9th Community, Work and Family conference: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
15-17 June 2023
Helen is presenting a paper that focuses on the relationship between fathers’ childcare involvement and their children’s educational attainment at ages five and seven (i.e. at the start and in the middle of UK primary education).
Results show that fathers’ involvement in the first year of school (at age 5) has longer-term positive implications by supporting educational attainment at age 7. On the other hand, mothers’ involvement affects the child in different ways by, for example, having a positive effect on their emotional and pro-social behaviour. These results underscore the importance of policy interventions to support and encourage fathers to be involved caregivers in the early years of a child’s life given the positive consequences this has on the children’s educational development, and on equality in the gender division of unpaid labour more broadly.
Research shows that parents’ engagement in activities that promote their children’s learning – such as reading and playing – can bring huge benefits to children’s educational development. Parental participation in ‘school-involvement activities’ – everything from helping out in the classroom, to fundraising or being a school governor – can also have benefits because this demonstrates the value and importance of education to the child, which can have a positive influence on learning, behaviour and attendance (Campbell 2011). Parental school involvement is therefore an important first step that can lead to or enhance parental engagement at home. Yet our study finds that overall, fathers are only half as likely as mothers to take part in such activities.
Across all the school-involvement activities measured by the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) – a nationally representative survey of households that surveys children in the middle of primary school at age 7 – just under a third (32%) of fathers said they participated in their child’s school in some way, compared to more than three-fifths (61%) of mothers.
The gender gap is even more marked for certain school-involvement activities: mothers are about four times more likely to help in the school library or classroom, or be a member of a parent association, committee or group for example. In some of the activities, less than 5% of fathers contribute. For more detail, see Table 1 below.
Table 1: What activities do parents do in their children’s school at age 7?
% of fathers involved
% of mothers involved
Help with fund-raising activities
Help out in elsewhere in the school e.g. library
Help out outside of class with special interest groups like drama/sports
Some other activity*
Be a member of parent association, committee or group
Help out in class
Be a member of management board/governing body
*Some other activity includes help with upkeep/running of school, help with breakfast club/afterschool, help with courses for school and general help
Note: Some parents took part in multiple activities. Based on 4047 households
What do we know about dads who do get involved?
Having established that fathers are less likely to get involved in school-participation activities, we wanted to find out more about the ones who do get involved.
We looked at fathers participating in one or more of the activities listed in Table 1, when their children were aged 7. We found that dads were more likely to be involved at school:
If they were frequently engaged in childcare activities at home: for example, playing with toys, drawing and painting or going to the park
If their children had good grades in their Key Stage 1 Assessments
If they were from a more affluent household (defined as having a household income that was more than 60% of the UK median, after housing costs);
If they were in paid work; and
If they were educated to at least degree level.
We also found differences according to ethnicity: for example, fathers of children from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background were less likely to get involved with their child’s school compared to fathers of children from white backgrounds.
These findings suggest that barriers to fathers’ school involvement may relate to income, time, work and educational background.
Why do more mothers get involved?
We found that the same barriers that affect fathers’ school involvement hinder mothers’ school involvement. Yet despite this, mothers are much more likely to get involved at school compared to fathers. Why?
Research suggests that the societal expectation that mothers take the main responsibility for children’s care and education continues to dominate despite some shifts in social attitudes about gender roles (e.g. see Curtice et al 2020). For example, research with equal and primary caregiver fathers has found that even when fathers do equal shares of everyday aspects of care and school support, mothers remain the ‘educational executives’ who took primary responsibility for the important decisions about their child’s schooling – like coordinating and managing school activities, and monitoring their educational progress (Brooks and Hodkinson, 2022).
This maternal ‘primary responsibility’ role may be perpetuated by schools and childcare providers, who tend to position the mother as the primary carer and first point of contact despite the father’s main or equal caregiver status. Our own survey of UK fathers found a sizeable proportion of childcare providers and schools mostly or only contacting the mother about various aspects of school life, including sickness, homework and payment of bills (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Who does the school, nursery, pre-school contact most frequently about…
How can we help schools to engage fathers?
The assumption that mothers are (or should be) primarily responsible for managing and coordinating children’s care and education, may act as a barrier to fathers’ participation in school-involvement activities, helping ensure that on average fathers do less.
Schools could help to engage fathers by addressing them directly in their communications, providing resources and activities that encourage dads to participate and running father-targeted events.
It’s worth remembering that fathers (and mothers) do not all have the same time and resources to support children’s education, and that individual and structural inequalities exist amongst different parent groups according to socio-economic status and ethnicity (Parentkind, 2021).
