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Helen Norman

What a difference a dad makes: engaging with fathers as well as mothers

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By Helen Norman, Jeremy Davies, Kerry-Jane Packman (Chief Executive & Leadership Team – Parentkind) and Siân Lewis (Head of partnerships – Parentkind)

 

This blog was first published by Parentkind on 20 September 2022 here: https://www.parentkind.org.uk/about-us/news-and-blogs/blog/what-a-difference-a-dad-makes-engaging-with-fathers-as-well-as-mothers 

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[1].

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.

[1] 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.

Dad and daughter

What difference does ‘time with dad’ make to children’s learning?

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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.


Footnotes

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. Families whose equivalised income was 60% below the UK median, before housing costs, were defined as being poverty (Ketende & Joshi, 2008).

References

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

Hardy, K. Tomlinson, J., Norman, H., Cruz, K, Whittaker, X., Archer, N. (2022) ‘Essential but undervalued: early years care & education during COVID-19’, Final Report, Childcare During Covid: University of Leeds

Ketende, S, Joshi, H (2008). Income and poverty. In Millennium Cohort Study, Third Survey: a User’s Guide to Initial Findings (ed. Hasan, K. and Joshi, H.). Centre for Longitudinal Studies: London.

Does fathers’ childcare involvement affect children’s educational attainment in the first year of primary school in England?

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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

What Influences Paternal Childcare Involvement From Nine Months To Eleven Years Post Birth In The UK?

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European Sociological Association Conference (online)

Conference presentation – 2nd September 2021

Helen presented a paper that shows how our measures of paternal childcare engagement were derived using survey data from the Millennium Cohort Study. We use these measures to explore what influences paternal engagement from nine months to eleven years post-birth. The presentation reflects on some of the first findings from this analysis.

We will use these measures in our forthcoming analysis to explore how they might affect children’s educational outcomes.

You can download the presentation slides here.

International Women’s Day Podcast: Gender inequalities in work and care

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8th March 2021

Leeds University Business School

Professor Jennifer Tomlinson (University of Leeds) speaks to Helen about her research on what enables or hinders fathers’ childcare involvement, and how ways of working and caring in a child’s pre-school years sets up a pattern of caregiving that persists as the child grows older. Helen reflects on her earlier research and introduces this new project on father involvement and children’s education.

For more details, see here.

Listen to the podcast here.

Paternal Childcare Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Primary School Education

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28th May 2021

Centre for Research on Families, Life Course and Generations (FLaG) – Work in Progress workshop, University of Leeds

Helen presented the project plans to FLaG members in a work in progress workshop chaired by Professor Sarah Irwin (one of the project’s advisory board members). Questions around the mechanisms behind fathers’ parenting as well as accounting for cultural factors and school context in our analysis were issues that were discussed.

Workshop slides here.