Minister calls on services to ‘Think Fathers’

20 March 2009

Children’s minister Beverley Hughes has called on professionals in schools, health, early years, social work, youth work and police to challenge ‘father-blindness’ in their practice.

Ms Hughes was speaking at the 5th Annual ‘Reaching Out’ Conference, run by the National Childbirth Trust and Sowing Seeds, in Manchester on 16 March (photo courtesy of NCT). The full text of her speech is below…

beverley at nct march 09Good morning, and thank you all for coming along today to the 5th Annual Reaching Out Conference. It’s a genuine pleasure to be here as a guest of the National Childbirth Trust and Sowing Seeds, who have both done such a huge amount to help families in the North West.

As I’m sure most of you’ll all know, the two organisations have a proud history of supporting parents and helping to transform the lives of mothers, children and of course fathers – on whom I will be talking today.

This is work that both myself and my Ministerial colleagues hugely appreciate so I’d just like to start by passing on my sincere thanks to everyone here – both in my capacity as Minister for the North West and as Minister for Children, Young People and Families.

Now – as we all know, there’s been a huge change in the role fathers have played over the last 60 or so years – with men taking a far more active part in raising their children than ever before.

And to a large extent, I think this change has been driven by men themselves, whose expectations in the 21st century amount to far more than being the family breadwinner.

For example, fathers now spend double the amount time with their children than their predecessors did in the 1980s. And we know that they’re worried – just as any mother would be – about whether they’re doing a good enough job for their children.

But at the same time as men’s perceptions of fatherhood have been changing, general attitudes towards dads have moved at an almost glacial speed by comparison.

And I think to some extent this has been reflected in the way public services treat fathers – with dads often contacted as a second resort by schools or made to feel like a bit of spare part if they walk into the health centre when their partner goes for ante-natal services.

Only recently, a friend whose partner was expecting their first child told me how awful he had felt at the first hospital visit – totally ignored, no-one asked his name or who he was. His presence was simply not acknowledged. A professional man himself, working in public services, he was shocked and incredulous at how he was treated.

And what a lost opportunity – a failure to underscore the importance of fathers from the earliest moments in a child’s life.

So today I want to demonstrate that we should all be thinking about fathers distinctively when we deliver policies and services – to ensure they’re properly ‘father-proofed’. And to help ensure fathers around the country aren’t treated as the ‘invisible parent’.

As a first step, I launched our Think Fathers campaign at the end of last year to help raise awareness around these issues and promote change in our public services.

Because we know that if we involve dads more in education and children’s welfare, we harvest the benefits that can come through children having loving and supportive relationships with their fathers.

Benefits that can include young people doing better at school, being less likely to grow up with mental health problems and being less likely to struggle to form strong relationships with their peers.

But as we all know, active fatherhood is not just a matter of gender equality – of mothers and fathers sharing responsibilities more fairly. It’s about what’s right for children, what gives them the best chance of happiness and success in their lives.

However, there can be important benefits for the couple too – with some evidence that when a father shares the care of his children from early on, the relationship between the parents is more stable, with stronger commitment to each other and their children.

And this is why the last ten years have seen an unprecedented rise in the amount of support on offer to families, helping to give every single child the very best possible start in life – regardless of where they are born or what their parents do for a living.

We have, for instance:

– Increased financial support for working families through the introduction of child tax credits and working family tax credits;
– We’ve introduced measures to improve work life balance -including the right for parents of young children to ask for flexible working;
– And we’ve set up nearly 3,000 Children’s Centres around the country, whilst investing more than £100 million to expand our network of Parent Support Advisers.

The challenge – I think – is to make sure that these universal, progressive policies are implemented in the spirit to which they were intended – as policies for everyone, including fathers.

And to encourage professionals right across the board – in schools, health, early years, social work, youth work and police – to look carefully at what they do and to ask the question – are we father-blind?

