What began as a conversation about ways to improve the grounds at Llangan Primary has grown into a fully-fledged PTA affiliated club, which has undertaken numerous award-winning projects for the school. We chatted to Gareth Esplin, co-founder of the ‘Dads’ Club’, to find out all about it…
A few years ago, when Gareth was working as head gardener at a private estate next to Llangan Primary, his daughter’s school, he was asked by Learning Support Assistant, Sue Stevens, if he’d take a look around the school grounds with her. Gareth takes up the story: - “Mrs Stevens was very keen to improve the outside space - she runs a very popular after school gardening club for the children and was hoping to add a vegetable patch, so they could grow and eat their own produce.”
Gareth says he was very keen on the idea and wanted to help, particularly as the estate next door - his employer at the time - had generously provided the school with some additional land: “I had lots of ideas going around in my head, but realised that I’d need others to help with sourcing materials and giving their time to get the project off the ground.”
Dads' Club reborn
With Mrs Stevens’s help, she and Gareth decided that the school should re-establish the “Dads' Club” which had petered out a few years ago. “Through social media and word of mouth, we put the word out that the Dads' Club was back. We asked for help from the school community to create the vegetable garden and also an outdoor space for the children to enjoy.
“Eight dads came along to help with the first project, which we tackled over a couple of weekends. Everyone worked really hard - we covered a donated polytunnel frame to create an outdoor classroom and installed raised beds to make the area more attractive.
The support and feedback was really positive; the dads who came along wanted to support their children’s school but didn’t want the formality of meetings, so it gave them another way of helping whilst socialising with other parents.
Spurred on by the success of the first gardening project, Gareth and Mrs Stevens quickly turned their attention to the next project - creating an eco-garden stumpery. A team of helpers cleared away overgrowth, planted woodland plants and placed old stumps to give the area an established woodland feel, complete with bark chippings spread over the area. Numerous other projects have also been developed over the past couple of years, which Gareth says has really enhanced the school’s outdoor spaces and learning environment generally.
“Our latest project has seen us develop a nursery garden for the youngest children in school – and one that’s been desperately needed to make the area more interactive and attractive. It’s fantastic for the children to be able to make use of the space as an outdoor classroom. The mud kitchen is proving very popular!”
We also caught up with Mrs Stevens to ask her about the impact the Dads' Club has had from the school’s perspective. Here’s what she had to say: - “The pupils, parents and staff are overwhelmed by what the Dads' club has achieved. The generosity of their time, along with their skills, labour and enthusiasm, has been incredible. They have created outdoor experiences that have enriched our school beyond measure.
"The outdoor learning experience is very popular with all the children at Llangan who embrace it with a passion. Being able to access outdoor learning makes a huge difference not only to pupils’ academic studies but also to their personal and social education - and most importantly, their wellbeing. Our pupils would exchange a laptop for planting seeds, building bean structures or harvesting potatoes!
Gareth says that they have tried to keep things informal within the group; curry nights with a chance to socialise have followed a hard day’s work building or planting: “Weekends and family time are precious and if one of the dads can only give a couple of hours in the afternoon, rather than a full day, there’s absolutely no problem with that. I think part of the group’s success is down to it being informal and having no firm structure in place. We’re grateful for any help from the school community.”
Gareth says that the volunteers have mostly been dads - “but we have had mums, granddads, teachers and even members of the local community take part. With this in mind, and to help broaden our appeal, we rebranded the Dads' Club to Friends and Family of Llangan, although the works party is always just referred to as the Dads' Club.
As PTA Chair, does Gareth feel the group has benefitted from his links between the two?
“To anyone thinking about setting up a group like ours, I would say there are benefits of having good lines of communication with at least one member of your school’s PTA. Having a member of the Dads' Club in the PTA allows for good communication between the two. A good example would be the idea of the Dads' Club to renovate the school playground. Once we’d contacted various companies to get quotes, it soon became apparent that it was just going to become too big a job for us. So, we took this to the PTA and they used it as their main fundraising target – we were able to help by clearing the site pre installation and adding the wooden sleepers post installation.
“Generally, I would say to take a different approach to running a PTA. Make sure there's a good lunch put on - something simple like a homemade chilli – and the offer of a beer or wine afterwards!”
Gareth’s top tips
We asked Gareth what advice he would give to someone considering setting up a similar kind of group to the Dads' Club – and here’s what he had to say…
- Don't be afraid to contact businesses - large and small - for donations and help. A local timber yard gives us a good discount and some companies have community funding available and offer voluntary help, especially if a parent has a child at the school. Many of our projects need revisiting and last time we worked on the stumpery we were joined by volunteers from Lafarge Cement, which has also provided and installed our hard standing for the vegetable garden free of charge.
- It’s worth applying for schemes that are available, such as building societies that may grant financial help, or supermarkets, which have token boxes.
- Get creative with your fundraising. We have auctioned off the Dads' Club twice at the school ball – and with great success!
- Mrs Stevens’s passion and drive is inspirational. To have a member of staff who is so supportive and enthusiastic is instrumental to the success of a group like ours.
As well as the benefits to the children’s learning and creativity, the projects have helped the school secure numerous awards, as Mrs Stevens tells us: “Having grounds that the children can be proud of have stirred our enthusiasm to keep high expectations and this has been reflected in a couple of awards being achieved, including the Rotary Club School Garden of the Year. Of course, winning an award always feels great for the children and staff.
“I cannot thank Gareth and his team enough for all the amazing projects they have achieved over recent years. Llangan is certainly a better and more experiential school for their generosity. When I pull out our next wish list I hope Gareth and his crew don’t run for the hills!”