Football is being used as a tool to help improve parenting, particularly amongst fathers and male carers.
Intervention programmes have traditionally struggled to engage with, for example, young dads from challenging socio-economic backgrounds, so the charity Action for Children is working with clubs across Scotland and northern England to deliver a 12-week programme called ‘Parents on the Ball’.
The programme, which also provides support and advice around fitness and healthy eating, was originally launched in partnership with Ross County FC. Other clubs north of the border, including St Johnstone, Alloa Athletic, Hearts, Greenock Morton and Inverness Caledonian Thistle have also run the programme which is delivered at the partner club’s stadium. In England, Premier League club Burnley and non-league sides Southport, Gateshead and Ashington have been involved, as well as rugby union club Newcastle Falcons.
Parent on the Ball co-ordinator Sharon Swindells explained: “Parents and carers are referred from children’s social care, school settings or, if they are in children’s centres, there will be families who are already getting an intervention elsewhere. They come from anywhere really.
“We get a lot of couples, with both parents attending, and other carers, even some grandparents. Traditionally with other courses we don’t get a lot of men, but because it’s at a football club I think it makes them feel comfortable. Everybody who attends gets a shirt with the club crest on it and tickets to go a match, which is a nice incentive for those taking part and allows them to take their kids to a game.”
The average day on the programme is split into two, with parenting sessions in the morning involving confidence-building, support and advice, followed by lunch and then activities – such as healthy eating or fitness programmes – run by the club’s community department during the afternoon.
Sharon said: “It’s a unique way of improving parenting because it’s not us telling them what to do, it’s very parent-led and in the afternoon when we work with the club, the coaches will ask parents what they want to do.
“Some people feel very stigmatised… so if it’s with the football clubs, they feel it’s something a bit different.”
“We’ve had men doing Zumba, team-building, circuit training and other things they would never have done before, as well as table tennis and other activities.
“They get a healthy lunch and we try to incorporate transport; we will pick them up from a designated point and bring them to the club, so there’s no financial burden on them. For a lot of people when they are usually asked to attend programmes, they have to sort out all of these things out.”
Recently the programme was shortlisted for ‘Community Initiative of the Year’ award at the 2016 North West Football Awards, recognising the successful partnership with Burnley FC – Sharon’s local club.
She added: “It’s unique really because when they come in to the football club, they are away from the children’s centre where they will have been asked to attend a parenting programme. Some people feel very stigmatised going there, so if it’s with the football clubs, they feel it’s something a bit different.
“We are aiming to build their self-confidence and their awareness of what being a parent is. That’s our main aim but we’re also introducing that healthy aspect to being a parent, and the activities we are enabling them to do during the sessions, they can easily do with the children.
“We’ve got some people who don’t even leave their house, so it’s about them coming out and us helping them to build their self-confidence and awareness of what it means to be a parent. They get it in their head that it’s going to be like school, that they will be told to do this or that, but it’s not; it’s very parent-led and we just want them to build their confidence.”
‘Parents on the Ball’ is part of ‘Team Up’, the charity’s sporting partnership service. This has also seen them develop other partnerships with non-league clubs including Barrow, Guiseley and Stockport County to deliver a range of targeted programmes to disadvantaged children, young people and their families in the areas local to the clubs.
Action for Children have developed strong links with the National League Trust in order to deliver Parents on the Ball.
Sharon said: “Hopefully it will grow and we can take it to more clubs, but that’s why we are doing these pilot programmes so we can evaluate it and hopefully find the funding. It’s an Action for Children programme, they devise and compile it, and I think it’s unique. It really works and the results that we have at the end are fantastic.”