THIS is one issue where the numbers really do tell the story: Of the 10,000 childcare and kindergarten teachers here, less than 50 are men, and the leading local training college has yet to see its first male student.

To say that men are shunning the profession is an understatement. And their absence from the kindergartens and childcare centres is a problem, says early childhood education expert Jackie Jenkins-Scott, 60.

The president of Boston-based Wheelock College, which runs a well-known early childhood degree programme in partnership with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, says the shortage of male pre-school teachers in the United States is just as dire. There are no official figures, but she estimates that men make up less than 1 per cent of the pre-school education force in the US.

Men are vital in the classroom as they provide positive role models for both boys and girls. 'They teach boys that it is part of the male job description to be gentle and nurturing,' says Dr Jenkins-Scott.

'When boys lack the experience of men who are caring and nurturing, the message they receive is that it is not an important trait for males to have.

'On the other hand, girls learn that caring for children is their exclusive responsibility, and that they should not expect men to contribute. Think how different our society would be if young children's experience included caring, nurturing men as well as women?'

And then there are the spin-off effects to consider, she adds.

Although there are no studies, pre- school centres with more male teachers tend to attract more involvement by fathers in the centre.

Despite the obvious need and the rewards the job can bring, men just will not go near the profession.

Well, one will. The first male polytechnic graduate has just been admitted to Ngee Ann's Wheelock course - which has seen 120 students graduate so far - but he will not start training until next year.

Dr Jenkins-Scott notes that the number of male students at Wheelock in Boston is higher - 100 out of 800 undergraduates - but only a fraction will choose to become educators in pre-school. Most will go on to work in the juvenile justice system.

The problem, she says, is that male career aspirations have not kept pace with their increasingly involved role in their own families.

'Men are more actively engaged in caring for their children, yet the early childhood workforce seems stuck in the 1970s family model,' she says.

'Fathers have been taking up hands-on childcare with their own offspring in droves, yet the situation that children encounter in childcare facilities is one where men are almost completely absent.'

This is because childcare and teaching, especially of pre-school children, is largely seen as 'women's work'.

'That needs to change. Pre-school administrators need to send out the message that men can play a very meaningful role in nurturing and educating young boys and girls,' she says.

Another issue is that some parents get unduly concerned when men care for young children, which has resulted in onerous state guidelines.

To allay their fears, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), which oversees childcare centres here, advises male staff not to participate in activities such as bathing, assisting with toilet duties and changing children's clothes.

Centres that hire men must also submit guidelines on their roles for an MCYS review. The ministry says this is to 'prevent unnecessary disputes between parents and centres on teachers' behaviour'.

But Dr Jenkins-Scott questions these rules, which no longer exist in the US.

'Men are also fathers and husbands, so why should they not help with care routines?' she asks.

Another hurdle to recruiting more men - the low salaries and prestige accorded to the profession.

'This does not just make it difficult to attract men into the sector, but women as well,' says Dr Jenkins-Scott.

She notes that the salaries of pre-school teachers in the US lag behind those teaching in the higher levels. She estimates the gap to be about 20 per cent.

Singapore is no better - two batches of Wheelock College graduates with early childcare education degrees who went out to work in pre-schools since 2009 earn on average about $2,200 a month. This is about 25 per cent less than starting salaries for graduate teachers in schools, which is just over $3,000.

Much needs to be done to raise the image, standing and pay of pre-school educators, especially those at childcare centres, who are often viewed as nannies by parents.

An Education Services Union survey of 5,000 pre-school teachers done here in 2007 found that 34 per cent wanted to leave their jobs within 12 months. More than half cited low pay as the key reason.

One solution is to require pre-school educators to have minimum qualifications and training, Dr Jenkins-Scott suggests. 'After all, you would not allow people without the necessary qualifications and training to teach in your primary and secondary schools. So why should it not be a requirement for pre-school?'

She says the Education Ministry, which oversees kindergartens, and MCYS, the agency responsible for childcare centres, are right to have imposed minimum qualifications. Currently, new teachers must have five O-level passes, including English, and a diploma in pre-school teaching.

But Singapore should raise the bar higher and target for all pre-school teachers to have degrees, she says.

This call is supported by growing awareness of the impact of early childhood education in later life, and research clearly shows that teachers' qualifications matter.

'Teachers with bachelor's degrees and who hold certification in working with young children appear to have the highest quality classrooms and to be most capable of having a significant impact on the developmental progress of children,' she says.

She cites studies such as the landmark Perry Pre-school Project in the US, which found that students receiving good quality pre-school education had better high school graduation rates, better job prospects and more earning power.

She says if Singapore wants to raise its game further and outpace its competitors, it should invest in improving access and quality of early childhood education. This means fully prepared teachers, smaller class sizes and a curriculum that prepares children for life.

'Research, including longitudinal studies spanning 40 years, demonstrate that high quality early childhood education helps prepare young children to succeed in school and become better citizens; they earn more, pay more taxes and commit fewer crimes,' says Dr Jenkins-Scott.

'Governments must invest in early education. After all, our children are our future.'