Interview with Roger Olley

26 July 2008

ROGER OLLEY and his team, based at Children North-East have been developing engagement with fathers in the region for more than ten years. A particularly productive partnership has been with Sure Start Ferryhill & Chilton (now Dean Bank Children’s Centre where fathers no longer simply attend “men’s activities” but access a range of services.

We used to say ‘get a dads worker in’. Now we know it’s a useful adjunct but not the whole story: in fact, there can be real resistance from the staff, who tend to think ‘if there’s a fathers’ worker we don’t have to do anything’. We tried renaming the post ‘fathers’ champion’ but the resistance was still there.

One of the Sure Starts – Ferryhill & Chilton (Durham) – appointed a fathers’ worker very early on, and were able to support her fully to engage everyone else in the team. For example, we worked on a ‘script’ together so she had clear, confident answers when people challenged her about her work: ‘You’ve got such small numbers – why do you bother?!’ ‘What about domestic violence?’ ‘Are we going to have to work Saturdays?’ ‘Aren’t the women going to lose out?’

Leadership from the top

A very important thing about Ferryhill is that the manager, Carol Dawson, was committed from the word go, so there was leadership from the top. And she had a clear community development model, not a health model, which was great because a community development model is not an exclusive model. Carol took a big chance in inviting us in right in the early days. She did what Sure Start was supposed to do – to do something different and meet the needs of communities

We introduced ongoing team training that could be delivered in bite-sized chucks. So, for instance, I would go in and provide a 1-2 hour session for the team on ‘why work with fathers?’ We always included the wider partners (health visitors, community workers) and that got people thinking about what other people did and they realised it wasn’t so complex if everybody got involved.

AND ALSO they realised it would help them reach their targets. For instance, when they get dads involved with breastfeeding (understanding why it’s important and how they can help), then mothers are more likely to start – and continue. So we’ve been showing them that engaging with fathers can help them meet their existing goals. And of course one of those goals now is to engage with dads, particularly in Children’s Centres but everywhere, really, with the Children’s Plan and Every Parent Matters, and the rest.

Preparing the workforce – and the service users

Another thing we found was that we had to work with the whole team on an intensely personal level. Every worker had an intensely personal view of men, fathers and fatherhood; and we had to subtly and carefully address those issues and get them to start to disengage from the personal and give space to the professional.

And we also had to build their skills – how to engage with fathers. So, for instance:, the dads’ worker accompanied the home visiting staff to ‘meet the men’ and model inclusive engagement; and we encouraged individual workers to come into the men’s groups, which reduced the fear factor and helped them see that the fathers were just parents..

Now the issue of working with fathers is in the job descriptions when posts are advertised: the ‘p’ (‘parent’) word is never used – instead it refers to ‘mothers and fathers’. And the topic of engaging with the dads is also raised in both induction and supervision. In supervision, there are clear ‘prompt’ questions: ‘how are you including fathers?’ ‘how’s it going working with fathers?’

The dads’ worker also went into the women’s groups – because the existing programme users also have fears. So we were very careful to keep the female users informed about what we were doing and why we were doing it. In fact, we were actually informally training them. That’s the bedrock for success, because if you don’t have the female service users on board and if they don’t believe it is important to engage with the men, then you are scuppered.

Developing father-inclusive systems

You can’t systematically engage with fathers until you’ve got their contact details – and when Sure Start was first set up none of the databases recognised fathers or men. That meant the services actually thought they weren’t there. One service told me this, so I set them the task of auditing male involvement: they were to note down all the parents who ‘touched’ the service, and identify them as male or female. More than 50% were male!

Changing the registration forms has been a long process, because even if there’s space for ‘Parent 1’ and ‘Parent 2’ there’s still, usually, only one list of concerns: the form ask just one parent (and of course it’s the mother) about breastfeeding or smoking. That’s not good enough, because the dads need to be directly addressed about these things if they’re to make a contribution or change negative behaviour (like stopping smoking or beginning to smoke outside). We’ve developed a generic form that is designed to capture detail on both parents which we are happy to send out to people who request it from

We’ve also tackled referrals, filleting the referral forms for the children’s centres – and have put forward a model of one for good practice (we also share this with practitioners who request it from us at

The way it works is, that the person to whom the referral is made looks at it, and if there isn’t mention of the father, they go to the referrer and say: ‘we don’t just want this, we want information on the father and any father-figures’. Initially there was huge resistance from local referring agencies because of cost of gathering this information. However, after one of our local authorities was heavily criticised because of the death of a child, we’ve seen real headway on this. The death acted as a light bulb.

Fathers groups?

Our attitudes to dads’ groups have also changed. We don’t tolerate a ‘captive dads’ group (the kind where you get them and hang on to them). We talk about a ‘progressive dads’ group. The fathers should move on and out from any group – into work, skill building, increased parenting skills, learning.

Running trips and special activities for dads can set up resistances (‘why are the dads having all the fun?’) so we attached learning outcomes to them: ’what did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your child? What will you do differently next time?’

In thinking about what to provide we asked the question: ‘how do we give the guys an experience that leads to other things?’ Out of that came a Martial Arts course, run by a local specialist, but with the dads’ worker also attending. We’d identified that anxiety and depression were big issues for our male clients and saw this activity as a chance for the guys to relax (a lot of the exercises are yoga-based), let off steam, be male and share their experiences.

BUT we also saw we needed to build in progression OUT OF THE GROUP. So we built in a break where people sat and had coffee/a snack. At that social point they would tend to mention issues for them (like not sleeping or feeling very angry), and we’d then move into a half hour structured discussion about what you do about it, what support mechanisms are around you, and so on. And we were always taking the opportunity to talk them about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. And then, slowly but surely we started to offer them opportunities to do other things. Food hygiene came out of it because they wanted to put food on and weren’t allowed to do it. They also did forklift truck driving and bricklaying – from that they moved into work – and also used the Bishop Aukland Men into Childcare programme to become childcare workers

Recruiting fathers

Getting to the dads has been another learning curve. We use a social marketing approach where we say: ‘you need to be here because this is what is in it for your child.’ If they say sod off we go back at a later date – always! We never let it drop. Initially we were inviting them into a dads’ group and dads’ activities but now we’ve got them more into the wider activities.

What was really important here was giving the guys permission to attend – and we realised permissions come from many levels, including from senior managers agreeing that men are important and should be included and that sessions should be relevant to men. The workers also had to give the men permission by feeling comfortable with them and pleased to see them – by valuing them as human beings.

Other ways in which permission had to be given was to have services that really take account of the father’s position: breastfeeding leaflets for dads, for instance. Also, the men have to be given permission to act like men rather than like an honorary woman – they often don’t conform to the norms and mores of the female-based group.

The female service users also have to give them permission. For example, it’s really common to see the men and children playing on floor and the women chatting round the edge. The men get covered in kids – and you have to do a lot of work with the mothers for that to happen. Dads at Ferryhill are now accessing Play and Stay, Baby Massage and the rest of the services.

Keeping going . . .

A key learning point for us has been that the moment you take your foot off the accelerator things go back light years. The whole culture is so heavily weighted towards servicing women and passively (and sometimes actively) excluding men that you need to exert continuing ongoing pressure. You can never, ever, rest on your laurels!


Roger Olley
Head Of Service (Fatherwork)
Children North East
89 Denhill Park
Newcastle upon Tyne
NE15 6QE

Tel: 08451307225

Interview with Roger Olley