Hugo Rifkind - London Times

Hardly any men work as early years carers, and more are wanted. But can they cope with the glitter, paint and mashed potato?

Apparently, I didn’t miss a food fight. This is just what lunch for a group of two and three-year-olds is like. Peas and things, strewn across the floor. Matter everywhere, which may be potato. The kids look well-fed and content, so a fair amount of it must have gone inside, too. They must use very big bowls.

“Sometimes you think you’re clean,” says Nick Sykes, 43. “You might even go out after work. And then you get home. Line of snot up the leg. Brilliant.” This is said with powerful fondness. It was at that point I started to worry that I might be joining a cult.

Sykes is one of two men who work at the Ann Taylor Children’s Centre in Hackney, East London. Statistically, they are a blip. Only 2 per cent of the early years workforce is male, according to figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. That’s 3,186 men across the country. Most are in the private sector. When it comes to state-run nurseries, last year’s estimate was 56.

New research by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) suggests that more than half of parents would like to see many more men involved – so I’ve come here for the afternoon to see what it’s like to be one of them. And, like a fool, I haven’t brought a cagoule.

Along with Peter Cattrachia, 31, who is the other childcaring male in this nursery – and, for all I know, East London – we head next door for an art session in what they call, in all sincerity, “the messy room”.

Paper is laid out on the floor, along with paint and excitingly shaped spongy things. Nick and Peter, both of whom are dressed like children’s TV presenters, seem amused.

“What?” I say.

They just grin. From elsewhere, out of sight, there is the sound of scrabbling. For no good reason that I can think of, nobody shouts “unleash hell!”. Then a horde of toddlers thunder into the room, their faces fixed in grim determination. We shall call them Child 1 to 10, or possibly Child 1 to 12, because I’ve been asked not use any names, and because it was hard to keep count. They pick up sponges and attack.

Strictly speaking, they are not attacking us. At least 60 per cent of their energy, I would say, is correctly targeted towards the paper on the floor. The trouble is, there is a lot of collateral damage. Peter, in particular, very quickly goes from looking like somebody off CBBC to looking like the bloke who has just painted your house. Later he will tell me about “circle time”, which happens in the afternoon, when they all sit around and have a little singsong. Peter will be almost offended when I ask if toddlers are terrible at singing. “They’re brilliant!” he will say, defensively. That’s certainly not true with painting. Toddlers are crap at painting. There. I’ve said it.

Raise sponge, dip sponge in paint, scratch head with hand holding sponge. Press sponge down, half on paper, half on floor. Repeat. Apply glitter. Sit down on painting. Pause. Stare at wall. Stand up. Sit down on something else, thus transferring painting, using bottom as stencil.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

“Are they painting anything in particular?” I ask Peter, warily.

Peter grins. Peter only grins. “Why don’t you ask them?,” he says. Fine. Just in front of me, Children 1, 4, 7 and 9 are collaborating on a large, multi-sheet splurge. Child 7 has got the top off a pot of glitter and is applying it like a workman gritting a path.

“What’s that supposed to be?” I demand.

Silence. Indifference.

“Child 7?” says Nick, in a singsong voice. “Do you want to tell Hugo what you’re painting?” Child 7 fixes me with a withering look. “It’s a castle,” he says. Then he toddles off.

While all this is going on, children lose shoes and socks. Some will even lose tights. Later, I will ask Peter how you make sure that each child takes the right shoes home.

“Children know their own shoes,” he says, kindly. Oh.

The nursery is open from 8am until 6pm. Some kids are here all day, each day. Others come in for a few hours, or a couple of days each week. The days are structured, with educational play, outdoor play, story times, singalongs, meals and naps. This is the 2-3 class. In the under-2 class there’s a lot more sleeping. In the over-3 class they all sit around discussing politics. Possibly.

At one point somebody, let’s call him Child 6, runs up out of nowhere and hugs my leg. Then he runs away and comes back with a picture of himself, with his name underneath. Child 6 wants me to know that he is called Child 6.

