For me, the brightest highlights of this year’s Scottish Learning Festival were two separate but related seminars. Both dealt with families and both originated in South Lanarkshire.
The first, ‘Engaging fathers in children’s learning’, described a South Lanarkshire Community Learning project initiated in 2007 and still going strong. Parental engagement in children’s education has long been recognised as crucial. In practice, that usually means mothers and indeed, 89 per cent of attendees at South Lanarkshire parent programmes are female.
The worrying aspect of the project was the reported experience of fathers who were not living at home and the failure of many schools to keep such fathers involved and engaged. One dad put it thus: “As a father with shared care of his children, I have NO CONTACT with school. All contact is via the mum. I would expect fathers to have equal rights in receiving any information relating to their children.”
South Lanarkshire CLD identified several key tactics which schools looking to pull fathers into the process might emulate. Target specific programmes at men. Since the father-figure may not be the father, get the youngsters to identify the ‘main man’ in their lives. Get the children to invite the father-figure into the big event to launch the programme. Offer men the opportunity, initially, not to join a programme but to serve, by digging the vegetable plot, training the sports team, whatever. Address material, not to ‘the parents of …’, but to ‘the mother and father of …’ A review of how contact is made with all parents, but especially fathers not in the child’s home, remains the essential starting point.
The selling-point of this presentation, however, was the series of interviews with fathers who had engaged. As well as seeing happy youngsters, enjoying their ‘main man’s presence’, we saw happy dads playing roles some of them had seldom experienced.
The second project was ‘21st century families’, a group of parents and carers committed to raising healthy, happy, resilient children despite the pressures to the contrary. Only too aware of the subliminal commercial messages pumping from television (Watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v =gu5qOZRtJmE&feature=related and be concerned!) and the isolation inherent in the computer-as child- minder, the group is committed to giving childhood back to children by encouraging open and unstructured play. The increase in ADHD, and childhood obesity and depression, are all symptoms, the group suggests, of an electronic, media-rich age in which children are being fast-tracked through childhood by marketing forces that influence children’s diet, games, fashion and accessories. This is toxic childhood.
It is also a childhood marred by unnecessary fears and anxieties. There are not paedophiles behind every park bush. Far from driving your child to school enhancing his or her safety, it detracts from their learning how to navigate and negotiate the simple daily task of getting to school.
The group has engaged teachers, play-leaders and educational psychologists who work along with the parents. It has found a ready audience for its message and its approaches. It teaches traditional games, encourages the use of parks and other unstructured play and seeks to strike a balance of old and new approaches to nurturing healthy, balanced children.
I was inspired by the work I saw presented by these two groups but they also left me perplexed. Part of the pressure on children is our deregulated market culture which sees children as consumers who are to be sold commodities. Part of it is the pressure on parents to work every hour that is available and to deliver our children to a range of pre-prepared, packaged activities. We need a far more powerful national action than positive play to tackle these symptoms of a deeper social malaise.
The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 8 October 2012: http://www.holyrood.com/2012/10/father-figures/

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