Tug of love
When just one dad turned up to parents' evening, Sanquhar Primary decided it was time to act. But the fault lay not just with the dads, the only male teacher pointed out: parents' night coincided with the European cup final.
So teacher Alex Douglas pushed for a new approach to make men feel welcome and tap into their interests. On a night clear of major sporting events, men only were invited to the Dumfries and Galloway school with the promise of a free picture of them and their offspring, taken by a professional photographer (Mr Douglas's job before entering teaching).
Seventy dads and granddads turned up. While they waited their turn, entertainment was put on in the form of games, and they were invited back the following week to see a slideshow of the pictures. The reaction was unexpectedly emotional; afterwards they were invited to start a men's group.
That was five years ago and it marked the beginning of the Sanquhar Primary dads' group, a joint project involving family learning, adult learning and school staff. Today, due to popular demand, similar groups exist at Sanquhar Academy and nearby Kelloholm Primary.
Officially called MATCH (Men and Their Children), the groups meet once a month and undertake a range of activities that have maintained the high standard set that first night.
The men and their children have sorted out urgent accommodation for a lonely robin in search of a "warm and cosy", "pet free", one-bedroom apartment in the Sanquhar area, and constructed medieval catapults capable of firing Brussel sprouts. A father with woodworking skills organised a session to build a marble maze game, and a grandfather demonstrated how to whittle wooden whistles. One father even suggested recreating old television adverts, which resulted in a remake of the famous Milk Tray ad, with a child in the role of the mysterious and agile Milk Tray Man.
The event that sticks in the mind of family learning co-ordinator Mary-Ann Riddell is the torchlight treasure hunt. It was well-attended in spite of taking place in "mad, hurricane weather" and it ended with a grilling from police after locals reported "strange activity" on the golf course.
"Before we did the Chinese lanterns, we made sure we let the police know - just in case there were reports of UFO sightings!" she laughs.
The dads' own favourites include the annual residential weekends where, along with their kids, they have tried everything from abseiling to mountain biking, and the water fun day. This involved water balloons and pistols and also a water slide powered by a fireman's hose, procured by one of the dads (a fireman). Children were elbowed out of the way, the dads confess, as grown men clamoured to hurl themselves down the plastic sheeting, propelled by the torrent of water.
Over the first four years, average attendance at Sanquhar Primary's group was 14 fathers and 23 children, according to Scottish Government-funded research published in July 2009. In answer to the question: "Why did you come along for the first time?", 70 per cent of dads said they wanted to do things with their children.
The key to the men's involvement has been that activities are inventive and fun, they say. It's also significant that everything is free - and in small towns like Sanquhar and Kelloholm, not much else goes on in the evenings.
Text messages and letters in school bags are used to lure in dads and their children, but the powers that be (the school, authority and dads' committee) don't shy away from underhand tactics to ensure attendance. When a storytelling session was suggested - a move away from the usual hands-on activities - uptake was low, so teachers sparked the children's interest and let pester power deliver the dads.
The groups are also timed to maximise participation, explains Ms Riddell. They always meet for a couple of hours in the early evening, but the day of the week changes to ensure that no one is consistently excluded because of work commitments.
"Unemployment is high in Sanquhar, but the open-cast mine is one of the few employers and the men often work long shifts," she says.
Ms Riddell is convinced the groups are making a difference to children's learning - and to the dads. She points out that research has shown positive father involvement in children's learning is associated with better exam results, better school attendance and behaviour, and higher quality of later relationships.
Relationships between the school and families have already improved, she says. The school is aware of the skills the dads have to offer and can tap into them, and the fathers feel more involved in school life.
"The boys especially just love spending time with their dads," says Ms Riddell. "Primary schools are run by women. You might get the occasional token male teacher now and again but it tends to be women teachers, and then mum does the homework and reading. What is implied is that learning is women's work and not macho. But if they see dad taking part, that changes."
