Quality engagement

Engaging fathers is seen as crucial to children’s
well-being. But how best to do it, asks Jack O’Sullivan.

This year, there has been an astonishing growth in paternity
services – initiatives aimed at fathers, particularly young
fathers. New helplines, websites, mental health programmes, film
projects, new maternity unit “stay-over” facilities and buddy
schemes for ex-offender fathers are just some of the array on

This explosion in new ideas reflects a desire among many family
services to increase their effectiveness by expanding their appeal
beyond mothers. Local Sure Start programmes, early years services,
social services departments, health visitors and midwives, schools
and nurseries are all asking themselves how they can become more

The impulse comes partly from rapid changes in fathering. A
recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that, in
dual earner households, fathers now do one-third of the parental
child care. There is also evidence that children benefit from more
active fathering, developing better social skills, doing better at
examinations, and being less likely to break the law.

Yet research by the National Family and Parenting Institute
indicates that the provision of services that are really effective
in supporting child-father relationships remains a post code
lottery. That’s why the Family Policy Unit (now at the
Department for Education and Skills) asked Fathers Direct, the
national information centre on fatherhood, to develop quality
standards for father-friendly family services.

The project aims to distil best practice into a series of
principles and guidelines offering tips and strategies for
practical use. Public consultation finishes on 30 September and the
final standards should be published by summer 2004.

“These standards will not be compulsory,” says the
project’s manager, David Bartlett of Fathers Direct. “There
is going to be no brow-beating. We are responding to a high level
of demand from services seeking guidance about best practice. The
standards will be influential only in so far as people find them
credible and realistic. We hope mainstream services will rethink
what they do, so that every family can expect an effective

Bartlett, who has trained hundreds of family service workers in
how to reach fathers, finds that some agencies are over-eager to
find a quick fix. “They want to rush in, put up some posters, hire
a male worker. But the principles call for proper groundwork. For
example, an agency should reconsider its beliefs. What value does
it place on strengthening fathers’ relationships with
children? It should research locally, crucially talking to local
dads about what they want.”

The proposed standards caution against “one-size-fits-all”
solutions. After chatting to local fathers, an agency may find that
setting up a fathers’ support group – which many think is the
place to start – is not a good idea. A drop-in service, with
one-to-one work, may be more useful. Some men might enjoy a DIY
session with their kids, while others might find that too
stereotypical. A session built around football might work for some
but can leave fathers of daughters without support. Other fathers
might prefer a social outing at the weekend for everyone, dads,
partners and children.

A central principle is that an agency should not just bolt on a
service for fathers, but should mainstream father-friendliness.
That means reviewing all its services, even those aimed solely or
mainly at women.

“An agency should, for example, ask itself what it says about
dads to mothers,” says Bartlett. “Perhaps a mother has left her
partner. He’s depressed and has lost his job. They have been
arguing. Her parents are saying that he is a no-hoper and she
should start a new life, just her and the children, and forget
about him.

“That mother needs support from staff who are confident and
skilled enough to help her work out what sort of relationship her
children need with their dad.

“At times of stress it can be hard for any parent to distinguish
between their own needs and those of their children. If an agency
truly values child-father relationships, it will have to think how
it encourages this woman to do just that.”

– Responses to the public consultation on national quality
standards for father-friendly services can be made at

until 30 September

 Jack O’Sullivan is a co-founder
of Fathers

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