The idea that footballers such as Wayne Rooney and David Beckham are male role models for young children is a myth, according to new research findings.
University of Derby Education expert Dr. Simon Brownhill says that children aged eight or below are developmentally unable to grasp the concept of what a role model actually is until they are older. He also suggests that for male practitioners the term 'role model' is shrouded in ambiguity.
Dr. Brownhill surveyed 178 men who work in a range of nursery and primary school settings to investigate if they saw themselves as role models for children.
In his research, respondents were unable to give clear meaning to the term 'role model' with 84 different definitions given. His research also explored tensions associated with the 'male role model' argument.
Respondents felt both teachers and a child's parents set more of an example for young children than famous sports stars and celebrities.
The study is entitled: The 'brave' manin the early years (0-8): the ambiguities of being a role model, and Dr. Brownhill will be giving a keynote speech about his study at an international conference at the University of Education in Indonesia next month.
Dr. Brownhill, Senior Lecturer on the FdA Children's and Young People's Services (Pathway) degree, said: "The results from this study, along with findings of my previous research, suggest that children aged eight or younger are still finding their feet in the world and do not have a clear concept of what a role model is.
"The men surveyed in the study, who work with young children every day, supported the idea that children are more likely to be influenced by people who are their own age (generational), who share the same experiences (experiential) and who live close by, such as friends and family, rather than by celebrities or sports stars such as Wayne Rooney. A friend who, for example, shows no fear when going on a fairground ride is more likely to be a role model for a youngster."
Dr Brownhill argues that men are not automatically role models to children if they work in early years (0-8) settings as this is a status which has to be earned, and in some cases he argues that role models can have a negative impact on children's lives.
An example he gave was footballers being regarded as bad role models due to swearing, such as Wayne Rooney, or kicking others, attributed to David Beckham.
He said: "The call for more men to act as role models for children in early years and primary school settings remains prevalent in both public and professional discourse as boys' underachievement and the absence of men in children's lives continues to dominate educational agenda.
"This study highlights that while there is a shared notion that the role model will emulate positive qualities and characteristics of both a personal and professional nature, the idea of the role model being 'a man' is challenged.
"Instead, it is argued that both men and women can be role models to children of both genders, not just boys."
Dr. Brownhill offers some suggestions to help support male workers to make the most of their roles in schools and settings. These include setting up local authority clusters, face to face meetings or web forums for those who feel isolated or tokenistic. Other ideas include establishing men's clubs to provide further support and teaching students about gender issues in education at both a further and higher education level.
He added that since 2009, 50 per cent more men have applied to become teachers in the UK as people think about job security in the current climate - but Dr. Brownhill wonders if this is in the best interests of the children.
Dr. Brownhill concluded: "To give children the best educational experience and to raise academic attainment, employment of the best candidates is more important than the gender of the practitioner.
"I do not personally believe males are any better at teaching or working with children than females are, and I certainly do not believe that employing more men will close the gender gap between boys' and girls' achievements."
Explore further: Why are UK teenagers skipping school?