Minister calls on public services to think distinctively about fathers

13 November 2006

Minister for children, young people and families Beverley Hughes told a conference organised jointly by Fathers Direct, Community Care magazine and the men’s studies unit at Nottingham Trent University that designing services specifically around fathers as well as mothers should now be part of mainstream public policy.

After the conference, held on October 30 in Central London, Ms Hughes agreed for her speech to be posted in full on this website, so here it is:

 

‘I’m delighted to be here today and I’m delighted to see so many of you here, interested in discussing working more effectively with men in children’s services. It’s a real honour to speak to you. I’d like to thank Community Care, Fathers Direct and the organising this conference.

I can’t stress enough the importance of what Fathers Direct do.

Raising the profile of the role fathers play in bringing up their children.

And providing a wealth of information and guidance for those who work with children and families to help them get better at engaging with fathers.

They have much to offer both to fathers and families and also to practitioners who work with children and parents. This is a great opportunity to hear more about how to engage fathers more successfully and one I hope you’ll take a lot away from today.

This work has never been more important. Not only because many more fathers want to play a bigger role in supporting their children.

But also because increasingly, we are turning the focus on what we can do to support parents better.

Research has confirmed time and time again that parents are the single most significant determinant – for better or worse – of children’s wellbeing.

The impact of ineffective parenting blights children’s prospects. And it can blight our communities.

Conversely, positive, aspirational, loving parents enable children, especially poorer children, to harness the opportunities of education and move beyond the circumstances of their birth.

But too often, when we talk about engaging parents, we actually only engage mothers. The automatic default position is that parent equals mother. This has to change.

As you’ve heard before, there are real benefits of fathers involvement. First, we know that the involvement of fathers in their children’s learning and education is associated with better educational outcomes, with better school attendance and behaviour and higher educational expectations. There are also associations with better social and emotional outcomes for children as well.

And secondly I believe that that the benefits to children – girls and boys – of seeing and experiencing men in caring roles is also very important

It challenges children’s gender stereotypes and all that flows from those stereotypes: from current behaviour to their future careers, to the attitudes and expectations those children will later have to being parents themselves.

And so, the impact of shared care on children is therefore also potentially very important for us as a society too.

When our 3 children were young, my husband and I both worked part-time for 10 years and shared direct care of our children. Whilst I don’t want to foist our solution on others, I know from personal experience the profound benefits to him, me, and most importantly our children.

We also need to bear in mind that the way in which we engage parents has to mirror the way in which family life has changed.

In two thirds of families, both parents work full-time – up from just under half as little as twenty years ago.

The role that fathers play in childcare has increased too – fathers do thirty per cent more childcare than they did twenty years ago. And in thirty per cent of couples with children, the woman is the main breadwinner.

So, as a start, we need awareness and recognition in every organisational level and strategic level that when we say parents, we mean mothers and fathers.

This understanding of modern parenting must be an essential part of a modern children’s workforce.

LEGISLATION

Much of this is about changing cultures and attitudes.

Making this happen demands a push on several different levels.

In the first instance, there’s legislation.

And here we can really say we’ve made progress. Enabling parents mothers and fathers to share caring duties more effectively. And to make real choices about how they manage work and childcare.

Pioneering legislation on paternity leave is proving increasingly popular. Four in five fathers are now using their new entitlement to paternity leave.

And alongside the increases in maternity leave that come into force next April, will come the option to share that leave between both parents. So they can make the choice that is right for their family. We estimate that this will help almost a quarter of a million fathers.

Then there’s the Childcare Act – one of the most radical pieces of legislation this government has undertaken.

Putting choice for mothers and fathers in how they balance work and childcare firmly on the statute books.

And making it clear that the childcare workforce must represent the community it serves.

That means attracting more men to the profession. Not as tokens. But as highly respected professionals, bringing their own unique talents, skills and attributes, and acting as positive role models.

And from next April, all public bodies will have a duty to promote gender equality.

That doesn’t mean simply eliminating discrimination. It means actively thinking about how to promote gender equality. For deliverers of children’s services, schools and colleges, this means thinking about men as practitioners and fathers as important users of services.

ENGAGING PARENTS AT A STRATEGIC LEVEL

So there is a helpful framework in place to encourage better engagement with fathers. And to give fathers more flexibility to take on a greater caring role from when their children are very young.

But on its own, this will not be enough to change behaviours. In particular, to tackle some of those unconscious but powerful messages tell fathers they are neither important nor particularly welcome:

Being ignored or not greeted by the array of mothers and female staff when they pick up their children from school or go to a children’s centre.

Or feeling discouraged from getting involved in school life because of their own experiences of school or because everything under the banner of parental engagement is targeted at mothers.