The mothers have long been recognised as the main link locally between home and school, acknowledges Morag Bryce, headteacher of Kelloholm Primary, but thanks to the men's groups, that is changing.
"Very real barriers for the men have been breached with this project," she says. "It is the first real, positive way of changing the perceptions of the community.
"A trust has been built within this group. They are supportive of each other. They are social. They are responsible within the community. They are supportive of the school.
"They are developing their own potential, that of their child and," she would argue, "the potential for change within the community."
The men talk about past dads' club exploits with grins that expand as one happy memory triggers another, then another and another.
This evening, it's their "final fling", an event organised during the summer holidays to celebrate all they have undertaken with their children during the year. But perhaps more important is all that has been achieved over the past five years. They have formed strong friendships, they say, feel comfortable with each other's children and no longer have qualms about joining the gaggle of women gathered at the school gates - or attending parents' evenings.
Colin McCron has two children, Ryan and Kirsty, but he had never darkened the school doorway until the offer of a professional photograph was made. "I don't know why," he says. "Maybe shyness a wee bit more than anything, and because there were not a lot of other men involved with the school, so you felt a bit out of place."
Paul Connor admits the two hours of quality time a month that he has received with his children through the club simply would not have happened otherwise. They would have been holed up in their rooms listening to music and he would have been doing his own thing in a different part of the house.
Peter Simpson, a DIY enthusiast, enjoyed making the bird house with his son Jamie at the dads' group, but he would have been given short shrift if he had suggested it at home, he says.
The main benefit of the group has been spending quality time with their kids, say the men. But they feel their children's confidence in undertaking tasks has also improved and that they themselves have benefited from the activities.
Alex Mackie came along to the group with his grandson, because the boy's dad is in the Royal Air Force. He ended up contributing a tale from his own childhood to the storytelling session. The tale, called "The River Fairies", eventually made it into a book of stories published by the group. This required the dads - and granddad - to use computers and learn new skills. At first, Mr Mackie had feared he was too old, but in the end it was a "really nice" experience.
"That's been a benefit for me," he says. "And it keeps your mind alert all the time."
This is another of the group's aims: making the dads aware of their own learning and providing a solid platform from which they can access opportunities.
Jim Cooper, a community learning and development worker who helps run and support the groups, says: "The value of the storytelling project was to introduce them to using computers for a clear purpose, rather than just messing about, surfing the web.
"It seemed to work," he says, "and the knock-on benefits are the dads are better prepared to engage with their kids on the subject of computers, since all their kids are using them at school and often at home.
"There is also a possibility that the engagement will initiate an interest in taking this type of learning further," he points out.
One father, Andy Morrow, used to be a forestry worker but, through organising arts and crafts activities for the dads' group, he discovered a knack for and a love of teaching. He was encouraged by Mr Cooper and Ms Riddell to undertake a professional development award in tutoring adult literacy and numeracy and, eventually became a classroom assistant at Wallace Hall Academy and Lincluden Primary. Now he and his family have relocated to Bolton and he is working as a countryside management lecturer at Myerscough College.
Others talk about undertaking the introductory courses to computers, like Mr Mackie, and one dad is studying secondary maths to help his son with homework.
Without the dads' group, the men agree, they would have remained oblivious to the learning opportunities available to them in their own community.
Tonight's meeting, however, is tinged with sadness. The Sanquhar Academy group was launched because the dads were reluctant to say farewell to their monthly school-based meetings when their children hit secondary. But there is an age limit, they warn.
Peter has been told by his son Jamie, who is 14, that he won't be going back to the dads' group next year, and Billy Mackie realises it's only a matter of time until his younger daughter Kirsty, who is 15, decides, as her 17-year-old sister already has, that she's too old to go.
It will be "a big miss", says Peter, who has been attending the dads' group with Jamie since it began. But the dads with young children, still full of enthusiasm for the evenings and raring to go, have a solution: borrow one of mine.