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Leave it to dad

In the macho environment of a former mining community in South Wales, getting fathers involved in school was a challenge. Louise Tickle finds out how a club called Superdads has saved the day

In the macho environment of a former mining community in South Wales, getting fathers involved in school was a challenge. Louise Tickle finds out how a club called Superdads has saved the day

Getting mums into Pen Pych community primary has never been difficult. But creating an environment where dads get involved with their children's schooling is a trickier task.

This small school at the end of the Rhondda valley in South Wales caters to a community torn apart by the loss of mining jobs and other associated industries over the past two decades. Tower Colliery, famous for being bought and run by local miners, is just in the next valley, but last year it too finally closed for business. Men in their thousands lost their jobs, their ability to provide for their families and often their self- respect.

And the culture of what Gareth Todd Jones, Pen Pych's headteacher, describes as this "very macho" society means it has been hard for fathers to carve out a new role that involves hands-on care for their children. It was with this in mind that he set up Superdads, an after-school club where fathers and children get stuck into activities from camping to cookery.

Courtney Francis, 11, is the eldest club member. Her dad, Phil, is one of the founding members of the club, and they've been doing fun stuff together every term-time Tuesday afternoon since she was three years old.

"We do loads," she says. "We play rounders, go camping, swimming. We go to the Millennium Stadium to watch the rugby, too. It's just some time for me and my dad together."

Mothers and fathers, says Mr Francis, treat children differently and that seems one of the reasons why pupils love Superdads.

"On the first camping trip we ran, it was pouring down," he recalls. "The children were running back and forth in the rain getting soaked, and one of the dads said: `Wouldn't it be different if the wives were here? We'd all be inside'." Despite the rain, the weekend under canvas was clearly a big hit, despite everyone having to sleep on what Caitlin Saye, seven, remembers as "very hard beds".

Ian, her dad, does a lot of travelling because of his work on the railways, so he doesn't always find it easy to spend time with his two daughters. "In the past two years, since coming here on Tuesdays, I feel we've drawn closer," he says. "I was in Devon this morning and really tried to make it back in time."

This focus on the children represents a major culture change, says Mr Todd Jones. "Because the man was the sole provider, his wellbeing was vital and his needs were catered for first," he explains. "He ate first, he bathed first, he slept first. Children were kept out of the way, almost an annoyance, and childcare was seen as women's work. Many of the men who grew up here - and I am one of them - did not have much of a relationship with their father - except when discipline was required."

Mr Todd Jones emphasises that Pen Pych - housed in a glass and timber building erected 10 years ago to replace three smaller schools - is a community resource where he wants everyone to feel welcome.

Before setting up Superdads, he canvassed opinions from mothers who were school volunteers and secured their all-important backing. The women subsequently sent their men down to the local rugby club - "it was important that I met them on their territory, not mine," says Mr Todd Jones - where the first meeting was held and the club was born.

"I was the only male who even came into school at that time," says Martin Broome, who has been bringing his daughter Katie, 10, to Superdads since she was two-and-a-half.

"We didn't know what to expect," says Mr Francis, who also went along to that first meeting and is now the group's treasurer. "There are no books about how to do this kind of thing, though I know that the Government is getting keener on it."

At subsequent meetings, the group consolidated its aims, with the emphasis on encouraging fathers to enjoy "play with education" with their children.

The school has always paid for Superdads' activities on its premises and puts on minibus transport when needed. When there's a more expensive activity, the dads join forces to raise money, with occasional support from teachers when complex grant applications need filling out. And the fathers all put in a pound a week to pay for Christmas and Easter treats.

Superdads has just been recognised as a prime example of what the Family and Parenting Institute outlined in its recently published report as a successful model of school-parent partnerships (see panel).

Its report on the importance of parental involvement in a child's school life was published in April, and Pen Pych primary is used to illustrate one of five distinct strategies that work to help parents feel more welcome and at ease with the teachers, the national curriculum and the day-to-day activities of their child's school.

Getting parents to participate more actively in their child's educational world is, unsurprisingly, known to be influential in helping them achieve both at school and in life.

Fathers, suggests Mr Todd Jones, play a very special role in this regard. "When mum comes to pick them up and they see her, there's a comfortable sense for the child that they're safe," he explains. "But there's a different look in their eyes when they see their dad - there's an excitement. They're thinking, `this is someone who's going to let me have some fun and let me take some risks'."

"That's critical, because it builds confidence and self-esteem. When we've all gone on a trip, they might get dirty and wet and eat when they like, and mum's influence has completely disappeared. What mum can do and what dad can do are different, and a child needs both for their overall development."

There are, of course, significant barriers to overcome before some parents will feel comfortable wandering into school. At Pen Pych, one of the biggest was the community's sense that childcare was not a man's job. Others picked out by the Family and Parenting Institute's report include parents' worries that they lack useful skills, a reluctance felt by parents who hadn't really enjoyed their own time in education, and a simple lack of time due to the heavy demands of work and childcare.

All five of the institute's models for increasing parental involvement in school require a genuine willingness to listen to what parents say, an openness to trying new approaches when old ones don't work and, crucially, sustained effort and interest from the school's senior leadership team.

"The watchword is commitment," says Mr Todd Jones. "You can't set it up and walk away, or leave it to others. But I'm very aware of the dependency culture, which was almost thriving in these valleys, and so more recently I have very, very gently let it go a little.

"So now the dads run the club, and it's their ideas that prompt the activities. But I or one of my senior team is always there on Tuesdays. Sometimes I've been tired or had a shocking day and I don't want to do it, but I have to."

If, as the institute's report suggests, getting parents to engage with school is about transforming the culture so that families become an integral part of the school community, then Pen Pych primary seems to have got it right so far: no extra-curricular activity, after all, would sustain itself for a decade if the adults involved weren't feeling valued and enjoying themselves.

Increasingly too, suggests Mr Todd Jones, these men have helped to change the way that a father's role is perceived outside the school gates.

"As the years have gone by, what these men do in the community is recognised now," he says. "And I'm proud of them for that."

Parent power in school

According to the Family and Parenting Institute's recent report, proven ways of involving parents in the life of their child's school include:

  • Community development approaches, such as fathers' and mothers' groups. These groups must be supported - and, where appropriate, attended by senior management.
  • Employing a dedicated school-parent link worker, based on the school site, and readily available to parents to ease day-to-day worries and concerns.
  • One-to-one welfare work with parents, via a social worker or education welfare officer based in school.
  • Good information flow. Regular meetings for parents, with consideration for how working and non-working parents can attend.
  • Learning opportunities offered on the school site leading to recognised qualifications.

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