What can the UK’s male ‘nursery manager of the year’ teach us about recruiting men?

Tobie Keel and Louise Hayes, pictured after Tobie’s win at the 2019 NDNA Awards

If you were looking for a ‘poster boy’ for men working in early years education, Tobie Keel might just fit the bill.

A modest, softly-spoken young man, Tobie left school at 14 with no qualifications. Now he is manager of a nursery in the south of England and currently holds the coveted title of ‘Nursery manager of the year’, given to him at the National Day Nurseries Association Awards 2019. He is the first man ever to win the award.

Like many male early years educators, Tobie’s journey into the sector might easily never have happened, had he not been persuaded to consider such a career by someone else.

In his case, it was the owner of the First Friends nursery group, Louise Hayes. After school, Tobie had worked for his brother, a publican, and then trained as a chef. He took a job in the First Friends kitchen, and a short while later, Louise asked him if he might like to consider switching roles completely to take up an early years apprenticeship.

“I had thought about teaching when I was much younger, but I would never have thought about early years,” says Tobie. “Because I was already part of the organisation and could see what happened here, it gave me the confidence to say yes.”

In the eight years since completing his apprenticeship, Tobie has progressed through a succession of roles within First Friends, including nursery assistant, room leader and deputy manager; he is now manager of the group’s Salisbury day nursery.

Tobie attributes his NDNA award – for which he was nominated by Ms Hayes, supported by testimonials from parents and colleagues – to the fact that he has “a laid-back character”, and operates an “open-door policy”, working closely with colleagues to “make sure they develop and progress, and that we’re all willing to go in the same direction”.

In his entire early years career, Tobie has only worked with one other man – a friend he had persuaded to join the nursery part-time, but who later ended up taking a job on the railways. He says that he himself has never had a problem working in all-female teams, although he recognises that this can be a challenge; and he says the vast majority of parents have been welcoming and supportive.

A keen advocate for bringing more men into the workforce, Tobie feels strongly that although many employers like the idea of more male staff, there is much work to do to put early years education on men’s career radar.

“Men just don’t know about this world. Nobody tells them about it or invites them to see what the job involves,” he says. “Once you show them, they can see the good bits about it.

“I’m not saying it’s an easy job, but spending all day with children is really special and not at all like a standard ‘9 to 5’. A lot of the time it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

Tobie is planning to do some presentations in local schools, and he hopes that this will encourage more young men to discover the job he enjoys so much. “I knew nothing about early years when I was younger. I’d love to think that by hearing my story, other young men might consider this as a career rather than assuming it’s just for women.”

As for his own future, Tobie sees himself staying within the early years sector “for as long as I can”; he already has his eyes on an area manager role within First Friends, if and when one comes available. A decade of loyal service later, one might say that Louise Hayes’ hunch has paid off…

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