And in case anyone thinks I’m overstating the case, just remember, as a woman, how difficult it can still be, in 21st century Britain, if you’re the only woman in a territory that’s traditionally and exclusively male.

It’s very easy to think that these are intractable problems that we can’t change. But I believe we can.

Engaging parents more effectively is something that we are already asking Local Authorities to do much more of.

This means, first, schools, public health services, health visitors, all local authority services – including libraries, arts and leisure – thinking specifically about parents.

And distinctively about fathers – not just mothers.

Second, providing targeted services for those children and young people and parents who need extra help or have specific problems. Social workers and health professionals asking to see fathers as well as mothers.

And third, challenging those parents whose behaviour or indifference is damaging their children’s futures. How often is it only mothers who are hauled up to answer for their children’s truancy or antisocial behaviour. This is the other side of the coin – fathers have to be held accountable too, whether living with their children or not.

So the messages are clear. All our services, whether universal, such as schools and health visiting, or specialist, such as substance misuse or paediatrics, have to think routinely about parents as an essential part of the child’s world. And to go beyond that to think routinely about fathers as well as mothers. And to send a clear signal to fathers, with father friendly literature and initiatives, that they are included.

Both as individuals in our personal behaviour and as professionals from the children’s workforce, we can make a difference.

GOOD PRACTICE IS OUT THERE

Schools, children’s centres and Sure Start programmes across England are showing us how to do this.

Like the Barrow-in-Furness Sure Start programme. Where what started as a Saturday coffee morning for fathers and children has now expanded into an extensive programme for fathers.

With structured activities and training for fathers run by other fathers. Providing support for them not only as dads but as people, with accredited training programmes that has seen many of them go on to get better jobs and set up their own business.

So the programme is not only improving parenting, it’s driving regeneration and making a profound difference to the whole community.

And now, it’s actively taking on new challenges like providing more support for teenage fathers.

Some of you may also have come across the Dads Matter project, set up by Cooper Lane Primary School in Lewisham in 2004.

The head at Cooper Lane was concerned that with only one male teacher out of a staff of 24, that there were few positive male role models for pupils. And with little visible input from fathers in homework, reading or aspects of school life, it became clear there was a need to involve fathers more actively.

That was two years ago. There’s now a thriving network of over sixty dads who meet regularly and are now driving forward the school’s reading champions programme.

Making a real difference to their sons and daughters’ achievement.

I’ve met fathers at many children’s centres and the impact on them and on their families, without exception, has been profound.

There’s nothing to say that more of this couldn’t happen as part of other Sure Start programmes and in other schools. Yes, it takes planning.

And a will to challenge stereotypes and patterns of behaviour, to think outside the box. But the benefits are very, very clear.

Fathers feeling more able and more supported to make the positive contribution that they want to make to their children’s futures

And in particular, getting more actively involved in their children’s education. Something we know is especially important in raising the achievement of boys.

WORKFORCE AND RECRUITMENT

But I know that there are also other particular barriers that we need to address.

In particular, we need to improve recruitment and retention in the children’s workforce.

It’s notable that the professions in this country suffering the most acute shortages are those where either men or women are severely underrepresented.

Women account for only 25% of the workforce in science, engineering and technology.

Yet they account for 80% of the workforce in health and social care.

But in some parts of children’s services men are even more in the minority.

Only around four per cent of the child care workforce is male.

That compares with around ten per cent of nursing staff, and around sixteen per cent of primary school staff.

Getting more men working in childcare is essential if we want to improve recruitment and retention.

It’s also essential if we want to build a workforce that genuinely reflects the diversity of the community it serves.

Challenges pre-conceptions about whose responsibility working with children is.

And provides more male role models for children where there are none at home.

This means raising the status of the profession – making it a more attractive career option for both men and women.

Offering childcare workers the level of training and support that befits the importance of what they do by improving the qualifications and status of the early years workforce.

With more professionals trained to degree level. And an integrated qualifications framework that gives professionals more opportunities to progress and greater flexibility to move between different career paths.

CONCLUSION

I believe passionately that fathers need to be able to play their part. And as a Government, we need to support them.

Not just to come home from work and help put the children to bed at night. That’s not the limit of the contribution that most fathers want to make.

Nor is it the role they should be playing in a modern society.

At every organisational, strategic and professional level, we need to be thinking about what we can do to engage mothers and fathers.

So they have the option to be actively involved in childcare, even when their children are very little.

So they feel welcome in schools and they recognise the importance of getting involved in their children’s education.

So they feel their unique role as a parent is represented and understood when they go to their local children’s centre or GP’s surgery.

None of this should sound like a revolution. It’s what most fathers want.

Being a parent is one of the most rewarding jobs that any of us will ever do.

And it’s only right that the contribution of each parent is recognised and valued as it should be.’

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