Designing school-involvement activities that can be done from home and do not eat up time and money (including journeys to and from school, which may be expensive) might be preferable for working fathers (and working mothers) – allowing them to engage at different times that can fit around their work schedules. This approach may be especially effective for parents on lower incomes and those who work longer hours.
Schools could also try to implement inclusive strategies to engage fathers from different cultures, for example promoting activities in partnership with local mosques.
Why is this important?
Direct engagement with fathers is important, because if they get involved at school, it demonstrates clearly to the child the value and importance of education. They are also more likely to engage in positive ways in the child’s learning, guided by the school’s resources and recommendations. This may have beneficial effects on children’s development and behaviour over the longer term – as set out in our earlier blog.
Fathers’ greater participation in school-involvement activities could also help shift perceptions around who is primarily responsible for caregiving, thus reducing the burden for mothers and contributing to greater gender equality in the division of care more broadly.
Brooks, R. and Hodkinson, P., 2022. The distribution of ‘educational labour’ in families with equal or primary carer fathers. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 43(7), pp.995-1011.
 We did this through logistic regression – a statistical method for exploring the relationship between different variables. We used MCS data that had been linked to the National Pupil Database so we could measure attainment in Key Stage Assessments at age 7.
Dataset for the linked MCS-NPD: University College London, UCL Institute of Education, Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Department for Education. (2021). Millennium Cohort Study: Linked Education Administrative Datasets (National Pupil Database), England: Secure Access. [data collection]. 2nd Edition. UK Data Service. SN: 8481, http://doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-8481-2
British Sociological Association Conference – University of Manchester
14-15 April 2023
Abstract: Fathers spend more time on childcare than previous generations but the implications on children are unclear. Research conducted with mothers or ‘parents’ more broadly finds that engagement in educational types of activities (such as reading and playing) has an association with better primary school grades and cognitive skills. However, we know less about the effects from fathers’ engagement, particularly when they live in low-income households where opportunities to engage with children are more constrained.
This paper explores the relationship between paternal childcare engagement, poverty and children’s attainment at primary school. We theorise educational attainment in terms of a capabilities framework (Sen 1992) where household circumstances – such as parental engagement, household income, resources and other socio-demographics – interact and shape children’s opportunities (capabilities) to achieve in different ways.
We use structural equation models on data from three sweeps of the Millennium Cohort Study (2000-06) that have been linked to educational data provided by the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile at age five – a standard assessment for all primary school children in England. Results show that fathers’ childcare engagement does have a positive effect on children’s educational attainment, over and above the mothers’ engagement, and even reduces the negative effects of being in poverty. This has important policy implications because the findings suggest that fathers’ engagement in a child’s learning could offer different ways of tackling persistent socio-economic attainment gaps in early education.
WiSE Centre for Economic Justice – ‘Conversations on Care’ lecture series, Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland
8th December 2022
Fathers are more involved in childcare and domestic work compared to previous generations but they still do much less than mothers. In this talk, Helen reflects on the gendered division of care, the barriers to father’s childcare involvement and the implications that this has on their children’s development.
Helen with Dr Nina Teasdale, Postdoctoral Fellow at WiSE
In spite of progress on men’s involvement in childcare, the statistics show that women are still taking on a much bigger share of the work than men. In this programme, Helen provides commentary to Professor Tina Miller on the impact of fathers being involved with their children in the first year of life.
Parents play a critical role in their children’s development – this is an accepted fact. More specifically, parental engagement in educational activities at home, such as reading and playing, improves children’s cognitive skills and academic achievements. Parent-school involvement (such as attending parents’ evenings or meetings, joining parent teacher associations or volunteering in extra-curricular activities) can also help support better behaviour, attendance and learning.
However, this useful evidence draws mostly on research conducted with mothers or ‘parents’ in a broad sense. Less is known specifically about fathers and the impact that their engagement has on the child’s cognitive and educational development.
The PIECE (Paternal Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education) study aims to find out whether, and in what ways, fathers’ engagement in structured activities at home – like playing, reading, drawing, painting, and doing musical activities – influences their children’s educational attainment at primary school.
PIECE project findings
Findings so far suggest that fathers have a unique impact on their children’s academic achievements in the early stages of school.
Based on analysis of a nationally representative group of almost 5,000 two-parent households from a major survey tracking families with children born in the early 2000s (the Millennium Cohort Study), we’ve found that fathers’ childcare engagement had a positive effect on children’s overall attainment in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) at age five – over and above the mothers’ childcare engagement.
In other words, if fathers increased their engagement in educational childcare activities when the child was age five, the child’s overall attainment in the EYFSP also went up. This happened regardless of the child’s gender and ethnicity, age in the school year, whether they had attended formal pre-school childcare, the parents’ employment status and household income.
