Roger Olley

The campaigner for fathers' inclusion in care services and education talks about men's experience of pregnancy, what it was like to be Newcastle's first male health visitor and how schools could be more father-friendly. Interview by Emma Seith. Photography by Colin Hattersley

Why do fathers need a champion?

Because of inequality in the system, frankly. I'll give you an example: I called a senior midwife who was doing a survey of consumers of maternity services and said I could help her to find out what dads think. She said: "Don't be ridiculous - fathers are not consumers of maternity services." But they are pregnant men. Not physiologically, but socially, emotionally, financially, these guys are pregnant - but there are not services for them because of deep-seated institutionalised thinking. If you think about early education, they talk about involving parents, but we know on the whole that involving parents means involving mothers. But research by Rebecca Goldman showed that fathers' involvement in their children's education matters and mothers' involvement is not a substitute. If we don't involve fathers, we're failing children.

Is the problem with the services or are some fathers unwilling to engage?

Where I come from in the North East, men worked in the yards or heavy industry and the wife had the traditional role of mother and carer. There has been a huge shift in that over the years; unfortunately the systems have not caught up. Early years staffing is 98 per cent female - bringing men into these highly feminised cultures is difficult for men and women.

You qualified as the first male health visitor trained and employed in Newcastle in 1991. How were you received?

They did not want to take me on the training course. I was asked to do things my colleagues had not been asked to do. Eventually, I called a halt and said if they didn't take me, it was going to get serious.

Do men want to work in the early years and other traditionally female roles?

Yes, they do once they realise they can apply for them, but they have probably been deterred from taking these jobs at an early age. I did some work with Carol Potter, a senior lecturer in childhood studies at the University of Leeds. They got very few men on their teacher-training course and the ones they did get didn't tend to last. We developed a programme we took into schools. We talked to children in personal and social education lessons about men in childcare and produced a DVD to challenge assumptions. We asked them if they had thought about primary teaching as a career and many had not been given the option. The University of Leeds now runs a module about involving fathers in children's education.

How good are schools at working with fathers?

Schools behave appallingly badly when it comes to young fathers (who are students). Schools have no systems for collecting information about young fathers and if they find one, they don't have a clue. The systems in place to support young mums are comprehensive, but there is nothing in place for young dads. But in general terms, schools do a good job.

What should they do to make themselves more father-friendly?

Heads sometimes say to me that they have a lot of dads picking up and dropping off. That's good, but is it working with fathers and engaging fathers in their children's learning? Schools need to cop on to the fact that they are missing a trick. We held a "bring your family man to school" day. That gives the man - uncle, father, grandfather, family friend - permission to come into school and allows the school to start that process of making them welcome and explaining the value of their being there.

Schools need to develop a position statement around father and male engagement - how they are going to do it, when and so on - and everybody needs to sign up to it. Everybody has an intensely personal view of fathers and fathering, but we need to remove the personal because that can get in the way. We know that 98 per cent of the early years workforce is female and we know from the national crime survey that a high proportion of women have experienced domestic violence. That's their personal experience of men, and then we're saying bring more men into school. You can see why it's counterintuitive. Of course, there are some men and fathers you don't want near children, but they are in the minority.

You are joint editor of Engaging Fathers in the Early Years: A practitioner's guide. What's the main message?

Fathers are easier to work with in the early years because they have lots of questions about sleeping, behaviour management - the same questions women have, but they don't have the same access to information. Offering advice around these areas can be a huge hook. But there are also golden moments for engagement: more than 90 per cent of men attend the birth, their baby's first check-up, etc.

You've been working in this area for more than a decade. Do we have far to go?

There's a huge way to go. Scotland is behind the rest of the UK on this. But in terms of aspirations, the national parenting strategy aspires to engage with fathers and men. In terms of the UK, there has been a huge policy shift but little in the way of the resources and infrastructure needed to carry through on them. Scotland has the opportunity to learn from its mistakes and really push forward this agenda.

Personal profile

Born: Wardle, Lancashire, 1953

Education: Saint Joseph's Secondary Modern School, Rochdale; Open University course led to his being diagnosed as dyspraxic.

Career: Qualified as a nurse in 1975 and as a psychiatric nurse in 1979; State Registered Nurse, 1987; became Newcastle's first male health visitor in 1991, then a parenting specialist in North Tyneside and was seconded to local children's charity Children North East, where he developed the Fathers Plus project. Appointed MBE in 1991 for services to families.

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