Increasingly, the most urgent change required in British education is the engagement and achievement of boys, and perhaps it is no coincidence that schools often find that one of the hardest groups of parents to reach out to and engage with meaningfully is children’s fathers. Psychologists write that one of the best ways of developing the skills of boys is either through fathers or other male role models. The Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph, in his book Raising Boys, explains that boys in the first five years of their lives generally rely most on their mothers and between the ages of five and 10 look for approval from their fathers; when boys are in the young teenage stage, the impact of male role models additional to the father becomes even stronger. As part of BBC2’s current season of programmes investigating Britain’s schools, you may also have seen Gareth Malone’s attempts to help re-engage boys of primary school age who don’t like school and who, like many across Britain, lag behind their female peers. One of the approaches Gareth adopts is to encourage fathers and male carers to participate more meaningfully in their sons’ learning.
This would suggest that within the extended schools’ core offer, that aspect relating to supporting parents is one where, as school leaders and practitioners, we should be actively questioning and finding ways to encourage dads and male carers to become more actively involved in their children’s education – specifically their sons’ – in order to help bring about transformational change. We should also be considering how we can develop the role of male role models and mentors within our schools, both for those boys who do not have a male role model at home and to act as additional role models as boys progress into their teenage years. After all, the introduction of positive male role models may reduce the number of undesirable male role models which some teenage boys find attractive. The development of male role models and mentors is not the main focus of this article, but some of the ideas may be equally applied to this challenge.
If we look around at our own family and friends, it is likely that dads’ involvement with their children will vary tremendously for all kinds of reasons. Many will claim long hours, exhaustion or simply not being around enough. One of my friends told me, ‘fathers don’t need encouragement, they need more time!’
I have a sneaking feeling, though, that there will be fathers who either need help in making the time available, or who are nervous about the prospect, as they do not feel confident spending time alone with their children and meeting all their care needs.
How do we encourage dads to involve themselves in the life of schools? If we are going to encourage fathers’ involvement in their children’s education, the process must begin in primary school. We all recognise that if a father’s input is lost in the first seven years of schooling, it is even more difficult to reconnect the process at secondary level, and as Steve Biddulph comments, the primary years are vital to a boy’s development.
However, many fathers find primary schools, in particular, to be female-dominated environments and, unfortunately, with society’s current fears of men around young children, males who do try and engage with primary schools may feel that they are subconsciously rejected. Just as boys need male role models within schools, it is likely that for fathers to feel more comfortable in a primary school environment, they need to see the presence of other men there too!
One way schools can achieve this is to use their extended schools networks to encourage male workers to visit the school. At Coleby Primary School, Lincoln, they have started this process by inviting a local football coach to run soccer sessions at the school. They have also received support from the Royal Air Force in a number of activities, and when the school hosted a sponsored walk, an RAF officer ran a military-style ‘warm down’. The RAF also provided support through their community outreach programme in preparing allotments at the school and it was fascinating to watch the boys respond eagerly to these men.
Many primary schools are keen that all parents, including fathers, are involved in the process of learning with their children. There are many educational activities, such as reading or helping with homework, that schools need parents to undertake with their children at home. Kevin Osborne, extended schools coordinator in the Vale of Belvoir, suggests that fathers do not always appreciate how many other tasks are vital to their children’s development, such as:
- helping with day-to-day routines, such as preparing food, washing, toileting, reading stories
- reading bedtime stories and playing
- going to play areas, shops, swimming, library etc
- taking and collecting from school.
A key part of supporting parents lies in communicating this message to fathers. This is not always straightforward, as traditionally, much parent/school liaison at primary school is achieved at the school gates, and many fathers do not participate in this activity. Croxton Kerrial Primary School in Leicestershire has recently begun to send a book home entitled ‘Home Profile Book’, which encourages families to share with the school what is done at home and how dad is a key part of this. In turn, this benefits dads by telling them what goes on in school, and gives them tips for activities to do with their children, and for tasks they could become involved in at home.
