The invisible men

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
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

At the first conference on fatherhood held by the charity Children in Scotland, a man stood up after the first speaker and, holding a microphone close to his mouth, asked quietly: "Can everyone see me?"

The audience, made up of community workers, care professionals, teachers and fathers, looked bemused. Did he mean "hear" me?

"You see, for the past seven years I have been invisible," he explained.

The breakdown of his marriage had resulted in exclusion from his children's lives, especially from their school. He was never informed of parents'

evenings or sports day. His children didn't want to spend their precious time with him doing homework, understandably, so he never knew what they were doing in class. And he had no idea about their friends.

For the first time in seven years, he felt that, instead of talking academically about how important fathers are, he was with people intent on investigating how public services could help expand the role of fathers in their children's lives.

That was in June, and the charity had struggled to attract delegates for the event, even though it was supported by Fathers Direct and the Equal Opportunities Commission.

Six months on, at its second event, held yesterday in Edinburgh, it was a different story. Word had got around about "Developing Fatherhood Skills"

and Children in Scotland was forced to turn away people from across the UK.

"We expected to have 40 to 60 delegates but we had more than 100, which was all we could accommodate. Many had to be refused tickets,"

explains Stephen Harvey, the charity's development and information officer, who over the next three years will develop its programme on increasing paternal involvement. "Those working with children want to do more to help fathers be involved."

Children, Fathers and Fatherhood is a national approach, launched this year, to issues affecting children and fathers in Scotland. It aims to raise awareness of those issues and encourage all dads to develop their fatherhood skills.

One of those skills includes encouraging a child through school. Studies have repeatedly highlighted the positive role fathers can have in their children's education. Interest and involvement are strongly associated with better education outcomes for children, including better attitudes towards school, higher expectations, better behaviour and reduced risk of exclusion, greater progress at school, better class and exam results and higher levels of educational qualifications.

Yet getting fathers involved is a demanding task, especially after the collapse of a marriage. Communication is usually with the parent who has chief custody, typically the mother. Sending letters to both parents has cost implications.

Even where the family unit is together, it is often the mother with whom the school has contact. Parents' groups tend to be dominated by women and often more mothers than fathers attend parents' evening.

"Where schools are willing to communicate with both parents, they still take the lead from the mother, asking if she wishes the father to be included. Why is that?" asks Mr Harvey, a father, former English teacher and poet, who became a policeman, before going back to teaching in Iraq. He returned about a year ago and lives separately from his five children, so he understands many of the issues facing fathers.

"I am in no way attacking mothers on this, but we do need to see more of a balance," he says.

"Schools have become highly feminised," says Kenny Spence, founder of Men in Childcare and co-ordinator of a dads' club at Gilmerton family centre in Edinburgh. "It can be off-putting for a man to come into such an all-female environment. So schools have to make an effort to be more welcoming to men."

Men in Childcare was set up five years ago to encourage men to consider a career in early years provision. Since then, more than 700 have taken certificated training programmes across the country (in Ayr, Dundee, Edinburgh, Falkirk, Kilmarnock and Paisley) and this year 11 men graduated from Stevenson College in Edinburgh with HNCs in childcare.

However, with teaching becoming increasingly dominated by women - only 7 per cent of primary teachers are men and the gender split in secondary schools is moving towards a female bias - schools have to look at ways to draw fathers into school.

One way has been to develop projects aimed at improving fathering skills.

Sanquhar Primary in Dumfries and Galloway has set up a fathers' club, similar to those run by community and family centres. Still in its early days, it has proved successful, helping to make men feel more at ease in the school setting.

"It is an ideal situation for the fathers to meet others who are in similar circumstances," says Anna McCann, the headteacher.

It is hoped that, from there, they will feel more positive about school in general and be more encouraging of their child's education. She has found that once the men have got over the hurdle of attending a fathers' group, they are less reluctant to attend other school events.

Other schools may also find that fathers are interested in groups that help them become better dads or, if they live apart from their children, provide an opportunity to engage with them within school.

"We want to build up a network of fathers' groups, so there is somewhere for them to go with their children and where they can feel positive about their fathering," says Mr Harvey. "Too often the role of the father is undermined in the media. We need to show that not all dads are like Homer Simpson."

The seminar held yesterday focused on activities that can improve fatherhood skills and help men engage more with their children. Lin Patfield, a play therapist, led a session on play as a way of building father-child relationships; Neil Orr, from the Scottish Football Association, talked about coaching at schools; other sessions covered being creative, music, dance, storytelling and cooking.

"The seminar was for anyone who works with fathers and children and there were even dads there," says Mr Harvey. "We want more teachers to be involved as they are in a good position to pass these skills along."

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