The mothers’ childcare engagement supported the child in different ways – by improving their prosocial behaviour (children acting in socially beneficial ways, like helping each other, and being aware of other people’s needs), and reducing emotional behaviour and hyperactivity – all traits that help them do better at school.
This suggests that both parents matter, but they matter in different ways.
Barriers to involvement?
Parentkind’s 2021 annual parent survey found that most parents (85%) want to play an active role in their children’s education. In response to Parentkind’s surveys parents have consistently noted that the main reasons that prevent them from getting involved are: not having the time, not being sure what skills and knowledge they have to offer, not being asked and finding the idea of getting involved intimidating. However, some parents face more barriers than others. For example, long and inflexible work hours prevent some fathers from engaging as much as they might like in their child’s care. Low-income parents also face financial and logistical constraints that may prevent them from travelling to and taking part in school activities.
In focus groups with fathers, the PIECE project researchers found residence status to be another barrier to child- and school-engagement. This was especially true because schools tend to channel their communications to one parent or household, rather than recognising or targeting more than one parent or household per child. So mothers – who tend to do, and are often culturally expected to do – more caregiving, are more likely to receive information about their child from the school. This can present obstacles for fathers, especially those in families where children live in more than one household, where mothers are more likely to have majority care.
Traditional preconceptions about gender roles can also play into this. Some fathers report that schools treat mothers as the sole point of contact even where the parents have asked them to direct information to dad. This might partly explain why fathers are also much less likely to participate in school life compared to mothers (for example in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) – about double the proportion of mums participated in school activities when the child was aged 7 compared to dads.
What needs to be done?
It is clear that we need to do more to support and encourage dads to engage with their child’s school and home learning. The data suggests that their increased engagement would have tangible benefits on a child’s early attainment at primary school. However, on average, mothers continue to take most responsibility for childcare and are more likely to participate in school life. Such roles are often considered primarily a maternal responsibility – by society at large and by schools, as well as by many mothers and fathers themselves.
Parentkind’s Blueprint for Parent-Friendly Schools is an evidence-based foundation for schools leaders, with clear actions, to maximise and build upon parents’ contributions, embed parental participation and create positive partnerships with parents for the benefit of all children. Many methods do not require direct attendance at school, such as responding to school surveys, supporting learning at home and community outreach. From the PIECE project focus groups, targeted father-child events and clear, father-focused materials might encourage paternal school-involvement.
Our early study findings show that this is not just a case of being nice to dads. It is about recognising fathers’ unique impact, maximising the benefits this can bring and truly involving fathers in the education of their children. Not only might that take some of the pressure off mothers, but the evidence shows that our young people and their life chances could see a real boost.
 60.5% of mums were involved in school activities compared to 32.2% of dads in our MCS sample at age 7. School activities includes things like helping out in classes, at the library, or at the school more generally, helping with fundraising or participating in Parent-Teacher Association meetings and committees.
By Dr Helen Norman, Dr Jeremy Davies and Dr Rose Smith
Fathers now spend more time on childcare than their own fathers did, but three-fifths (59%) feel they do not spend enough time with their children – and this may be impacting negatively on their children’s learning.
Our analysis of almost 5,000 two parent households from the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study (footnote 1) found that almost a fifth (18%) of dads felt the time they spent with their five-year-old was ‘nowhere near enough’. Another two-fifths (41%) felt their time together was ‘not quite enough’(see Graph 1 below).
We wanted to find out whether there was a relationship between the amount of time fathers felt they had with their five-year-old, and their child’s overall achievement in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) at age five.
What we found
Using logistic regression analysis (a statistical method for exploring the relationship between different variables), we found that the odds of children reaching a good level of overall achievement in the EYFSP (footnote 2) reduced by 18% if the father said he spent ‘nowhere near enough time’ with his child.
This was the case even when we accounted for other factors that might affect the child’s attainment. These included the child’s age in the school year, their gender, ethnicity, household income, whether they had been to pre-school formal childcare and their parents’ employment status. In contrast, the mother’s feelings about time spent with her child had no significant effect.
This suggests that time spent with fathers is important, but we note that this is not the only thing that affects how well a child does at school. For example, socio-economic status, peer relationships and quality of teaching are likely to be important too. We want to find out whether fathers’ involvement might interact with or change some of these other influences.
The effect of long working hours
Several factors can affect fathers’ time spent with children – like the demands of their job, their partner’s employment status, whether they have access to formal childcare and their own parenting attitudes and beliefs (see Norman et al. 2014; Fagan and Norman 2016; Hardy et al. 2022 for more details).
