constantly urges me not to take it off the radar.
David and I have long questioned the actual reasons for having men in childcare. We are less than impressed by the standard responses we hear across the sector. The usual reasons trotted out are all about fear and barriers to entry. These include poor pay, lack of promotion opportunities, poor status, fear of accusations of abuse and paedophilia, discomfort working in such a highly female work environment and an expectation that one man can address the shortfall of positive male roles in so many children’s lives. Reading that would you want to come into childcare?
David feels all of this detracts from the main question which is “Do you want to work with children?” When speaking to our male LEYFstaff (of which there are 8% of the workforce) we found that they had all come into childcare because they thought they could be good Early Years Practitioners. For them being a sole man in a nursery was probably the biggest barrier and so we now try and place two men in each nursery, though this is not always possible. Generally, the men working at LEYF were both annoyed and depressed that all the talk of men in childcare became negative and focused on barriers to entry. Many reiterated that they always wanted to work with small children and that what we should be looking for is men who want to work with small children because they are interested in child development and how children learn and they think they have the ability to give them a really fun and exciting experience. The same argument or scenario does not play out in the Primary Schools as men ride up glass elevators to senior management and headteacher positions before you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
David has been involved with some very interested organisations drawn together by the Daycare Trust with the support of the DfE. However unlike Europe where Manner in Kitas received 14 million euros for theory based research into the benefit of men in childcare we are doing this on the usual barter and free gratis approach. Europe is also focusing on gender and equality issues which I think would be interesting and avoid us falling into the usual knee-jerk response that until men really take a hold in childcare we will see no improvements in pay or status. How depressing is that for a female led sector? What is needed is for the whole sector to be understood by the public and that policy makers help shape policies which assist the public to understand what we do… yes it’s more than smiling, washing hands and being patient while our male colleagues play really good rough and tumble while acting as surrogate uncle to all the children in female led families!
So here is what we are going to do:
- Set up a London Men in Childcare Network beginning by bringing the LEYF male staff together to discuss the issues and formulate a shape.
- Find out areas to research including David’s big question which asks us to compare the levels of physical and superhero play in nurseries with and without male colleagues? Then examine the impact that has on boys and girls play. Does it make a difference to their development?
- Use Men in Childcare website set up by Kenny Spence to post new information.
- Work more with our local Schools and Academies to promote men into childcare both through our apprenticeship programme but also as part of the schools careers options. (I feel a film coming on…)
- Seek more engagement from parents in the issue. Get a sense of their views about the promotion of the role of men as carers and educators of children. I read recently that parents use blogs as their main source of information. LEYF parents, have a look at this!
Men in Childcare is one aspect of a much bigger question which is what is the role of men in our society today? It’s certainly changing at different social, economic and political levels so let’s weave this into a much more comprehensive debate.