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Ignore father at child's peril

MANY SCHOOLS sideline fathers, ignoring research that shows the more extensive fathers' involvement in their children's education the more successful they will be, a conference heard this week.

Under new legislation, however, schools will be obliged to place fathers on an equal footing with mothers and to ensure boys and girls are not set on stereotypical career paths.

The Gender Equality Duty, which came into force in April, states that public authorities must eliminate sex discrimination and sexual harassment, as well as promote gender equality. The implications this has for men as well as women were highlighted at Fathers' Footsteps, a conference organised by Children in Scotland in Edinburgh this week.

Jonathan Sher of Children in Scotland said: "Some public services treat fathers as invisible, uninterested or uninvolved in their children's lives.

"Ignoring fathers who are willing and able to play a healthy, active, nurturing role in their children's lives places an unfair burden upon mothers, creates a negative self-fulfilling prophecy for fathers and disadvantages children and young people."

Expanding the role of parents in education has become a key government policy, with the Parental Involve-ment Act, 2006, aiming to give parents more op-portunities to be involved with their child's education and school life.

At Monday's conference, however, teachers and school managers acknowledged that fathers often have little or no involvement in their children's education, especially when families break down.

This situation must change, according to Duncan Fisher, director of Fathers Direct. "Overwhelmingly, the most important factor in children's educational achievement is parental interest," he said.

"When schools are faced with a mother saying she doesn't want the father to be involved, the current approach is simply to say 'OK'.

"Instead, that should be identified immediately as a major risk factor for the child's learning. The school cannot ignore it."

Studies have repeatedly highlighted the positive role fathers can have in their children's education, he added.

Dads can be kept up-to-date, Mr Fisher suggested, by emailing reports and texting information on achievement. Schools should also take the initiative, he said, and invite fathers to volunteer to do things in the school, such as reading or talking about a hobby or interest. "Any school determined to engage with fathers will find many creative ways of involving them," Mr Fisher said. "It is not rocket science."

He also urged an end to stereotypes which confine boys and girls to particular careers. A study showed that 25 per cent of boys would have been interested in working with children, but only 2 per cent were offered the chance by careers advisers.

Anne Fine, the children's author, agreed that young people must be made more aware of the different kinds of men and women they can become. Writers can help to achieve this, she told the conference. "We still have 30, 40, 50-year-old books on the shelves that contain images of invisible or just at work fathers," said Ms Fine, author of Madame Doubtfire.

"No one wants to start burning books, censoring them or throwing them away," she added, "but for any family trying to lead a life in which the father takes a full, active and shared role, they are a drag.

"We modern authors do our best. All the men in my books can cook and - unless that's the issue of the book - they take a full role in the family."

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