Still at 3%: a quarter-century of inertia

In 1998 England’s early years workforce was 2% male. The figure is now 3% (Source: Survey of Childcare and Early Years Providers (2021) summarised on page 82 of this DFE report). So 2023 marks 25 years of almost no progress – at a national level at least – towards a more gender-diverse early years sector.

In 2017 the DFE published an Early Years Workforce Strategy which named the lack of men in early years as a problem, for the first time in many years. We and others took part in a ‘task and finish group’ which came up with a host of recommendations, including, for example, well-funded national recruitment campaigns and a gender diversity ‘kitemark’ scheme. The DFE rejected most of our proposals, but gave us £30,000 to run a conference and produce the resources you see on this website. That funding ended in March 2020.

Since then we have continued, without any core funding, to build our network of MITEY Charter signatories, and to run one-off commissioned and grant-funded projects: a project funded by Greater Manchester Combined Authority to break down barriers to apprenticeships in Greater Manchester, working with Kids Planet Day Nurseries (you can read a summary here); a training contract with Spring Childcare; a collaboration with PACEY.

The people we’ve been working with have developed their thinking and tried new approaches; they’re committed to pulling more men in, have some great ones already working for them, and feel more confident about how to welcome, and look after, male practitioners. We’ve been experimenting and innovating: we’ve created an audit tool to help early years organisations audit their gender diversity (the first of its kind in the world, as far as we know), and our focus groups and training courses have been highly evaluated.

But there’s a strong sense of fighting a losing battle in all of this work: one that’s as much about simple economics as it is about gender. For years now, we’ve been reading headlines about nursery workers being able to earn more if they were to work in a supermarket. Here’s one from 2018; one from 2019; and one from October 2022.

We remain committed to the view that low pay shouldn’t be a barrier to men joining the early years workforce per se: if men take jobs in supermarkets, we should be able to persuade some of them that working in a nursery for the same wage could be more interesting and rewarding.

Experience shows that we can’t expect more than a few men to work this out for themselves: our gendered culture screams ‘no’. We need to disrupt things – go and find the men, show them what we can offer, and do whatever we can to integrate them into our teams.

Men are, on the whole, more likely to be looking for ‘main breadwinner’ salaries, though. Which is bound to narrow the field of potential recruits, before we even get to the question of whether these men would actually enjoy working in an almost entirely female workforce.

(Not to mention potentially facing parental objections to their involvement in caregiving – something 51% of male practitioners say has made them consider leaving the job.)

So we need to think long and hard about how welcoming our early years settings are, and how attuned they are to the male experience – and about how we communicate with parents. These are key elements in all our work, which aims to maximise retention as well as recruitment.

But the last quarter-century suggests that even if we do the groundwork at setting or organisation level, a big shift upward from the 3% figure will only happen if there’s concerted action – and investment – at a national level.

We’re confident that we spent the £30,000 of DFE investment wisely. People are still signing up to the MITEY Charter, downloading our resources and using our free jobs board; and we’ve shown that we can develop successful funded partnerships. It also feels like the context has shifted: people have been hitting the streets to campaign for high quality, affordable childcare, for example.

But MITEY has only ever been an ‘offshoot’ of the Fatherhood Institute‘s work, and our undone ‘to do’ list grows longer by the day, while we have to prioritise other, funded projects. Right now, for example, we need to organise a MITEY advisory group meeting; write to whoever the latest government minister is; and finish creating a survey of people on our database, and those who’ve signed the Charter – to help build a stronger evidence base around local innovation, approaches and obstacles: what’s working and what isn’t. Next week there’s a meeting with the shadow education team, to which we’ll be sending this blog.

We’ll keep plugging away as best we can…but as things stand, we’re not expecting that 3% national figure to shift upward anytime soon…

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