Up, up and away…Bristol Balloon Fiesta (Photo by Matt Buck, Creative Commons)

If you were a parent choosing a home in England and Wales on the basis of whether your child could attend a nursery which had male practitioners, your best bet would be to start contacting estate agents in Bristol.

About 10% of the early years workforce in the city are male, according to Sally Jaeckle, Early Years Services Manager at Bristol City Council – and a city-wide support and advocacy network, Bristol Men In Early Years (BMIEY), helps ensure that actions to promote a mixed-gender workforce remain a priority.

Set up in 2013 in the wake of false allegations being made against a male nursery teacher, BMIEY is now a community interest company (CIC) which meets quarterly and contracts with the council to provide support for male practitioners and advocate for men’s involvement in the early years sector.

Early years teacher Craig Black, one of BMIEY’s former directors, explains that the group’s support role remains central, because men may find themselves on the receiving end of negativity, complaints or even allegations of abuse, and may need a ‘safe space’ in which to discuss what is happening.

“All allegations need to be properly investigated; but what do you do if you’re a man who knows the allegation is false and it has been made because parents are prejudiced against you working in this field? A lot of people hold their problems in. Men can feel very isolated, and we need them to have a space to open up.”

There is also an important, wider role for the group in “normalising” male involvement in early years education, says Ms Jaeckle, who points out that the group takes part in careers fairs, school assemblies and other awareness-raising events, as well as providing continuing professional development opportunities for members.

The high percentage of male staff in Bristol – which puts it on a par with the national average in Norway (the acknowledged leader on mixed-gender early childhood education workforces internationally) – cannot be explained fully by the existence of BMIEY, admits Sally Jaeckle:

“It helps that we have 12 maintained nursery schools, two of which have male heads, and that helps keep the profile up, for example. And 50% of our provision is through schools or nurseries rather than PVIs or childminders.”

And an interesting aspect of the Bristol approach is that the growth in the male workforce seems to go hand-in-hand with a focus on creativity and innovative pedagogies, she adds: “Quite a lot of the men coming in have a creative background and there’s a big outdoor learning movement, where they’re doing the recruitment and getting lots of responses from men. If you’re doing something interesting, different and creative, it’s less of a problem getting men in.”

A case in point is Will Purcell, one of BMIEY’s new directors, who is a keen musician, photographer and film-maker, as well as being an early years teacher at Archfield House Nursery (a MITEY Charter signatory).

“I got my first job in early years because one of my bandmates was working in a nursery and suggested I try it too. I’m quite passionate about photography and I’ve got cameras for the children so they can go off and take their own pictures. We’ve entered some of their work into competitions, and a few of us even worked with the children to write our own ‘theme tune’ for the nursery.”

Many ‘men into childcare’ groups dwindle after one or two years, as individual enthusiasts move on or leave the profession. The relative longevity of the BMIEY group springs partly from the fact that it has an element of ‘official’ support, and it is likely that this also helps keep the MITEY agenda ‘on the boil’ more generally in the city.

“We’ve set things up so the group has a service level agreement with the council,” says Ms Jaeckle. “It costs about £5,000 a year in expenses, funded out of Quality Improvement monies held by the council under the National Funding Formula. Doing it like this makes clear that there is a serious commitment to getting more men into the sector and supporting those who are already in it.”

Looking to the future, the group – which already has about 200 people on its mailing list – is about to relaunch its website, and after some internal debate the decision has been made to retain a focus on male recruitment and retention – rather than turning it into a ‘special interest group’ on gender. “We’ve decided that if we make it too broad it will no longer feel like a ‘cause’,” explains Craig Black.

But “we don’t just want a 50/50 workforce,” adds Will Purcell. “We want the best people of any gender, collaborating in a gender-flexible workforce.”

So what can we learn from the Bristol experience? Setting up a local support network may not, on its own, be the solution to vanishingly small percentages of men in the early years workforce – but creating such a group in the right way might just be the keystone of your future success.