I was talking to our FE College chaplain earlier this week, who gets involved in a lot of pastoral support cases at the college, often because he's the only male in the student support team. He remarked on the increasingly common situation of children being brought up with no male role models for the first 11 years of their lives (most primary teachers are female, and almost all nursery staff), and the knock-on effects of that for students well into their teens.
The Centre for Social Justice reports this week on the rising prevalence of absent fathers, and the cost of that on the mothers and children they leave behind, and society at large:
"For children growing up in some of the poorest parts of the country, men are rarely encountered in the home or in the classroom. This is an ignored form of deprivation that can have profoundly damaging consequences on social and mental development.
"There are 'men deserts' in many parts of our towns and cities and we urgently need to wake up to what is going wrong."
.....The report warns that the absence of fathers is linked to higher rates of teenage crime, pregnancy and disadvantage.
It is also costly. The CSJ puts the total cost of family breakdown at £46 billion a year, or £1,541 per taxpayer, a figure which has risen by nearly a quarter in the last four years. On current trends, the cost of family breakdown is projected to hit £49 billion by the end of this Parliament.
The CSJ criticises the lack of Government investment in families, saying that for every £6,000 spent on picking up the pieces after a split, just £1 is spent on helping to keep families together.
The report accuses the Prime Minister of neglecting his election pledge to lead the "most family-friendly Government ever".
The family stability agenda "has barely been mentioned", the CSJ says, while comprehensive action to tackle existing policy barriers to family stability "has been almost entirely absent" (more here)
There's an immediate knee-jerk response, that all this talk about family breakdown stigmatises single mums, so we shouldn't talk about it. It's the shut-down-the-discussion equivalent of saying that if you question immigration, you're a racist, or if you have second thoughts about gay marriage, you're a homophobic bigot
But this is the wrong response. From the CSJ blog: Since 2010, the formation of lone-parent families has continued to rise at a rate of 20,000 per year. By the time of the next election, we will have crashed through the two million barrier. The CSJ would be the last organisation to indulge in lone-parent bashing; our Alliance of several hundred grassroots charities tackling social breakdown works day in, day out, with parents raising children on their own. They are the ones who tell us how tough it is, how much harried mums (only eight per cent of those raising children on their own are dads) would appreciate an extra, reliable pair of hands in the home on a permanent, committed basis.
For too long a harrowing litany of statistics has been buried through the fear of stigmatising those who rarely chose to go it alone, but in so doing we have, as a society, ignored the lack of choice around parenthood facing so many women and men in low-income neighbourhoods. Aspirations to marry are solid across the social spectrum, but the cultural and financial barriers to realise those are almost insuperable, especially in the pockets of intense disadvantage we identified where up to three quarters of families are headed by only one person.
The full Fractured Families report will appear here once published later this week. It would be easy to have our superficial celebrations of Fathers Day this weekend, but each year that 'celebration' is non-existent for more and more children, and more and more fathers. Do Dads need to man up, and stick around for the children they bring into the world (or not bring children into the world until they've decided to stick around?). Does government and society need to do more in supporting men as fathers, and supporting couples as parents and partners? Forget stigmatising, this is a tragedy on a massive scale and is crying out for some hard thinking and courageous leadership.