We need men in the nursery

Despite the fears, more men should be - and are - caring for young children.
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The Independent Culture
Jim Nelson is surrounded by three- and four-year-olds as he reads them the Cinderella story. "And what does the coach turn into?" he goads them in a sing-song voice. "A PUMPKIN," they chorus. Meanwhile, Ray Hall is making monsters destined for a large tub of cold spaghetti already filled with plastic spiders and locusts. Down the corridor in the baby room, Paul Hinchcliffe is trying to interest bleary-eyed toddlers, just woken from their post-lunch nap, in the magic of a spinning top. In many ways, it is a typical nursery, the day punctuated by snotty noses to be wiped, nappies to be changed and distraught children to be comforted.

But Sheffield Children's Centre is different. Here in macholand, in a city synonymous with steel, in a nursery overlooked by the floodlights of Sheffield United's stadium, a quiet revolution is taking place. The contrast with most nurseries - where 98 per cent of staff are women - is stark. Here, wherever you look, there are men looking after children. In fact, the nursery is staffed equally, half men and half women, a policy decision implemented a decade ago. But the unusual number of male carers stands out just as surely as if United had picked a woman to wear the Number 9 shirt.

Yet these men are not oddities. They are part of a gathering movement to open nursery employment to men. The reason is not primarily equality, but because it is believed that children, many of them separated from their own fathers, need more contact with men. Government ministers are already examining the issue. The European Union has published consultation papers urging the employment of more male carers. In Norway, which is leading the way, the government has set a 20 per cent recruitment target for men by 2000. One of the last bastions of a "woman's world" is set to fall.

All this pioneering spirit is, however, overshadowed by one huge fear: sexual abuse. Charlie Owen, editor of Men As Workers in Services for Young Children: Issues of a Mixed Gender Workforce, a study published yesterday, makes the concern plain. "There are those who think that men are so dangerous - physically, but especially sexually - that they should not be allowed to take part in such a crucially sensitive activity as caring for children, especially when the effects of sexual abuse can persist for generations."

Parents in Newcastle know the risks of very young children being exposed to paedophiles. Last week, an independent inquiry revealed that 64 children under five are suspected of having been molested in a Newcastle nursery in the early Nineties. The likely perpetrators have escaped prosecution because the evidence of a crucial witness, four at the time of the abuse, was judged inadmissible.

At Sheffield Children's Centre the Newcastle revelations have been greeted with dismay. "I remember seeing it on the news," says Nelson. "Straightaway I felt on show. It knocked me back a few steps. I get worried that it will change the way people think of me, even though they don't say anything. Perhaps it's just paranoia."

From the beginning, 10 years ago, men at the centre established strict rules for themselves - stricter than the women sought - to protect against paedophiles. Men do not change children or take them to the lavatory unless there is also a woman present. If parents say they do not want men changing their children, they go along with those wishes. Some of the men are wary of even picking up and touching children. "It's very difficult," says Nelson. "You pick them up and put them on your shoulder and pat them on the back, saying `there, there'. But it's not a proper cuddle." Patrick Meleady, 33, says he would never place a child on his lap. "I always like everyone to be able to see where my hands are. I know I have to put 150 per cent into this work. I know that I always have to be top class, better than 99 per cent of the other people who do this work. It's like a woman in the City or some other male-dominated profession. You have to work your socks off so people respect you. I want to work with children for another 25 years. So I don't want to put myself under any suspicion."

It is hard to strike the right balance. Paul Hinchcliffe, 42, is more relaxed, perhaps because he has three children of his own. "If you hold a baby away from yourself, they will sense it. Once you start being afraid of physically touching a child, you've gone too far. It's not something you can shy way from. Particularly if the children come from troubled backgrounds. You can offer them something that they don't have."

Nelson adds: "We have to protect ourselves. It will be like this until there is general acceptance that it is OK for men to do this work. It's the men who really do the vetting, because this centre is a stepping stone to the future; if anything happened here it would be disastrous."

However, Chrissy Meleady, the female director and founder of the internationally acclaimed centre, is more reassuring about the Newcastle case to her male colleagues. She points out that the two suspects were a man and a woman. The lesson, she says, is that children would not necessarily be safe in nurseries staffed only by women.

Her observation is backed by US research into nursery abuse reported in Owen's new book. It found that 40 per cent of abusers were women, and only two-thirds of the male abusers were workers employed by nurseries. The rest were ancillary workers and relatives of the child carers.

There are other hurdles for the Sheffield pioneers to jump. "The leaders of the Somali community here said it was unnatural for men to care for children," says Nelson. "They said lions didn't do it. So I told them about Emperor penguins. They nurture an egg for 40 days. The women go gallivanting off, catching fish, while the blokes sit there covered in snow. Some of them actually starve to death rather than leave their young."

You could easily imagine Nelson as an Emperor penguin. He is tough. Eight years ago, he was an infantryman in the Gulf War, and left the Army to get married. "War opens your eyes," he says. "When you see so much devastation you value life more. You look at young ones and see that they are the future. You want to do the best for them."

Now 31, he went into nursery work because his wife suggested it after she saw an advertisement and his job as a night porter was turning him into an insomniac. "It was hard at first. I had a lot to learn," he says. But now he has a diploma in advanced play and will shortly, like other men, be supported by the centre through a degree course in play work at Leeds University.

"You still feel you're a man," he says. "How do I say this without offending? I don't feel I'm doing a girl's job." He prefers, he says, to work with children who have special needs. "We have had cases where children have been abused by their dads and so they have no confidence in men. Slowly you can help them understand that not every man is nasty. I get a real buzz out of that. You know you are succeeding when parents come to you and settle their child with you rather than going to one of the female staff."

These pioneers of a new type of child care definitely don't do it for the money. The full-time wage at the centre - pounds 110 per week after tax - means that some say it is financially difficult to start their own families. Several have second jobs. Nelson also works as a plumber, Hinchcliffe and Meleady work for the council on better-paid youth projects. The low wage puts off some men, but it also means that this aspect of the revolution in masculinity is occurring in working-class communities rather than among middle-class New Men.

Nevertheless, change is coming slowly. Hinchcliffe, an ex-postman, is visiting a school next month to play "What's My Line?". "You have to bring in a clue. So I'll probably bring in a picture of Bugs Bunny," he says. "Then they will have to question me about what job I do. I'm six-foot four and 18 stone. There's another chap here who is 20 stone. He has gone to lots of schools. They have asked him every question under the sun. But none of them have ever guessed that he works in a nursery."

`Men As Workers in Services for Young Children: Issues of a Mixed Gender Workforce' (Ed Charlie Owen, Claire Cameron and Peter Moss), published by the Institute of Education, pounds 14.99