Brendan Creaney is a man without fear. He is lying on his back, mouth wide open, on a pretend dentist’s chair while a group of three and four-year-olds poke about in his mouth and examine his teeth. Eventually, his dental appointment is over and he is allowed to get up.
Role-playing is all in a day’s work for this rare breed in the wider teaching profession – the male nursery teacher. The most recent gender breakdown of primary teachers in Scotland for 2005 showed there were 21,185 female teachers and just 1,689 male. There are no official figures for the gender split of staff working in the pre-five sector – but it’s a safe bet to say that men are considerably thinner on the ground here than in any other area of this increasingly female-dominated profession.
Mr Creaney, then, is something of a rarity. But to the children at St David’s RC Primary nursery in the Pilton area of Edinburgh, there is nothing odd about having a male teacher. He is now in his second term at the school – which shares a campus with its non-denominational neighbour Pirniehall Primary – and parents have had nothing but praise for the positive role model he presents to their children.
A recent Care Commission/ HMIE inspection draft report quoted one parent saying: “I feel since Mr Creaney started in August, X has improved tenfold. The male influence has certainly improved his behaviour and understanding, not only with his peers, but with adults also.”
It’s an important consideration for early years education. Often seen as a sector where nurturing and caring attributes are pre-eminent, there is a growing recognition that the male influence is critical, particularly in areas of high deprivation and family instability.
Rosemary McMillan, headteacher of St David’s, says that when she interviewed him for the post, “Brendan’s passion for early years came across loud and clear.
“I believe, as a teacher, you have your niche where you just get the most job satisfaction. For him, it’s early years.”
Born in Carluke, Mr Creaney did a BA degree at Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh. After a course in teaching English as a foreign language, he went to Taiwan where he taught English for two-and-a-half years. One of his first jobs there was covering for a kindergarten teacher. To his surprise, he loved it – so much so that he stayed with this age group for most of his time abroad.
“I’d had reservations about children so young, but I found my feet.”
The experience prompted him to apply for a postgraduate primary teaching course at East London University in 2001. There were around 20 male student teachers on the course, of whom Mr Creaney and four others chose the nursery to P2 age group as their preferred stage. At the end of the course, he was the only man left working with early years children – 30 women and him. The other men had dropped out.
He finds it hard to pin down exactly why he enjoys teaching early years so much, but part of it is the opportunity to teach through play. “You can be more spontaneous and respond to the children’s ideas better,” he says.
He’s taught the equivalent of a P2 class in England and worked with older children as a PE co-ordinator at his last school in London, where he ran a number of after-school clubs. “It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it – I find teaching early years my happiest role.
“People say it’s just play, but a lot of work goes into it – things like setting activities up. When you are teaching older kids, you are kind of restricted. You have got your literacy and numeracy hour and you’ve got to squeeze everything into the rest,” he says of his teaching experience in England.
“With nursery, especially, it’s more relaxed, although you have criteria to meet. You want children to progress. With older children you get an immediate response to something when you set them a task, but in nursery the process is a lot longer but more enjoyable at the end because through play you get the chance to do a lot more.”
As a newly qualified teacher, Mr Creaney taught in the London Borough of Havering – the Romford, Upminster part of the city, where pupils of all races and ethnic backgrounds live.
“I used this diversity to teach the rest of the children about different cultures and foods. We would have an India week, for instance. And there was a boy from Sudan – we got his parents in to make felafels. We use diversity as a resource.”
There can be one or two sensitive areas for men working in early years – such as taking children to the toilet and coping with “accidents”. Mr Creaney works with two nursery nurses and a learning assistant and they work in pairs for such duties, sharing them equally.
He applied for the job in St David’s last year because, at the age of 33, he was keen to return to Scotland. His Canadian-born wife is also a teacher and has found a job in another Edinburgh primary. Two terms into the job, he’s still navigating his way round the different language, terms and jargon used north and south of the border. Once he has become more familiar with the Scottish education system, Mrs McMillan hopes to move him into the P1 class.
“I am not interested in being a headteacher,” he says. “I am doing my Masters in early years. A depute headship would be OK if I was still in the classroom – but you never know. I was told in London that I would be fast-tracked. I became the PE co-ordinator after a year, but I think that was because I took the school football team.”
Mr Creaney is the only male teacher at St David’s and has offered his services as football coach – an offer likely to be taken up. But he’s sticking with early years just now. “I can be as nurturing as any of the women,” he says.