England & Wales, Scotland Education and children's services, Welfare and equalities

How can local government better support fathers?


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The Fatherhood Institute is a UK charity that works to build a society which prepares, respects and assists men as involved fathers and caregivers. We spoke to Dr Jeremy Davies, Deputy CEO, about the organisation’s work and how local authorities can help participate in the agenda to integrate fathers better into their role across family life and education.

What does the Fatherhood Institute do?

We’re a charity that supports paternal caregiving. We’re all about trying to create a society that values and supports men in their roles as fathers.

We have built, and continue to build and maintain, an evidence base about fathers and fatherhood in the UK. We work on policy, so that means drawing on the evidence base to push for family policy that recognises and supports fathers. We also work on improving practice, so that means doing a lot of training with people who work with families. These can include midwives, health visitors, people who work in early years services or schools and social workers.

How has the charity developed?

It started in 1999, and it’s developed substantially since then. We’ve built our evidence base very effectively over this time. We’ve done a whole series of evidence reviews funded by the Nuffield Foundation which look at different stages of fatherhood, from the antenatal period through to adolescence.

Over the years, we’ve also trained thousands of practitioners. Services are still very patchy in their engagement with fathers, but they’re better than they were, and there are now quite a few champions out there who have gone through our training and are developing services that are much better at meeting fathers’ needs.

How long have you been at the organisation for?

I’ve been with the organisation for around 18 years. Before coming to the institute, I was a journalist for about 10 years, and then I did a master’s and a PhD in social research with a focus on fatherhood. It was through this that I ended up joining the institute.

What is the Fatherhood Institute’s perspective on the importance of the role of fathers?

We know that children who have positively-involved fathers do better in life in all sorts of ways. They are happier, they have better self-esteem, they do better at school, they form better relationships and they’re more socially mobile. Mothers’ mental health is better if fathers are highly involved in caregiving, and mothers’ careers tend to progress better if a mother is able to share caregiving with a confident and competent hands-on father.

Obviously, it’s also great for dads to be able to confidently take up space as hands-on parents. There are all sorts of benefits to men who access their caring side, as well as being there as a kind of provider figure in the family. Men as active caregivers have been around since humans have existed, and I suppose our position is that it’s long overdue that that be recognised and built into the way we think about and plan for people having children as we move forward as a hopefully more gender-equal society.

How does the charity envisage the role of fathers in the present day?

There has been a big shift over the last 20 or 30 years in the amount of unpaid childcare that men do in families. Men being around at births, men changing nappies, men doing the school run, men building strong emotional bonds with their children — all of this is now pretty standard. There is still a strong expectation around men providing for their families, but at the same time, they are expected to be hands-on dads. I suppose a big strand of our work is to try and bring policy and services up to date with what families are already doing and what they aspire to do, which is to be earning and caregiving even more than currently.

What factors have contributed to evolving the role of fathers in modern times, and how does this help improve equality?

I think the gender revolution that kicked off in the 1960s is really the origin of these changes. If we’re going to educate women and send them off into the workplace, and if they want and society wants them to flourish as workers, of course, you need men to change to support that process, and that’s what’s been happening. The shift towards equality between the sexes has happened at home, with men stepping up to take a greater share in domestic work and the looking after of babies to enable women to have a fair crack of the whip career-wise but also to exercise their own natural desire to be closely involved in their children’s lives.

How does the organisation view fatherhood as contributing to educational outcomes?

We did a study with the University of Leeds called the PIECE study — PIECE stands for Paternal Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education. That was published last year, and what we found was that men’s early involvement in childcare has a direct impact on children’s outcomes at ages five and seven. We were able to show that when fathers are involved in interactive activities with their young children, children directly benefit.

How are the tides currently changing for fathers regarding things like equality and caring responsibilities?

I think culturally, we are becoming more aware of the kinds of things that I’m talking about, although it’s frustratingly slow. There is a greater awareness, I think, of the need for fathers to be able to work more flexibly and to have time away from work to do the important work of looking after their children and having impacts on their children’s self-esteem, education and so on.

Mothers are getting increasingly frustrated by their careers falling off a cliff when they have babies, and there is a growing understanding that we need to do something about fathers’ inability to take time out from work. Within the last five years — and I think lockdown is responsible for this — people have shifted in their understanding and have started to see that a better deal for fathers is a key part of how we achieve a better deal for mothers.

In what ways can local government help be part of the agenda to integrate fathers better into their roles across family life and education?

A lot of the services that surround families are commissioned and run by local government, so it’s kind of down to local government, among others, to improve the services that it commissions and runs. There are now lots of local authorities, which are starting to rethink the way they run services with father inclusivity in mind.

Part of the picture is developing our predominantly female workforces to work with fathers in mind, but obviously, individual practitioners can only do so much. It’s also about local authorities rethinking the commissioning of those services in the first place. Innovative local authorities are developing services that are squarely targeted at fathers so that fathers know that there is something there for them.

How can local government help improve equality for fathers?

Local governments are major employers. The more local government takes the lead on bringing in progressive parenting leave policies, flexible working policies and so on, the better for everyone as others will follow.

What big campaigns or projects is the Fatherhood Institute working on right now?

We’ve got a campaign called ‘6 weeks for dads’, which is a public-facing campaign to try and improve the statutory paternity offer from the government. At the moment, fathers only get two weeks’ Statutory Paternity Leave, and that’s paid at a rate that’s less than half the minimum wage.

We are pushing for two weeks’ paternity and a month of parental leave explicitly for fathers in their babies’ first year, and for all of that to be paid at 90% of average weekly earnings. We also would include in that paternity leave and parental leave for self-employed fathers and fathers who don’t fit into the employee category.

To find out more about the Fatherhood Institute, visit fatherhoodinstitute.org


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