Name: Julian Sandford

Age: 48

Location: Barnet

Current job: Early Years Educator level 3 and Forest School Leader at Brookhill Nursery.

Did you always want to work in Early Years?

No. I left school at seventeen with five O levels not really too sure what I wanted to do. A career adviser pointed me in the direction of car mechanic! The irony of this is that I went to school with one of my current colleagues, who is female, and she was pointed towards childcare. 

Car mechanic wasn’t for me and after that I worked for Our Price music, trained as a driving instructor – before realising that was too scary – then became a postman for Royal Mail in order to achieve some work life balance.

What was your route in?

When my daughter started at nursery, neither she nor myself were easy settlers. I spent a long time in the setting, listening to her crying, trying not to cry myself and sometimes playing with my daughter. The head teacher came over to me and asked me if I had ever considered working in early years. I think that was the moment that started the ball rolling.

When my son also joined the nursery I wanted to give something back and got involved as a parent governor and then chair of governors.

When my son left the nursery I decided to retrain as a nursery nurse. I went to the nursery and asked all the how, why, where questions and they were really supportive. They even helped to find a tutor for me who would visit both the nursery and my home. I completed my qualification within a year, volunteering three days in the nursery, working three days at Royal Mail and studying on most Sundays and evenings. Work-life balance was on the edge! It was a challenging but rewarding year.

Why should men be encouraged into early Years? 

I really think it is a matter of balance for the staff and the children. People talk a lot about gender differences but surely this is an advantage. Different ideas and ways of doing things adding to the diversity of the work place. 

I’ve read lots about how a man cannot be as caring as a woman but I can assure you that is not true. As a man I think I show the children lots of empathy and I pride myself on my nurturing positive ethos. Of course, everyone is different and draw on different theories and experiences, regardless of gender, to populate their own personal ethos.

What’s the best thing about the job? 

Watching children develop and blossom into amazing little people and really achieving the best possible outcome you can for every child. It sounds like a massive cliché but if you are doing this job for any other reason it probably isn’t the job for you. 

I have a passion for early years and want children to be hungry to learn rather than conditioned to learn. Early years is where this happens and then seems to get lost with the pressure of curriculum in school. 

My other passion is Forest School, which sounds all Bear Grylls and survival, but is about nurture and positive reinforcement, encouraging children to learn vital life skills for themselves in an outdoor environment. Watching the faces of three- and four-year olds as they watch you cut down (safely) a dead tree is amazing.

What’s been the reaction from parents?

I think some parents find it difficult to comprehend their child bonding with a man as their keyworker. This is the minority rather than the majority. I had one parent who told our lead teacher that they didn’t feel it was appropriate for their daughter to have a male key worker. The lead teacher was amazingly supportive of both myself and the parent and over time I won over the family. In fact, they told their neighbour that they recommended me!

I have recently had parents request that male practitioners do not change or take their children to the toilet. I find this quite a tricky issue. Is it cultural? Is it a trust issue? Personally, it makes me feel like I am letting my colleagues down as I can’t give the care that I am paid to give and end up handing children over to other practitioners that the child may not know (but are female!). I do however feel I have to respect these views and not take them personally. 

I was given what I think was a compliment from a parent only last week. I have been working quite hard with her son to help him settle. Both mum and son were quite anxious so I was using different calming techniques to help and we had made massive steps forward.

As she was leaving after a successful separation, she turned to the head teacher and said “It’s so nice to have men in the nursery” (yes, we have two men, a teacher and myself!) My head teacher agreed, and the parent then said “But Julian isn’t like a man, he’s like woman.” I wasn’t sure if I should be happy or worried. Is this how I am judged? I can assure you I am a man and I have the privilege of having a job I am passionate about.

Do you feel added pressure as one of a relatively few men in early years? 

No. I feel proud, I hope I’m making a difference to the children I care for, for the families I work with, to the environment of the setting. But I’m no more important than the other members of the team, be they male or female.

Every adult within a setting is a role model. Yes, it is great that men are encouraged to work in early years but it is also important to remember they need to be there for the right reasons. Pay is often given as the reason men don’t work in early years. I’m earning about the same as when I was a postman (I do need a qualification, which postmen don’t) but it doesn’t stop men working as postmen.

In summary I think there is some prejudice out there about men working in early years at lots of different levels. I don’t think there are any quick-fire solutions to solve this.

How does being a father impact your ability to do the job? 

Without my children I don’t think I would have found my place within the workforce, so for me, being a father had a massive impact. Again, this isn’t always the case. 

I think being a father who had recently been through the system gave me an advantage to begin with, but working with children is a constant cycle of learning and self-improvement that never ends.

What would you say to another man thinking about going into early years? 

Make sure this is the job for you, don’t do it for the six weeks off in the summer, do it for the privilege of getting paid nine months a year, (yes, here we only get paid for 9 months of the year!) working with children that will both amaze and surprise you. Make sure you test the water, find a setting you like and volunteer. 

Be ready for challenges, both from colleagues (lots of early years practitioners, male and female, think their way is best) and parents. This is all part of working in a team within the community. Embrace it and be open and transparent. Share the passion with everyone.