Using the internet to open up a dialogue
In response to the green agenda and to money-saving practices, many primary schools are beginning to send weekly or fortnightly newsletters via email. It is widely recognised that many men prefer communication via email or text, and are more likely to read emails at work, home or on a smart phone than to find the letter in the school bag. Therefore, email communication could become a valuable tool in highlighting to fathers the positive impact they can have on their children. An extended schools cluster could even work together to create a termly guide for fathers which could be emailed directly to all fathers. Obviously this requires schools to do some information-gathering in advance and to collect the email addresses of the fathers of children at the school, as well as to hold information for an initial point of contact (who is frequently the mother/female carer).
Once a dialogue has begun with fathers, the next stage is to encourage them into the school. One way of achieving this is through ‘dad-friendly’ activities. The initial activities may not even be based around children but around their dads, and might include a five-a-side football evening, a rounders match or fun cricket game with a barbeque afterwards. If the school staff is entirely female, perhaps this could be organised and led by a male governor.
Once fathers feel comfortable visiting the school, the next stage could be to organise an event which involves fathers and their children together. Again, the event might only have a slim educational link: what about a ‘lads and dads’ computer game competition? You might be surprised by the interest that dads and their sons have in playing Wii activities on the classroom interactive whiteboard. Other events may have a greater educational leaning, such as a treasure hunt or great egg race-style science competition.
One school ran a gifted and talented trip to the Science Museum in London to visit a specific exhibition. All the children on the G&T register were invited but they had to be accompanied by a parent and siblings were invited too, in a bid to overcome childcare issues. This was father-friendly for two reasons: the venue, and the fact that it took place over a weekend.
One of the realities of involving fathers is that they stereotypically find the 4pm to 6pm timeslot difficult (as of course do many women), and in a primary school environment, an evening event involving children and their parents may be too late in the day for many children to attend. This is a good example of where the extended schools coordinator working more flexible hours may be prepared to run such an activity on a Saturday or Sunday morning instead.
There are many groups around the country running on Saturday mornings, set up to encourage fathers to spend time with their children. In Grantham in Lincolnshire, a number of fathers have formed a group with the aim of providing support for each other and other men in bringing up their children. The group is called ‘Dads R Us’ and meets at a children’s centre two Saturdays each month. It is an informal set-up: the morning begins with a bacon sandwich and a hot drink to provide an opportunity for the fathers to chat and catch up, and then different activities are organised, such as messy play and outdoor play. There are many intrinsic benefits in being part of such a group – friendship, advice, a support network and the chance to try out activities with their children that they may not otherwise get the opportunity to do. The fathers in ‘Dads R Us’ commented that the session gives them the chance to speak to like-minded people in a similar situation to themselves. A couple of dads who had previously been unable to have access to their children were able to see them within this group context at the centre, and from this, wider access has been granted. Another group member said his wife visited the children’s centre regularly and had suggested that he went along to the dad’s group to become more involved. The group have now extended their range of activities and organised a weekend at Butlins in Skegness that involved wives and partners, and have also visited the Peak District and taken part in outdoor activities such as orienteering.
Creating a dad-friendly ethos
Hopefully, the ideas in this article can give schools and extended school clusters some suggestions for activities that could be implemented relatively simply, and which would encourage fathers to get involved with their children’s schooling. It is, of course, an area that requires sensitivity and understanding; there will be some children who do not have fathers at home, either through family break-ups or perhaps bereavement, and schools must be pragmatic in how they promote such activities. Perhaps the best way to begin is simply to organise dad-friendly events and offer them at accessible times and locations. By discussing these events with fathers who already participate, and finding out about potential barriers to involvement, this can help pave the way for other dads to come along too.
Extended services provide a real opportunity in supporting dads and encouraging them to become involved in their children’s education. Perhaps in addition to Every Child Matters we also need a new campaign: ‘Every Dad Matters’! While being undeniably controversial, it would begin a process of encouragement and at the very least ensure discussion at all levels.
Paul Ainsworth is vice-principal of a secondary school, the author of Developing a Self-evaluating School: a Practical Guide (www.continuumbooks.com) and a dad!