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A place where their dads feel welcome

Not all dads are like Homer Simpson and many would like to participate more in the lives of their children. Su Clark finds out how fathers' clubs at schools are giving them the chance

Sanquhar Primary, in Dumfries and Galloway, was one of the first schools in Scotland to set up a dads' club. "There is a really nice, positive feeling about the fathers' group and it is having a big effect on the rest of the school," says Anna McCann, the headteacher.

Since it began in August, the numbers of dads dropping in at the school has increased, and at the two parents' evenings held so far this term, the attendance of fathers was higher than before.

"They are so much more relaxed around us," says Mrs McCann, following the second parents' evening a fortnight ago.

"I sometimes hold back a bit because I don't want to overwhelm any men, but they are definitely more relaxed."

Concern over boys' attainment led the school to consider ways of drawing fathers and other key male figures in children's lives into the school. But with a teaching staff of 13 women and one man, being more male-focused was a challenge. The answer was a fathers' club, run by Alex Douglas, the only male teacher, with organised events for fathers and children that would prove irresistible to both.

The club is breaking down barriers that are inhibiting men from coming to school, but is also providing an opportunity to improve fathering skills, so that the relationship between father and child is a positive one.

Improved communication is key but the group also shows fathers the sorts of activities they can do at home with their children.

Mr Douglas has organised an intensive programme of more than two events a month to sustain momentum in the first year. There have been, or are planned, sports days, overnight camping, lots of construction evenings - kite-making, model-making from cardboard, designing coats of arms, building miniature trebuchets (medieval catapults) that jettison Brussel sprouts and constructing musical instruments from rubbish - farm visits, a mobile assault day, Frisbee golf and a torch-lit treasure hunt.

"We have a mixture of evening and weekend events to make it easier for fathers to attend at least one," he says, "and we make it a different evening every month so that those who do shift work have more opportunities to come.

"We don't expect dads to come to every event.

"Our first session was photographic, where the father was photographed with his child or children and they got a free print," explains Mr Douglas. "We got more than 50 dads, uncles, grandads and carers in for that session.

"We also set up an informal play area so the men could play with the children while waiting to be photographed."

At subsequent events the numbers have been smaller, but pressure from the children who want to take part with their dads, plus the fathers' own inclination to go, means there are often more than 20 families attending.

It is hoped that within two years, the group will be father-led.

"We decided not to target individuals, although we had some idea of who we would like to get involved," says Mr Douglas. "That has proved the right approach. Those men we thought would benefit have been coming.

"And they were there at the parents' evenings.

"They are not so uncomfortable about coming into school any more."

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