A man of his times

25th January 2008 at 00:00
A social worker is rewarded for his pioneering work with males of all ages.

In his 31 years as a social worker, John Black has seen a step change in teachers' attitudes.

There was a time not so long ago when heads and teachers would debate whether to send a letter or invitation to a father who did not live in the same household as his child. That, he says, is no longer the case.

Earlier this month, Mr Black - a 53-year-old project worker with Children 1st's East Renfrewshire Family Support Service - was named Scotland's social worker of the year, the first time the British Association of Social Workers has recognised frontline social work in Scotland. The award acknowledges his pioneering work supporting fathers, male carers, boys and young men.

In his three years based at Barrhead, he has focused on engaging men and boys, mainly through building up their confidence and self-esteem. He runs a group for the fathers of older children, including parenting classes. The members have now reached the stage where they can discuss many emotional issues openly, but it has been a long process.

Mr Black also supports young fathers on a one-to-one basis. For some of these men, speaking to the headteacher, or class teacher, would be too daunting to handle on their own. So he will accompany them to the school, even if it's just a case of sitting in the waiting-room and giving them moral support. On other occasions, he will act as the teacher and rehearse the issues likely to be covered in the meeting.

The way to relate to boys, and their fathers, is through activities, he has found. Neither group responds to a direct emotional approach. Mr Black also believes that single-sex groups work much better than mixed groups for boys because there is more chance of them expressing their feelings. Ideally, however, he suggests they should be run by a male and female facilitator, so that the boys get different perspectives which are more likely to mirror that of their parents.

He points out that the focus, even in legislation, has always been on the mother's role and it can still be difficult for men to access services. Even health centres are geared towards women, not men, he argues. And of course, the field of social work is dominated by women, as is primary teaching.

"I used to go into secondary schools and not see a single male guidance member of staff," he says. "Sometimes when I go into a primary school, the only male is the 'jannie', the headteacher or someone from outside. That's why I'm keen to go into schools because many of these children can spend five days a week with a female teacher and then go home to an all-female environment."

Much of Mr Black's work is with families with a drug or alcohol problem. While he applauds many of the innovations in drugs education, he wishes some of it was more tailored to the children's experiences. "It's all very well telling young people why they should not get into drugs, but what about how hard it is to live in an area where there are 10-year-olds selling drugs in school?"

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