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David Wright, who runs Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton with his wife Anna, is doing his utmost to change the all-too prevalent attitude that “childcare is not a viable option for men”.
He seems to have already succeeded with his son, who has just joined the nursery chain after finishing a degree, and is now training to be an Early Years Teacher.
Mr Wright and his son are part of the two per cent of the early years workforce which is male and this figure hasn’t changed over the last 10 years.
Mr Wright is in a group called Southampton Area Men in Early Years which is linked to the London Men in Childcare Network.
“We want to build a culture where it is normal to have both men and women working in early years and for men to realise it is very fulfilling to work with children of this age.”
In order to help break down the barriers, he has been visiting schools to talk to children about their perceptions of who they think should work in the early years.
“I believe boys and girls need men and women. Less than two per cent of the Early Years workforce is male and 25 per cent of primary schools have no male staff. Children up to the age of 12 in the UK are brought up in this feminised environment. I believe we need a more gender balanced workforce. I have been working to change the culture – both inside the sector and the public’s view of men working with young children.
“One of the reasons that some people give for men not working in the sector is the low pay, but if money is a barrier that is not a gender issue – all staff deserve proper wages.”
However despite the statistics standing still, attitudes do seem to be changing in the sector itself, according to Mr Wright who says: “If you go into most settings, female staff are very receptive to having male staff working with them. But there are still sadly some settings where men are not welcome.”
High-profile child abuse cases such as the Jimmy Saville scandal have only exacerbated the problem, according to June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), who said earlier this year “it is sadly the case that men are being put off joining the profession for fear that they will be viewed as paedophiles or abusers.
“High profile child abuses such as the Jimmy Saville scandal will fuel ignorant prejudices and risk deterring men from pursuing hugely rewarding careers in childcare.”
Mr Wright concedes “there is of course the elephant in the room which people don’t like to say but they think it - that men are coming to work in a nursery because they are paedophiles and of course it is vital for nurseries to have excellent safeguarding policies in place”.
Men can of course bring huge benefits to children in nurseries especially to children of one parent families who don't have a good male role model. They can also help to eradicate gender stereotypes and encourage fathers to engage with their children.
However, men who do work in nurseries can find they are often the ones that are chosen to do the more stereotypical physical and outdoor activities, according to Mr Wright.
After studying economics at university, he worked in IT for 25 years whilst his wife, Anna, who trained as a NNEB nursery nurse, started a pre-school in their home. The demand for spaces outgrew their house so they moved out to a former guest house in 2000, which became the first Paint Pots day nursery.
“We both have a passion for working with children and we wanted to work together. When one of our managers moved on, I took the opportunity to retrain, gaining a level 3 qualification in Early Years Care and Education, followed by Early Years Professional Status, as part of the initial pilot,” he explains.
Many in the early year sector have raised concerns about the word play not being part of the criteria in the Government’s new flagship qualifications Early Years Educator and Early Years Teacher. Mr Wright says the “move towards statistics and quantifying a child’s life is dehumanising”.
“We need to see children as individuals and it is things like empathy and courage we should be acknowledging. I worry that the Government is focussing more and more on teaching and academic achievement.
“We all want the best outcomes for children but the debate is about the definition of outcomes. Is it the narrow focus on academic achievement or the wider holistic view of developing the potential within each child?
“Current government rhetoric is all about preparing children for school, with the implication that primary education is where the ‘proper’ learning will start. But we see the early years as primarily about experiencing the World now whilst preparing children for life, helping them to develop the potential within them to achieve what they are capable of in all spheres of life.”
Paint Pots comprises five day nurseries, two pre-schools and an after-school club.
“We are based in Southampton and operate across the city. Some of our nurseries are located in relatively more affluent areas compared to others. In the more deprived areas, we can experience high levels of need. One of our settings in particular has a high percentage of children with additional needs, many of whom require one to one support from adults. Staff at these settings need additional training and support themselves to enable them to work with these children.”
However the provision of such individual attention does come at a cost. “Grants and additional finances to support inclusion have reduced significantly in recent years. As a business, this presents us with a challenge. Providers are criticised for not covering deprived areas but operating at a loss, as we do in our most challenging area, is clearly unsustainable long-term.”
Paint Pots’ company motto is ‘Love, Laughter and Learning’. “We believe that Love is the foundation for all that we do. Children need to feel safe and secure in order to develop. We aim to provide a homely setting for the children and we work closely in partnership with parents to offer the children a home from home environment.
We see Laughter as the next vital element. We want children and staff to experience pleasure and joy in their activities. The EYFS and Every Child Matters note the objective of helping children to ‘Enjoy and Achieve’ but we want them to experience the excitement, fun and laughter of experiencing the world as babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers.
This year the Government has proposed a whole host of reforms for the early years sector. These have included changing the ratios for staff and children, requiring nursery staff to have a C in Maths and English GCSEs and new flagship qualifications.
Many including Mr Wright have not been supportive of these reforms. “I have seen little in them that will improve outcomes for children,” he says.
“The response to Professor Nutbrown’s recommendations on qualifications was particularly disappointing. The failure to award Qualified Teacher Status to Early Years Teachers sends a strong signal that our workforce continues to be perceived as deserving of a lower status.”
He believes part of the problem seems to lie in the fact that the Government can’t seem to decide what the primary purpose of early years providers is.
“Is it all about providing childcare so parents can go back to work, does it see us as teachers in the narrow sense where children can be prepared for school and tested to assess where they are or should we recognise the key role of giving the next generation the very best of starts in life?”
Mr Wright would like to see the Government listening to and working with the sector.
“Research shows that for every pound spent in the early years, there is a £7 saving later on. As a nation we need to be investing in the early years so we can attract and retain the best staff. We also need to find a way to reduce the cost to parents.”
He and his wife envisage Paint Pots Nurseries growing even more however it “will be in a controlled way, ensuring that we maintain our standards and ethos”.
“We don’t like to think of our nurseries as a chain, we like to think of ourselves as a family group.”
What was your first job: Computer programmer at Hampshire County Council
What is your favourite book: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
What is your favourite film: Groundhog Day
What is your favourite piece of music: Don’t Tell Me You Do by Rockapella
What has been the best present you have received: Yamaha Clavinova keyboard
What was your last holiday: A week sitting by the pool in Majorca