Scottish fathers: an absence in Scottish policies

Gary Clapton comments that, in order to work for everyone involved, a national parenting strategy must include mothers and fathers (and both sets of kinship networks). Practitioners and policy-makers need to review how services are delivered and the manner in which they are depicted in order to include fathers.

The benefits to children, mothers and families (and fathers) of involved fathering have been clearly established (Flouri 2005; Lamb 2010). And on the ground, the facts of Scottish fathers' greater involvement are also clear - men living in Scotland are the most 'hands-on' fathers in the UK. More than 65% of Scottish fathers change their baby's nappies once a day or more, a fifth more than the UK average of 43%, and they are also most likely to watch their babies being born (Dex and Joshi 2004).

However, whilst the case for encouraging greater welfare services involvement with fathers has been made many times over (Page et al. 2008) services have been slow to respond. Of a sample of 382 Scottish services for parents, only three services were adapted to suit the needs of fathers (Hutton et al. 2007).

Ambivalence to fathers

Why has it proved so difficult, not so much to get fathers 'in' as to stop ignoring them? One answer might be the ambivalence towards fathers that exists well below the surface. Contrast the news of increasing involvement of fathers in childcare with Peter Mullen's brutalising and brutalised father in his film, Neds (2010) and the kind of men described by Andrew O'Hagan:

'Those Scottish fathers. Not for nothing their wives cried, not for nothing their kids. Cities of night above those five o'clock shadows. Men gone way too sick for the talking. And how they lived in the dark for us now. Or lived in our faces, long denied.' (O'Hagan 1999)

Negative notions real, and drawn from stereotypes, co-exist with evidence of increased nurturing and greater assumption of childcare responsibilities by fathers. In recent research undertaken by myself and two colleagues, we talked with men undergoing retraining as residential childcare workers and found much evidence of empathic and caring qualities in men who came from the same communities as Mullen's and O'Hagan's fathers: 'I had been talking to him, and I had built up a wee bit of a rapport, so I just went up to him and I put my arm round him. And he was kind of stamping his feet but he went to his bed without any problem' (Smith et al. 2011). Ambivalences or dualism about Scottish fathers may go some way to explaining why services and practitioners have been slow (reluctant?) to change and the reasons for a dearth of government policy on fathers and fatherhood.

Absence of fathers

A more evident explanation of a failure to develop a national parenting strategy that includes fathers is less to do with debating the Scottish psyche and more to do with how fathers are featured in current policy documents. In fact, an absence of fathers is at issue. Fathers are rendered invisible in key government policies on parenting. Despite statements such as we need to pay attention to the role of fathers as well as mothers (The Scottish Government 2009: 16), time after time, photos of parents exclude men.

For example, look at:

None of these major government policy publications contain images of men or fathers; only women and children. A close look at one area of the Scottish Government's website similarly portrays fathers' absence in parenting and a strong exclusive focus on women and mothers as sole carers. In a section entitled 'government directorate descriptions', the Children and Families Directorate description is:


To work across government and with delivery partners to support systems and behavioural change to improve outcomes for children, young people and pregnant women. To develop the capacity and leadership needed to improve outcomes for users of social services

Key responsibilities

To provide high quality support for Ministers and the processes of government, including supporting delivery of all of the Strategic Priorities and National Outcomes and corporate and collaborative working across government; To work across Government and with delivery partners to prioritise action which supports early years and early intervention principles and promotes the rights of and takes into account the views of children and young people; To provide national-level support to and investment in the capability, skills and leadership of delivery agencies working with children, young people and pregnant women; To secure effective implementation of key policy priorities for children, young people and families; and To promote organisational structures and processes which are streamlined, effective and personalised and which improve experiences and outcomes for children, young people, pregnant women and users of social services.'

(Children and Families Directorate 2011)

Children, young people and who? Pregnant women? Never mind that no fathers are mentioned, pregnant women's needs are important but what about mothers in the responsibilities of the Children and Families Directorate?

In the very few places where fathers are specifically discussed it seems that the only context is that of domestic abuse. Not unexpectedly, in such policy documents as the National Domestic Abuse Delivery Plan for Children and Young People (2008) examples of positive father involvement are not present.

Implications for the national parenting strategy

I have written elsewhere about how social work practices work to exclude fathers (Clapton 2009). It may be that, for this to begin to change, a better policy message must come from government. The national parenting strategy discussion presents an excellent opportunity to make this happen.

In order to work for everyone involved, a national parenting strategy must include mothers and fathers (and both sets of kinship networks). Practitioners and policy-makers need to review how services are delivered and the manner in which they are depicted so as to include fathers. It can be done. The children and family centres that have been successful in getting in fathers who had hitherto dropped off the child and left, were those which, firstly believed in the importance of working with fathers, then went about developing various tailored services and ensured that the centre had a greater father-friendly image. Scottish Government policy to include fathers could start here.

About the author

Gary Clapton lectures at the University of Edinburgh. His interests and specialities are children and families policy and practice, adoption and fostering, and fathers and fatherhood. He is a member of Fathers Network Scotland.


The Scottish Government. (2011). Children and Families Directorate. The Scottish Government. See Last accessed: 4 February 2012

Clapton, G. (2009). "How and why social work fails fathers: redressing an imbalance, social work's role and responsibility". Practice: Social Work In Action 21(1) 17-34

Dex, S. and Joshi, H. (2004). Millennium cohort study. London: Institute of Education, University of London

Flouri, E. (2005). Fathering and child outcomes. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Hutton, L., MacQueen, S., Curran, J. and Whyte, B. (2007). Support and services for parents: a review of practice development in Scotland. Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Lamb, M. (2010). "How do fathers influence children's development? Let me count the ways". In Lamb, M. (ed.). The role of the father in child development. 5th edition. Hoboken New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons

Neds (2010). Film. Directed by Peter Mullan. UK: Blue Light

O'Hagan, A. (1999). Our Fathers. London: Faber and Faber

Page, J., Whitting, G. and Mclean, C. (2008). A review of how fathers can be better recognised and supported through DCSF policy. Nottingham: Department for Children, Schools and Families

The Scottish Government (2009). The early years framework, Edinburgh: The Scottish Government

Smith, M., Clapton, G. and Schinkel, M. (2011). Skilling up: educating and training for residential child care. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh