What are we going to do about our own behaviour? Because in the end if our children run riot or fail to flourish then that is our own responsibility first and foremost. Yes – the government and various authorities have an important role to play to – and they may fail our children in terms of their schooling or us in some or many ways – but in the end we are the parents.
The recent UNICEF report on children’s well-being doesn’t paint a pretty picture of how we are doing – placing British children at the bottom of the heap in the twenty-one rich countries that they looked at. Our children are more bullied, more unhappy and poorer. We have the second highest rate of family breakdown.
To me, a key issue is recognising that families do break down, and doing more to ensure the best for children in such circumstances. This includes have more and better male role models as well as more support for mothers. This is where the effort should go, and it isn’t about headline seeking legislation.
You can’t legislate to make two parents carry on liking each other or wanting to live together. (Though if you could make people fall in love by statute, it would make the debates in Parliament more interesting!) Neither can you bribe people to stay together through tax breaks for families. That is hardly the best of glues to cement a relationship. This goes much deeper and (allowing for the fact that there are same sex couple who do a wonderful job bringing up children) it means getting a better balance between engagement with mothers and fathers.
So many of our institutions, including many schools, really only engage with a mother and rely on her to communicate in turn with the father. The result? If the mother and father don’t get on, it means it is so easy for fathers to drift away through different mixes of volition, apathy and circumstances from proper involvement in the bringing up of their children.
Someone recently told me about ‘Dads and Doughnuts’- a USA initiative to get Dads fathers involved with their children and their schools. Interpreted in different ways in different schools, the schools invite the Dads with their kids for socials, breakfasts, reading sessions – whatever – without the Mums. Crucially, it means that whether Dad and Mum don’t get on – the Dad still gets involved.
Since I have been expounding ‘Dads and Doughnuts’ in the media for the last week or so (Alan Johnson and the Prime Minister are now following in my wake!) it has clearly resonated. Talking to people it is quite clear that even where schools have a policy on paper of contacting both parents it isn’t always happening in reality. One single father journalist rang me to say his experience, despite giving his details to the school, was that they never contacted him – contact was always through the mother. However, one of my colleagues, Paul Holmes (MP for Chesterfield) says that it is policy in his area to automatically contact both parents. So – there is some good practice in place which we can work to expand.
My next step is to contact the local head teachers to get their advice and find out what they do in terms of contact and how it works out and whether they think such a scheme might be a start. And if you’ve got feedback from your own school – do let me know too.
(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007