Childrens Centres and Fathers: speech at Daycare Trust conference, 20 April 2005

26 April 2005

This presentation was given by Duncan Fisher, CEO of Fathers Direct, at the Daycare Trust conference on Children’s Centres, 20 April 2005, in London

I am going to talk about involving fathers in Children’s Centres.  I am not, however, going to start by looking at the needs of fathers.  I want to start with children.  The title of my presentation is “Parents at the Centre”.  I want to subvert this right at the start – and start with the subject of “children at the centre” – at the centre of our concerns.

Fatherhood is a topical issue of our times.  We all have a view on it; we all have deeply personal experiences of it. 

Fatherhood has a strong brand image at the moment:

Men with masks
Men without women
Men without children
Men alone
…..usually on top of buildings


The modern image of fatherhood is a zero-sum game with mothers; whenever we think about engaging with fathers, there is a worry somewhere deep down that we might be withdrawing our attention from mothers and children – because we view fatherhood as separate from mothers and children.

Now let me try to reframe fatherhood.  I am going to play you a recording of children speaking about fathers in Pen Pych Primary School, deep in the Welsh valleys, on Fathers Day in 2003.  This recording was made by BBC Wales following a competition of writing for children organised by Fathers Direct.  During the recording, I will also show you a number of alternative images of fatherhood: two from Sure Starts and four from South Africa. [Fathers Direct has produced a pack of images of modern fatherhood – see "related products" below, at the end of this text.  For the images of South African fatherhood, visit the website – see "links" in right hand column.]

What we learn from this is that fatherhood matters to children; and the absence of fathers matters to children.  We also learn that the views of children on fatherhood can be deeply troubling to grown-ups.  And let’s face it, fatherhood is difficult.  There will be a lot of people in this room today who have had really bad experiences of it – our own fathers, our partners, the partners of our daughters.  Let us not be naïve about this.  But let us confront our ghosts as we work with children, so that we can see the world from their point of view.

There is an enormous social change going on at the moment.  Men spend eight times as much time looking after their children as 30 years ago.  In over half of dual earner families with children under five, women work.  In these families, fathers do one third of the parental care, more than any kind of professional or kin childcare used by families.  But while fathers in two parent families are becoming more involved, more and more families are separating and separating earlier, whilst on the other hand the proportion of fathers maintaining contact with their children after separation is increasing. 

So, when we think about fathers in children’s centres we must recognise that these children are being brought up in a world very different from the world we were brought up in – and that there are new challenges, and new opportunities, in engaging with these men.

Now to the technicalities.   The primary reason why Children’s Centres need to engage with fathers is because children are at the centre of our concerns.  However, it is also the case that Government policy requires this to be done.

The Children’s Centre core offer states that all Children’s Centres must increase the involvement of fathers in their services and in the planning of their services.

The National Service Framework for Children (NSF) also places a requirement on all family and children’s services to engage with fathers.  On our website we have identified the many references in the NSF to what needs to be done, such as targeted information for fathers, special assistance to young fathers and the relationship between young parents.  [This article can be found in the right hand column alongside this text, in "policy".]

The third statutory obligation to engage with fathers will derive from the new “Gender Equality Duty” applying to all statutory services, which will become law early in the next Parliament, if Labour wins.  This requires local authorities to carry out and publish a gender impact assessment of their services and demonstrate how the findings have been taken into account.  The Equal Opportunities Commission, where I serve as a Commissioner, has the statutory role of producing the guidance for local authorities.  Sharing of caring responsibilities is a foundation for equality of opportunity for women outside the home; what family serviced do affects gender equality.  [For EOC work on fatherhood, a good start is "Facts about Dads" – see "related documents" at the end of this speech, and the link to the EOC website in the column to the right, in "links".]

The way family services operate now must be transformed in light of the new policies and legislation coming our way.  What are currently islands of excellence, where engaging with both parents in children’s services has been completely mainstreamed, needs to become the norm.  An example is Sure Start Millbrook, Redbridge and Maybush in Southampton, which won a Sure Start / Daycare Trust award for excellence this year.  Every part of that Sure Start has the capacity and the confidence to engage with fathers at every opportunity.  The fatherworker does not “do fathers” – he backs up all the other members of the team to do so. [There is a full case study of this work in the January 2005 edition of FatherWork magazine.  For back copies, see "related products" at the end of this speech.]

Fathers Direct has produced a guide to working with fathers.  (The image of fatherhood on this, I like very much – tenderness and football combined.  This was taken during a photoshoot in Barrow Sure Start, set up as a project to recruit fathers.)  Many of you will know this guide.  It identifies six key steps for engaging effectively with fathers – and for mainstreaming that work.  Today, time constraints prevent me describing these steps – but they are in the full text of my presentation, which is available on our website. [See “related documents” below.]

Working with Fathers

Fatherhood Quality Mark

But I do have time to tell you about one new project launched two weeks ago at our national conference, attended by nearly 1000 workers in family services: the Fatherhood Quality Mark.  We have designed this with Children’s Centres particularly in mind.  It is designed as a tool for services systematically to engage with fathers.  It helps to meet statutory obligations, to develop the workforce, to produce effective, sustainable and mainstreamed services, and to demonstrate service quality to the outside world.  In the coming year we will be talking to every local authority in England, offering help with strategies to engage fathers in Children’s Centres.

[Further information about the Fatherhood Quality Mark can be found in the right hand column alongside this text, in "practice".]

To end, I would like to read you a reflection on fatherhood.  This was produced at a meeting of 40 experts on working with fathers from all over the world, developing countries in particular.  We were struggling with the sheer diversity of children’s experiences of fatherhood and so we decided, instead of analysing it, to write a poem about it!

Some children have fathers who live far away and send money or clothing
Some children have fathers who live nearby and visit regularly
Others have fathers who raise them alone.
Some children have fathers who share home and caring duties with their mother
Others have fathers who look after them full time, so their mothers can work

Some children stay with their fathers at weekends and in the holidays 
Others have fathers in jail
Some children have fathers who live at home, but are rarely there
Others have foster or step fathers

Some children have fathers who are too poor to provide for them
Some have an uncle or grandfather who fathers them
Some children have a father who is a child himself
And some children have no father figure at all

There are fathers who read bedtime stories to their children
And there are fathers who cannot read
There are fathers who love and care for their children
And there are fathers who neglect and abuse theirs

Some fathers attend the birth and every milestone in their children’s lives
Others have never even met their child’s teacher
Some fathers are ill, some commit crimes and some beat their children’s mothers
Others work long hours in hard jobs to provide for their families

Some are confident in their parenting role and take great pride in it
Others are frightened of these responsibilities
Some fathers run away from their children
Others, desperate to see them, are prevented from doing so
Fatherhood can be so different in so many ways
But one thing is universal
What fathers do … matters to children

Thank you.

Children Centre speech: slides

EOC: Facts about dads today

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