“Hello Child 6,” I say. “How old are you?” “I’m a superstar,” replies Child 6. Then he runs away to fetch me a cardboard Christmas tree. I have a new friend.

“It does give you a lift,” says Nick. “Coming into work and having 20 little friends every day.” Sometimes, he adds, kids will see him in the streets while they are out with their parents. “Normally there is a sort of stunned silence,” he says. “Because obviously we live here, and never leave.”

Nick looks like a more smiley David Bowie. Before going into childcare he worked as a graphic designer, as a lifeguard, in welfare centres, in a shop and as a security guard. For a few years he lived in America, working at summer camps. He switched to childcare more than a decade ago, and qualified with an NVQ in childcare and education. Since then he has gained an MA in arts psychotherapy, and now specialises in art for the under-fives.

“Like any of the caring professions,” he says, “it’s mainly female. I’m sure there’s a lot of reasons why men often don’t consider it. Partly it’s just tradition. Partly, though, I think a lot of men would worry that it’s a dead-end job. I’m the proof that this doesn’t apply any more. There’s real professional development.”

For all that, he adds, it’s obviously a vocation that you either have or you don’t. And there are downsides. It’s not just the snot. He’ll often be put in charge of kids at parties.

“When I first told my mum, she was shocked,” says Peter. ” ‘What? What do you want to do that for?'” He did work experience at a primary school when he was 15, and originally thought of being a PE teacher. After school he worked in a post office for a few years, got sick of it, qualified as a teacher and realised that early learning was where he wanted to be. He came to the Ann Taylor Children’s Centre a few months ago, after two years working for agencies. Among all the other agency workers he met – possibly hundreds – he came across only one other man.

“There’s still some stigma in it,” he agrees. “When I was growing up I had the image of the man as the breadwinner. He has to earn the most money, and stuff like that.”

Peter would like to work in child psychology eventually. People he meets, he says, tend to be interested in what he does. Especially girls. “My mates are all right,” he grins. “The only thing they don’t understand is nappies.” Most days, with the 2-3 age group, he changes about eight nappies. Could be worse? “Could be better,” says Peter.

Thom Crabbe, national development manager for early years at the CWDC, agrees that status has been an issue in the past. Hence the recent focus on early years professionals – people like these two, who come in at graduate level, or as a career change. “Job-satisfaction levels are also extremely high,” he says. “I love my job. Hopefully you like yours. But a lot of people don’t. Why not try this?”

Do young children behave differently with male carers? Both Nick and Peter reckon not really, although boys in particular are apt to play more physically with men around. Dr Penelope Leach, a development psychologist and the author of Childcare Today, tells me that there is growing evidence that children learn from men and women in different ways. Some have suggested that internal, emotional skills come more easily from women, and peer-relations skills from men. “We’re inclined to underplay this sort of thing,” says Leach, “because it’s a bit rough on lone mothers.”

Of children with single female parents, 17 per cent have less than two hours’ contact with a male adult each week. About 36 per cent have less than six hours.

“We have to be mindful of not stereotyping,” says Crabbe. “It’s not like we want men to be playing football, or lifting things, or fixing stuff. But we do want to address the gender imbalance. It seems a no-brainer.”

With the credit crunch, reckons Crabbe, there must be many people forced to think about a career change, or graduates changing their plans. “It’s not for everyone,” he says, “but if it’s for you, why not find out more about it?”

Many, like me, would possibly have fun for an hour, then go quietly insane. But there must be others, more like Nick and Peter, who take real pleasure from seeing a child paint a rainbow with the right colours in the right place (Nick) and who can laugh for a full day when a child says “what’s that on your face?” and means his beard (Peter).

Obviously, though, they also have to be relaxed about the prospect of lots and lots of clearing up.

“Would you like to take one home?” says Peter, as the war zone that is the art room is scrubbed clean.

“One what?”

“A painting,” says Peter.

“Oh,” I say, relieved. “Thank God. No.”