Redressing the balance: Early Years and the absence of men

9 Jun 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Jun 2017

Dads matter

Scope asks why 98% of employees in Early Years education are female, and whether that gender balance needs to be addressed. 

Earlier this week Early Years, the organisation for young children, now well established as a global thought leader, held an international conference which examined how best to resolve a growing crisis in the nurturing and development of young boys.

There is absolute consensus between academics and policy-makers across the globe that men need to be involved much more closely in developing young children both as parents and in the workforce. This is extremely important for children of both genders but a current massive gender imbalance in the Early Years and primary school sectors is having a significant detrimental effect on the development of boys which can seriously impair their future prospects.

In Northern Ireland there has been much discussion about the significant under-achievement that has been recorded amongst boys from working class areas, and especially those from a Protestant background.

This is a complex and difficult issue which is impacted by many different overlapping factors. However educationists agree that promoting men as role models for learning and educational techniques that factor in the different ways that the male brain develops will be important elements in the solution.

The facts are stark. Dr Jan Peeters from the Centre for Innovation in the Early Years at Ghent University was a keynote speaker at the conference in Newcastle, Co Down. His research shows the gender imbalance in the Early Years workforce is significant: varying from 1 to 4% male employees in most countries. The figure for the UK is 2%. The situation in primary schools is a little more balanced, but not much and the trend is downwards. It currently stands at around 18% in most European countries. Peeters argues that this “feminisation” of the workforce needs to be reversed.

His view is shared by educationists across the globe and there are some countries making progress in addressing the disparity, most notably Norway which is close to achieving 10% make employees in the Early Years workforce, thanks to a public information campaign and the promotion of more male-friendly techniques, like outdoor play.

Germany is also seeing increases, powered in that case largely by an increase in demand for Early Years provision and a shortage of female workers.

It has adopted an interesting technique. It promotes careers in the sector in secondary schools, interestingly targeting those aged up to 14, trying to reach them before adolescence kicks in.

Scotland has adopted a different approach which could readily be replicated here. It has introduced men only training programme for Early Years employees, which to date has prepared 700 men for the workforce.

Progress, however, is slow. Norway’s figures have been achieved after a ten-year public information campaign funded by government and with considerable public support. It may well start to accelerate there now as more and more men join the workforce and their achievements are recognised and celebrated.

A key factor in promoting this will be overcoming long-standing prejudice. It appears that the various scandals around child sexual abuse has had two effects. One is to inhibit men from becoming involved in nurturing other peoples’ children, and another has been to foster irrational suspicion amongst some parents and even co-workers about those who do.

 Challenging this perception is key to the success of any campaign. So too will concerted work both within existing Early Years settings and elsewhere to encourage dads to get much more involved in nurturing their children. Broader society needs to celebrate fathers more, and to recognise that parenting is the responsibility of both genders if we are going to help ensure all children reach their full potential. Kenneth Sherman a training specialist at the Michigan-based HighScope Educational Research Foundation also spoke at the conference. He demonstrated that there are many ways to encourage fathers to get more involved in Early Years settings, some as simple as discovering what hobbies or special interests they might have and then getting them to share them with children.

Addressing the gender imbalance is important and, given the universal agreement on the benefits, it is hard to understand why there is not already a public information campaign in Northern Ireland.

It is not that there are not others we could learn from.

For example industry, government and the education system are making strides in encouraging more women to take up careers in engineering and other related industries traditionally dominated by men.

This is essential if industry is to thrive because it is important that it can recruit from the widest possible talent pool.

The UK-wide WISE campaign is dedicated to encouraging more females into science, technology and engineering. Its ultimate aim is to achieve gender parity.

Latest figures show that 22% of those studying for degrees in STEM subjects in the UK are now female. Clearly there is a long way to go. Progress in achieving gender balance in the workplace is inevitably slow.  Given that, the sooner government commits funding to increase the staggering imbalance in Early Years and primary school workforces, the better. 

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