The regional charity Children North East has come a long way since its beginnings in 1891 as the Poor Children’s Holiday Association, when it took hundreds of children from Newcastle for breaks to the coast.
It now runs community-based projects, including the Fathers Plus project. This was set up 10 years ago in Newcastle with the aim of ensuring that the role of the father in the family is valued, supported, and included in all approaches to work with children and families.
As well as working with fathers directly to help them form groups, Fathers Plus works with organisations delivering health, education, penal and social services to help them work with fathers and the significant men in children’s lives. This work isn’t about fathers’ rights, rather it promotes an understanding that the involvement of the significant man is crucial to a child’s development and outcomes.
Roger Olley, head of service (fatherwork) at Children North East, was working as a health visitor in North Tyneside with the emerging Sure Start schemes and wanted to get men into the buildings. He did some work with the Fathers Plus project and has, as he puts it, “been on a long secondment there ever since”.
They started by having a team of dads’ workers – male and female – who would try to promote male inclusion.
“Our strength was that we were hands on and we went into agencies to show how male involvement could be brought about. We put dads workers into Sure Starts.”
Now several Sure Start programmes, children’s centres and schools have Children North East Fathers Plus workers involved. One success story has been the work at Ferryhill and Chilton Sure Start, County Durham. It saw the total number of men attending activities increase from 354 in 2003 to 659 in 2004, a rise of 80%.
This was achieved by Fathers Plus supporting the appointment, training and management of a part-time fathers worker and delivering extensive staff training on the issue of engaging and working with fathers and male carers to the Sure Start team.
The Mind Body Fitness Group was set up at Ferryhill. A martial arts class, it teaches men control, relaxation, yoga, and healthy eating. Those who attend also gain opportunities such as courses in plumbing, electrics and forklift truck driving.
During sessions there is also time to talk about how they are feeling about life. One man’s wife had bad post-natal depression. Olley says: “If you are lucky, the health visitor comes for a couple of hours a week, but it’s the partner who is supporting the woman 24/7. This guy came because he was getting angry about life and had no support. He was worried about his behaviour at home. [After attending the course] he says he doesn’t feel as angry now.”
Of course, men don’t just turn up for these groups without encouragement. Olley has learned that you have to actively find them and then sell them the idea.
“We went to the women coming to Sure Start because part of the strategy is getting them to understand why the men in their children’s lives are so important,” says Olley. “There are also golden moments to get them, such as at antenatal and postnatal talks and a significant number are there when their child is immunised.”
The model has now been taken up by North Tyneside Council in some of its children’s centres. And Children North East has been commissioned by Durham and Hull councils to develop a father inclusion programme. This involves training every children’s centre member of staff, including senior management, so that everybody understands what they are trying to achieve and how they are going to do it.
Olley has also been working on a Family Man website, looking at fatherhood from ancient Egyptian times to the future, which will be used as an educational resource. It is due to be launched soon, so with that and all the other work being done by Fathers Plus, the future for fathers and other male carers in the area is looking brighter.
WHAT FATHERS SAY
● “I would be very disappointed if the group ever stopped because it has helped a lot of dads. To me it would be devastating because dads would just go back to square one.”
Why it’s important to involve fathers/male carers in a child’s life:
● It improves children’s educational and health outcomes.
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This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Oh father, where for art thou?”