Helping young dads to become father figures
Like many young men, Errol dreams of becoming a professional footballer. A striker, he got into the game when he was 12 and now plays for Charlton Athletic's youth team. In spite of his success, he remains grounded.
Errol is 15 years old. His first child, a son, is due this summer. "It doesn't feel real. I'm quite surprised and a bit excited," he says. Fortunately, Errol has the support of his mother and St Michael's Fellowship, a London-based charity that supports young parents.
When we speak, Errol is not at school. He dislikes being asked questions about his personal life, but continuing his education matters enormously to him.
"Education is important because you need it for further life, to get more money to provide for the child," he says. He is in the process of transferring to a new school.
A lot of help is available for young mothers, particularly when it comes to education. Unfortunately, many young fathers - grappling with feelings of failure, helplessness and loss - drop out of education. So how can schools prevent this?
Invisible and intimidated
"Becoming a father - or mother - can be scary, particularly if you're young, finding your way in life and feel unsupported," observes Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute thinktank.
"If a young father-to-be is not helped to work through his fear, and to envision a positive and achievable way of playing an active role in his child's life, regardless of what happens to the relationship with the mother, he may struggle to `find himself' as a father."
Young fathers can feel unfairly judged or marginalised by those around them - their family and friends, but also the professionals they come into contact with, in particular teachers. To keep the sympathy of his community, a young man often has to meet an ideal of fatherhood that is impossible to attain.
"Young men can improve their behaviour as a result of these expectations, or be totally intimidated by them," Davies says.
Often, young fathers want to play a role in their child's life but face barriers to doing so, including the negative attitudes of professionals; living separately from the mother; a lack of preparedness for fatherhood; and, in many cases, the absence of a positive paternal role model. Consequently, some come to believe that they do not matter. They become invisible.
For Davies, "becoming a confident, hands-on parent" is a learning curve for mothers and fathers of all ages: all parents need support to become good at it, and without that help it's all too easy to convince yourself that you're useless or surplus to requirements.
Services tend to invest a good deal of time and energy into supporting young mothers, but young dads get far less assistance - if any. Given the strong weight of evidence about the impact of fathers' involvement on outcomes for children, that needs to change. At first sight, these young men might appear to offer unpromising raw material for transforming into loving, emotionally capable hands-on dads, but with the right support they can become just that.
"Do we condemn them or do we play a role in something that isn't planned or ideal?" Davies asks.
Manage the impact
Under the Children Act 2004, professionals have a duty to support vulnerable young people. But as Errol's story demonstrates, responses vary.
Davies recommends that support measures for young fathers at school should be holistic and formulated collaboratively, involving parents and referral agencies.
"A school's primary aim is to ensure that young dads can achieve, and to provide pastoral care," Davies says.
But headteachers also have to manage the impact a young father's presence can have on other students. As Davies says, "the aim should be to turn any potentially negative impact into a positive: a well-supported young father could, in fact, become a positive role model for other young men".
Some young fathers "do not have an inspirational, protective and supportive paternal influence in their lives", according to David Sterling, a social worker at St Michael's Fellowship. "As a result, boys may be prevented from witnessing and developing the skill set that is required to create and sustain a positive relationship with their partners and their children when they are older."
Sterling believes that schools and colleges are ideally placed to help young people appreciate the importance of healthy relationships, using the curriculum "to ensure that children are taught the universal values and principles that are required to be a reasonable and responsible partner, father and mother". He recommends that schools promote an understanding that fatherhood is a force for good that should be cherished.
Errol's own advice on how to help a young father is clear: "Support him through the time. Let him take time out of lessons. Let him go to a young dads' session. Check if he's all right. Help him mature a bit."
Most of all, Errol says, let him know that, "If you're a young dad, you can do it."
Tobias Fish is an English teacher in Cambridgeshire