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Men at work
What is the atmosphere like in a nursery that has 10 male members of staff and extra sessions for fathers?
Diane Hofkins 22nd January 2008
Toddlers are climbing, swinging and chasing each other on a Saturday morning in the sunny garden of a children's centre. Some are viewing the landscape from their dads' shoulders. In the kitchen, young men are sitting around a low table on tiny chairs, chatting and laughing, the babies on their laps poking their fingers into plates of food.
What's wrong with this picture? You've got it. There are no mums here. Frankly, they're not very welcome. This Thursday it's national Take Your Dad to Nursery Day, but here that happens all the time. While mums put their feet up or go shopping, at the weekly dad's group at Willow children's centre in Islington, north London, females over the age of four are a rare sight. Today, even the staff are men.
Willow has recruited 10 men to a staff of 30 teachers, family workers, nursery nurses and support staff. Two staffers each week are paid overtime to supervise the Saturday morning group, and headteacher Paul Church tries to ensure at least one is male.
Church is not quite sure how he feels about the "no women allowed" ethos, but he does believe the group is important. It was formed just over a year ago in response to government efforts to involve more fathers in their children's education. Research shows it can make a big difference to children's later attainment, mental health and good citizenship. It also chimes with the Children's Plan, which aims to strengthen support for families.
However, that doesn't mean funding is easy to find. The fathers pay a small amount for food, but the head has to scrimp and save to pay staff, and cannot afford to keep the club open for a full day, as parents would like.
Up to 35 dads of varying cultural backgrounds turn up every week with their babies and toddlers. For Matt Myatt, it's an "easy little social" and a second home for Fred, five, and Otis, two.
Saturday is our day
Two-thirds of the children who come on Saturdays don't attend the 70-place centre during the week. Mandella Browne began bringing Isaiah, two, because "he was growing up and I wanted him to interact with other kids". Browne enjoys talking to other fathers and watching how they relate to their children. He's learned new songs to sing with Isaiah and his baby brother, and other ways to engage with him. "Saturday is our day," he says, looking fondly at his son. "It's just me and him."
Church is determined to find ways of reaching fathers most in need of help: teenagers, refugees and other socially deprived groups, and those who don't live with their children. It's a question of finding approaches that work. For example, the fathers' group was first promoted as a counselling session, and almost no-one came. Informal, no-agenda mornings (with breakfast) appealed far more.
Church hadn't planned to go into early-years work. Like most men in primary education, he expected to teach juniors. But it turned out he was very good with younger children. He became an infant head, and then a primary head (after an infant-junior amalgamation), but felt the early years lost out in an all-through school. When New Labour's Sure Start children's centres began opening in Islington in 2004, combining education, social care, family support and health services, Church knew this was for him.
"I didn't go out to recruit men, I just have been lucky," he says. "I think it's a bit of a snowball effect." When Paul Sutherland came for his job interview, he saw Yusuf Gurbuz playing with the toddlers, and later, when Glen Noel came for a look, there was Sutherland, a young guy about his age, in the baby room.
"When I started working in primary schools, I was the only man," says Gurbuz, a trained nursery nurse. But things have changed. "People have much more confidence that men are capable of looking after their children."
It's cool, it's relaxing
As the complement of male workers grew, the head felt it was important to have men working in the baby room, with children aged six months to two years. He particularly wanted a boy from a troubled family, who had no dad around, to benefit from male care. He asked Sutherland, who says he was delighted. "It's cool, it's relaxing, it's a different experience."
Nevertheless, all the men worry about the potential for accusations of sexual abuse, in a way that women workers just don't. Physical contact can't be avoided; it's essential, especially for babies. "We have systems in place," explains Piers Gee, who went into nursery work through a scheme to target men called Cool 2 Care. "You don't have one staff member alone in a room with a child."
The men believe they add an extra dimension. "We do physical games, play action men, rolling round on the mat," says Gurbuz. "We do it spontaneously. Female workers have to work harder at it."
Some dads also feel more comfortable asking men, rather than women, for advice. Gurbuz, who is Turkish, believes he has helped to break down stereotypes that men from his community hold about their roles as parents.
But Gee doesn't see himself as a pioneer. "I've never felt self-conscious. I've just felt like I was a professional person doing my job."
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