To raise the volume on this issue with a sustained campaign over the coming months that will change policy and practice at both local and national levels.

I saw a really encouraging example of how effective it can be to ‘Think Fathers’ when I went to a school earlier this year that’s been actively getting dads to take more of a stake in their children’s education. And I’m delighted to see the pioneering headteacher – Steve Davies – here today.

Fathers have been having regular meetings with the school’s headmaster at a local pub – and they’ve even been getting involved as reading champions at the school. Encouraging pupils to pick up a book by reading to them in class.

And it has to be said the practical benefits have been something a revelation, with teachers seeing a consistent improvement in results – both in literacy and other areas.

But it’s not been all plain sailing, with some mothers initially sceptical both about the seriousness of meeting in a pub and the benefits of fathers’ involvement. There may be a broader issue here that I can pose to this largely female audience – do we women find it difficult in practice to share this domain with our men? Sharing the care of my children with my husband, I can remember feeling anxious about that with our first baby.

However, there is strong and tangible evidence of the importance of involving dads – and it’s why I’m so grateful to both The National Childbirth Trust and Sowing Seeds for organising today’s conference and supporting Think Fathers.

So how can we take this forward and achieve a real step change in involving fathers routinely?

These are my immediate priorities: First, we should be looking at our relationship support services to make sure that they meet the needs of both men and women.

Which means frontline practitioners working as Parent Support Advisers or in Family Intervention Projects thinking specifically about fathers as well as mothers.

And second, we should be encouraging staff in Children’s Centres to make sure that men feel welcome when they come through the doors – not uncomfortable or ill at ease in their surroundings.

That won’t happen by accident or default. Services have to work at it by signalling that men are welcome, providing specifically for men, at least at first.

Third, it will be crucial that teachers and schools involve dads in their child’s education and well being, whether those men live with their child or not.

And finally we need to think very carefully about how we engage dads in antenatal and maternity services – which follows on from the publication of the Government’s Child Health Care strategy, which sets out – very explicitly – the role that men can – and should have in helping their children lead, healthy and happy lives.

By thinking Fathers, we’re thinking families really. Thinking about what’s right for young people everywhere, about what gives them the best chance of happiness and success later on.

To help this process, government has already introduced the right to request flexible working for both fathers and mothers of young and disabled children.

But at the moment, men don’t request flexibility as much and, when they do, they are much more likely to be refused. So there’s a job to be done with employers too.

So we’ll continue to promote the availability of different working patterns for fathers too – as well as paid paternity leave introduced now for the first time. Giving men the opportunity to build a bond with their babies and support mums in those crucial early days.

And I hope we can continue to make sure that we ‘Think Fathers’ in every service we deliver and every policy we unveil.

So working with key stakeholders, we’ll continue to drive forward this message in every way we can over the next few months -because there are compelling reasons why we simply cannot ignore what you’ve told us about fathers and their families.

Not least, if we’re serious about enabling every child to reach their potential – and we are;

If we’re serious about helping families to be the stable, safe havens children need – and we are.

Then we cannot continue to ignore one half of the parental partnership that is so crucial to our joint ambitions. We owe it to our children – and mums – to ‘Think Fathers’.

So finally, let me just repeat my thanks.

Because the enthusiasm and dedication of people who work in family services is something we should all take pride in. As is the extent to which you’ve been able to transform lives and reinvigorate the family sector, making provision less patchy and inconsistent.

Our challenge now is to bring that passion and innovation to change the way fathers and their families are treated by every single public service.

Not easy. Because it means challenging longstanding attitudes and practice. And it means challenging ourselves.

So over the coming months I hope we can work together to help drive the campaign forward – through both our attitudes and actions.

Together, we can reverse the outdated, outmoded and frankly out of touch assumption that active fathers are bolt-on family accessories – nice to have but not essential.

Thanks so much for inviting me along today, it has been a real pleasure and I hope the rest of the conference is a success.

Think Fathers flyer

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