Speech on The Role of Fathers as Primary Educators of Their Children – Early Learning Initiative -NCI

13th June, 2018


Good morning ladies and gentlemen!


It is a huge honour to be here today to speak about the role of fathers as primary educators of their children, the vital importance of this role and also to discuss what support fathers need to help them play an active role in their children’s education and lives.


Given the proximity to Father’s Day it is timely for me to reflect on my own personal experience and hopefully provide some insights.


Shakespeare said ‘it’s a wise father that knows his own child’ and I believe that it’s of great importance that fathers and all parents play an active and impactful role in all aspects of their child’s life.


How children are parented has a greater influence on a child’s future than wealth, socio-economic class, education, or any other common social factor and it is crucial that father’s play their part in this.


I think the following quote sums up the challenges of being a father.


Mark Twain said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”


Article 42 of the Constitution says that:

“1: The State acknowledges that the primary and natural educator of the child is the Family and guarantees to respect the inalienable right and duty of parents to provide, according to their means, for the religious and moral, intellectual, physical and social education of their children.


Obviously, the role of parents has changed significantly from the traditional roles of the father as the financial provider and the mother as carer and homemaker.


There is now a more egalitarian parental model in place, where both parents are active equal partners in their children’s education and lives.


As parents and educators we play a central role in instilling a value system for our children that is based on respect, empathy and kindness.


We have to set high expectations for our children, but in doing so we have to live up to these high standards ourselves. Reading the global headlines in recent weeks and months with growing populism and protectionism, there is a concerning attitude of self-interest, at the costs of the wider societal good.


Ultimately our biggest challenge as parents is to shape a better world and society for our children and grandchildren so we need to uphold these high standards even in times of adversity and challenge.


As policy makers it is essential that we respond to these challenges and consider the central role of both parents in all areas of society.


This can be seen in the broad range of new initiatives this government has introduced across Education, Health, Social Protection and Childcare. One of the findings of the ‘Growing up in Ireland’ study was that among father of infants, greater parental satisfaction was associated with lower levels of parenting stress, which in turn had a positive effect on their feelings towards the infant. This further emphasises the need for the right supports to be in place to help parents and relieve some of this stress.


The framework commits to providing supports to all parents through universal access to good quality parenting advice and programmes, access to affordable quality childcare, as well as targeted, evidence based supports to those parents with greatest needs.


These programmes and interventions should increase parenting skills, confidence, and capacity; reduce parental stress; improve child wellbeing and behaviour; and increase the enjoyment of and satisfaction in parenting.


In education, an example of a support for parents is The Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016, which my colleague Minister Bruton is progressing.


Once enacted, each school must consult with parents and students on key issues and operate a Parent and Student Charter in line with national statutory guidelines.


Like many other areas of modern life, technology such as smart phones has changed parenting and presents challenges.


This is a good example of a new challenge that requires a co-ordinated response and consultation with parents, students and schools.  


For instance, the Department of Education recently published a circular requiring consultation between teachers / students and parents on the use of smart phones and tablet devices in schools.


Schools are now required to consult parents and students on:


  • The appropriate use, if any, of table devices and smart phones in school.
  • The issues governing their use with regard to, for example, recording videos, taking photos.
  • The nature and scope of restrictions that might be applied by the school.
  • If smart phones should be allowed outside of class time.


Another very important issue from an educational perspective is in the choice of school for children.


One of the objectives of The Action Plan for Education, 2016 – 2019 is to strengthen the role of parents and students and deliver greater school choice.


The Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 aims to provide a more parent-friendly, equitable, and consistent approach to how school admissions policy operates for almost 4,000 primary and post-primary schools in the country; will ensure a fair and balanced school admissions process for all pupils; and will remove religion as a criterion that can be used in school admissions in the majority of schools.


Over 20% of our parent-age population is non-religious and in addition, recent marriage statistics show that only approximately 51% of marriages occurred in a Catholic ceremony.


These examples illustrate the enhanced role that parents are, quite rightly, expected to play in how their children are educated.


One of the most successful supports for parents has been through the Area Based Childhood (ABC) Programme, a joint prevention and early intervention initiative, led by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.


The aim of the ABC programme is to test and evaluate prevention and early intervention approaches to improve outcomes for children and families living in poverty in 13 areas of disadvantage.


The ABC programme in the North East Inner City is implemented by the Dublin Docklands and East Inner City consortium, of which the Early Learning Initiative is the lead agency.


These supports carried out by the North East Inner City ABC programme highlight the amount of work being carried out by so many different people and agencies to promote supports for parents. 


I would also add – as a commitment made under the Programme for Government – my Department established the Prevention & Early Intervention Unit in May 2017 to focus on the development of policies including those that can improve the life outcomes of children. 


I know the Unit is currently engaged in a dialogue process with policy makers and key stakeholders, I am sure many of you are here today, which is focused on developing a shared understanding of prevention and early interventions in Ireland.


The introduction in September 2016 of two week’s paid paternity benefit for the first time for new fathers was also a big step in the right direction and gives fathers more opportunities to take an active role in the early stages of their child’s life and spend time with their babies.


It is also very important that self-employed fathers will benefit, by having a guaranteed minimum income for the first time during paternity leave. Expenditure on the paternity benefit scheme was €12m in 2017 and over 30,000 fathers have availed of the scheme to date, including over 2,000 self-employed.


This, alongside other supports such as maternity benefit, child benefit, parental leave and the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) scheme, all provide parents with support in raising their children, especially in the critical early years of a child’s development.


Being a parent can be challenging but it is also hugely rewarding.


This Government’s objective has been and continues to be to make life that little bit easier for families.


Considerable progress has been made in recent years with two years of free pre-school, free GP visits for children under six years of age, childcare subsidies, and increases in the working family payment.


I hope today that I have illustrated at least some of these supports on offer, which emphasise this Government’s recognition of the important role of parents in the lives and education of their children.

Finally, I would like to thank the National College of Ireland and Dr Josephine Bleach for giving me the opportunity to speak today on this topic, which is something I have first-hand experience of.


I would also like to acknowledge the great work of the college and Early Learning Initiative in promoting the role of parents as primary educators.