Supporting fathers to get more involved at school

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 Sheffield Hallam University but before that, worked at Leeds University Business School on the PIECE project (2022-23). Rose’s research interests cut across education, housing and public attitudes to welfare.

Father helping son with school work

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’ – such as helping out in the classroom, to fundraising or being a school governor – can also have benefits. This is because itdemonstrates the value and importance of education to the child, which can have a positive influence on learning, behaviour and attendance.  

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 activities - such as being a member of a parent association or committee or helping out in class - less than 5% of fathers contribute. 

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 school-based activities measured by the MCS, when their children were aged 7. Activities included help with fundraising activities, helping out elsewhere in the school (such as the library), helping out outside of class with special interest groups like drama or sports, being a member of a parent association, committee or group, helping out in class, or being a member of the management board or governing body, or any other activity connected to the school.  

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, educational and/or cultural 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. For example, research on 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 take primary responsibility for the important decisions about their child’s schooling – like coordinating and managing school activities, and monitoring their educational progress. 

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 248 UK fathers (who had at least one child under the age of 12) found sizeable proportions of childcare providers and schools who mostly or only contacted the mother about various aspects of school life. For example, 38% of fathers said that settings only contacted the mother regarding the child’s sickness and half of fathers said the mother was only contacted about homework or home-based activities. 

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 also 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. 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 our “Paternal Involvement and its Effects on Children’s Education” (PIECE) study shows.  

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. 

PIECE is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). 

Dr Helen Norman and Dr Jeremy Davies will be sharing the findings from this project in an online event on Wednesday 20 September 2023, 11.30am – 1.30pm. The event will also feature other speakers and a panel discussion.

Register for the free event here.

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