The importance of dads to the well-being of children and families is increasingly being recognised in family policies, writes the Fatherhood Institute’s David Bartlett
As the story of 13-year-old father Alfie Patten unfolded it was presented in the media as a tragic symptom of social breakdown, and an example of the failure of parents and children’s services to fulfil their responsibilities.
Now the media furore has died down, we can see that Alfie and the mother, Chantelle, want to be positively involved in their daughter’s life and their respective parents have also appeared to be supportive. What the baby needs more than anything is for both her mother and her father to be offered the support they need. But will that happen?
For several years now, legislation and government guidance – for example, Every Parent Matters, Aiming High for Children and the Children’s Plan – have offered guidance and (in the case of the Equality Act) placed duties on children’s services to engage more effectively with fathers.
Unfortunately, for fathers and other men who are significant in children’s lives, this is still far from guaranteed and many children are losing out as a result. Despite a policy agenda that increasingly emphasises the important role that fathers can play – and the need for local services to support them – most children’s services still tend to engage far more systematically with mothers.
Why is this? Part of the answer is that, as Department for Children, Schools and Families research, How Fathers Can Be Better Recognised Through DCSF Policy confirms, this agenda still lacks strong leadership from service providers across a variety of sectors, including maternity services, children’s centres, schools and youth services.
So the new “Think Fathers” campaign, funded by the government and supported by the Fatherhood Institute, the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, the Children’s Society and others, is an encouraging development. It brings together an emerging coalition of charities, councils and employers that really want to make this agenda work for families. The campaign will find out about fatherhood through the eyes of families and children, with a series of local events.
Children’s services, with help from other agencies, will identify the key steps organisations can take to support fathers, which will make a huge difference to children. A new “Think Fathers” toolkit will be published that explains what each sector of the children’s workforce can be doing to support father-child relationships.
New policies are going to strengthen this agenda still further. We at the Fatherhood Institute have helped shape the joint birth registration provisions in the government’s Welfare Bill, for example, which will give services the opportunity to engage with both parents at the time of the birth.
Training the workforce
We also need a children’s workforce that’s up to the job of providing the flexible, systematic, skilled engagement with fathers that children really need. Some workers are already delivering on this agenda brilliantly, but we need a strategy to bring everyone up to speed. This will require major changes in professional training and development, and in how all staff are recruited and supported.
In its 2020 Children and Young People’s Workforce Strategy, the DCSF acknowledges that there is “more to be done to ensure the whole workforce understands the importance of engaging fathers and supporting father-child relationships and is equipped with the skills to do so effectively,” promising that “the revised common core will address this, as a basis for relevant occupational standards and professional qualifications to recognise the need to engage and work with both fathers and mothers”.
We will not achieve all this overnight – so we must be in it for the long haul. And we must recognise that developing father-inclusive services is part of a much broader and long-term process of social change in how we think about mothers’ and fathers’ roles.
David Bartlett is interim joint chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute