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

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Helen Norman is a senior research fellow at Leeds University Business School. Her research interests focus on fathers and fatherhood, the gendered division of labour and gender inequalities in work, employment and family life. Dr Jeremy Davies leads the Fatherhood Institute’s communications and campaigns (including #timewithdad), and contributes to research and policy development. Dr Rose Smith is a Research Fellow at Leeds University Business School working primarily on the PIECE project. Her research interests cut across education, housing and public attitudes to welfare.

Father helping son with school work

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 (MCS) - a nationally representative survey that follows the lives of children born in 2000-01 - 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’.

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.

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 were 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 - like their 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 mothers’ feelings about the time spent with their 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 are interested in finding 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 – such as the demands of their job, their partner’s employment status, whether they have access to formal childcare and their own parenting attitudes and beliefs (e.g. see Norman et al. 2014; Fagan and Norman 2016; Hardy et al. 2022). 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).

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 that we can look further at the relationship between parental childcare 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 also establish whether this is more important for boys or girls, or at certain stages of the child’s life regardless of the child’s gender. 

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 MCS, 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; and 39% of children from poorer households reached a good level of achievement compared to 57.5% of children from more affluent households. Families whose equivalised income was 60% below the UK median, before housing costs, were defined as being in poverty (Ketende & Joshi, 2008).

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 childcare activities such as drawing and painting, playing games and reading with their children.

For example, 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 read to them. It is clear that the proportion of children reaching a good level of EYFSP achievement falls as the frequency that fathers read to their children reduces (visit the PIECE Study website for a graph that summarises this data).

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. This suggests that both parents’ involvement is important. In our ongoing analysis, we aim to explore, in more detail, the different ways in which fathers and mothers may affect their children’s overall achievement, and how this varies according to socio-demographics and children’s own characteristics.

For further information about our project, please visit www.piecestudy.org.


*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.

This blog post is a variation of the article that first appeared on the PIECE Study website. PIECE (Paternal Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education) is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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