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Data on fatherhood needs to reflect a changing society

Posted on 05 February 2018 by Paul Bradshaw, Director of ScotCen

I try to be a part of all aspects of my kids’ lives, and of family life generally: bedtime stories (we don’t do these so much these days), cooking family meals, the weekly shop, parent-teacher meetings, going to the park, going sledging or cycling or kicking a ball (we do that a lot) or whatever other activity the boys fancy.


Man Child (1)


I’m not unusual; there are lots of dads like me out there. 

But there are lots of other dads too: step-dads, foster-dads, dads whose kids live with them some of the time or none of the time, dads who have other families and so on. All of these dads make different contributions to their children’s lives and it’s important that this rich and varied range of relationships is known and understood. 

Why? Because parents in all guises make a real and important impact on their children’s outcomes and supporting parents to help their children achieve the best outcomes is a fundamental principle of family policy for governments across the world. 

But to provide the right support, it’s important that we understand the full picture of how families are organised, including the many ways in which dads are involved. 

‘Where’s the daddy?’, a study undertaken by the Fatherhood Institute and funded by the Nuffield Foundation shows that, in the UK, that’s not always possible when using some of our major social science datasets. 

The project assessed how sixteen large-scale surveys – including the 2011 Census, the British Social Attitudes study, the Labour Force Survey and the Millennium Cohort Study - collect data about British dads.  It found a lot of gaps and weaknesses.  

For example, some studies don’t differentiate between birth fathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, stepfathers or mother’s boyfriends.  Many don’t recognise families who are split across households and situations where children live ‘part-time’ in each of those households.

On the whole, the study concludes, dads are overlooked. Even when there is information collected about them, it’s often collected from their partner or their children.   

This isn’t (entirely) because of ignorance towards dad data, but is, at least partly, because capturing data from and about dads can present a challenge for study funders and researchers. 

This is something we’ve had to contend with in one of my own projects - the Growing Up in Scotland study (GUS).  GUS is a longitudinal cohort study, meaning we visit the same families and children year after year. 

At the first wave of the study, conducted when the children were just 10 months old, we wanted to collect a lot of data about the pregnancy, birth and that very early period of life, including about issues like breastfeeding. These were all questions considered to be more appropriate for mothers to answer. 

So while we aimed to collect data from the child’s ‘main carer’, meaning dads were eligible for an interview, where possible we tried to interview the mother. Adding another respondent – such as the child’s father, even when he is in the same household – adds an immediate additional complexity to the data collection exercise, one which was beyond scope of the budget. 

However, dads aren’t excluded from GUS. Data is collected about any male adults in the household and their relationship with the study child. Information is also obtained on fathers (and children) who live outside the household. Most of this information comes from the main respondent or the child, though recently a short questionnaire has been introduced to collect data directly from the resident partner of the main respondent – usually the child’s father or a father figure.            

The report from the Fatherhood Institute concludes that more should be done to create better data on dads and makes a series of recommendations, all of which have at least one study as an example.

These include relatively simple changes like differentiating between birth, adoptive, foster and stepfathers in a household, something for which the Health Survey for England is commended as a rare example. But also include more complex and costly changes such as having cohort and longitudinal studies incorporate data from separated fathers or track fathers into new households if they become non-resident, such as is the case on Understanding Society

Dads have changed and continue to change.  It’s important the data about us does too.

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