Our analysis with the MCS found that work hours are important. A quarter of dads (24.7%) who worked long full-time hours (45+ per week) said they spent ‘nowhere near enough time’ with their five-year-old, compared to 17% of dads who worked standard full-time hours (30-45 per week).
Graph 1. How do fathers feel about the amount of time they spend with their child (aged 5)?
Source: Sweep 3 (2006) of the MCS – when cohort children are aged five. The sample comprises 4,966 two (opposite sex) parent households in England. Ten dads who answered ‘not sure’ and 79 dads who did not provide a response to the question are excluded from the Figure. Data is weighted to account for the stratified sampling design and non-response.
Exploring what dads do with the time they have
So far, we have considered how fathers feel about the time they spend with their children, but what about what fathers actually do with their children – does this have any effect?
As our study progresses, we will explore whether and how fathers’ childcare involvement affects their children’s educational attainment in more depth. We have developed robust measures of fathers’ (and mothers’) involvement in childcare activities, so we can look further at the relationship between parental involvement and children’s educational attainment at age five.
We will also look at attainment at ages seven and eleven, by linking the data to the official educational records of children in the National Pupil Database. As well as establishing whether and how fathers have an impact, we will consider whether this is more important for boys or girls – or at certain stages of the child’s life.
We want to look at this because we know that inequalities in attainment start from an early age. We know that among children surveyed in our sample of the Millennium Cohort Study, more than three-fifths (62.4%) of girls reached a good level of achievement in the EYFSP compared to less than half (46.8%) of boys. Just 39% of children from poorer households (footnote 3) reached a good level of achievement compared to 57.5% of children from more affluent households.
Could fathers’ involvement at home help to alleviate some of these gendered and socio-economic effects?
Dads and reading
In our initial explorations of the MCS, we found that a higher proportion of children reached a good level of overall achievement in the EYFSP when dads engaged regularly in activities such as drawing and painting, playing games and reading with their children.
For example, as Graph 2 shows, three-fifths (60%) of children whose dads read to them regularly (i.e. several times a week or more) reached a good level of overall achievement in the EYFSP, compared to just two-fifths (38%) of children whose dads rarely did this. It is clear that the proportion of children reaching a good level of EYFSP achievement falls as the frequency of fathers’ reading with them reduces.
The pattern is similar for mothers, although the proportion of children reaching a good level of EYFSP achievement if the mother reads to them regularly (57%) is slightly lower (see Graph 3).
This suggests that both parents’ involvement is important. In our ongoing analysis we aim to explore, in more detail, the different ways fathers and mothers may affect their children’s overall achievement, and how this varies according to socio-demographics and children’s own characteristics.
Graph 2: The proportion of children who achieved a good level of achievement, or lower, in the EYFSP – according to how often fathers read to them at home
Graph 3: The proportion of children who achieved a good level of achievement, or lower, in the EYFSP – according to how often mothers read to them at home
Would you like to take part in the PIECE Talks – a series of think-ins where we’ll explore issues raised in this blog, and our wider study? Click here for more details.
We analysed data from the first three sweeps of the Millennium Cohort Study – a nationally representative survey that follows the lives of children born in 2000-01.
The EYFSP captures the ‘Early Learning Goals’ as a set of 13 assessment scales including, for example, disposition and attitudes, emotional development, reading, writing and knowledge and understanding about the world. The Department for Education defines a Good Level of Achievement as a score of ≥78 points in the total EYFSP score (which ranges from 0-117) but this must include a score of ≥6 in each individual scale under Personal, social and emotional development and Communication, language and literacy (for more detail see the EYFSP handbook).
Families whose equivalised income was 60% below the UK median, before housing costs, were defined as being poverty (Ketende & Joshi, 2008).
Norman H, Elliot M, Fagan C. 2014. Which fathers are the most involved in taking care of their toddlers in the UK? An investigation of the predictors of paternal involvement. Community, Work & Family. 17(2), pp. 163-180
Fagan C, Norman H. 2016. Which Fathers Are Involved in Caring for Pre-school Age Children in the United Kingdom? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Influence of Work Hours in Employment on Shared Childcare Arrangements in Couple Households. In: Ruspini E; Crespi I (eds.) Balancing Work and Family in a Changing Society: The Fathers’ Perspective. Global Masculinities. Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 83-98
British Sociological Association conference (online)
Conference presentation – 21st April 2022
Helen and Rose presented the initial findings from their analysis exploring the association between paternal and maternal involvement, and attainment in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile at age five.
For further details about the conference, see here