Fathers are the key to boosting their sons' learning. But what if the fathers are also teachers? Jill Parkin reports
Think of the sort of relationship where confidences and hopes are exchanged, support given and jokes swapped. Bet you're not thinking of fathers and sons, are you?
The Department for Education and Skills reckons fathers are one of the keys to improving boys' results and prospects. The problem, though, is that dad-and-son communication in most families is limited to grunting over the football results.
So last August, the department launched Give an Hour, a project that encourages employers to let fathers spend a paid hour on an educational activity with their 11 to 14-year-old sons - boys in their first three years of secondary school, at a stage when most fathers have lost touch with the curriculum.
Trouble is, the electrical retailer Comet is so far the only company to have signed up, although Burger King, Asda, PC World and Manchester United and Fulham FC shops are showing support by handing customers the DfES booklet Dads and Sons: a winning team, which suggests productive ways for fathers to boost their sons' learning (writing a sports report together, taking their sons to work for an hour, and so on).
Two out of three fathers surveyed last year said work commitments stopped them spending time with their sons, and three out of four would like to be more involved with their sons' education. The survey of 2,000 parents in England by the British Market Research Bureau found that 72 per cent of mothers are more involved than fathers with their children's schooling, and one in four men never or only occasionally attend parents' evenings.
Meanwhile, the prospects of teachers who are also fathers carving out the department's extra hour to spend with their own children look slim. As Secondary Heads Association general secretary John Dunford says: "Most heads would say the time was better spent helping a class of 30 children rather than helping one child at home."
Yet Comet, with a 69 per cent male workforce, can see the benefits already.
Managing director Rob Cissell sees the scheme as a chance for his company to do its bit to raise boys' achievement. "As the dad of a young son myself, I certainly recognise the huge benefit in our spending time together," he says.
Richard Walton, from Hillingdon, Middlesex, a computer project manager with Comet, now has more time to talk through homework with his 12-year-old son Daniel ("and I write something in the home-school link book instead of just signing it"), but they also enjoy sharing a fishing brolly by the riverside. "Daniel introduced me to fishing by saying he fancied a go and would I come with him, so now it's a regular three or four-hour stint on Sundays of fishing and talking. I value that time and we have a better relationship because of it," he says.
"It's good, too, in that he's teaching me. He doesn't go out and buy the Beano - he buys Angler's Mail, studies it and passes the techniques on to me. While we fish we talk about friends and school. He asks how I used to deal with something when I was his age.
"The first few years of secondary school are tricky, they're in a new environment and going through changes. Daniel has started choosing his own clothes, bought a neckchain and had his ear pierced. Spending time with them is a lot more productive than nagging about things like that."
Andy Westwood of the Work Foundation (formerly the Industrial Society) says: "Companies are increasingly realising that it is in their interests to help their staff achieve a healthy work-life balance. The Give an Hour initiative is a step in the right direction."
While waiting for schools to catch up with Comet, male teachers who enjoy reading with their sons (or pupils) can get themselves nominated for the National Reading Campaign's Reading Champions programme, which celebrates men and boys who encourage other men and boys to read. Among this year's champions is Andrew Page, Year 6 teacher at Rother junior school in Chesterfield, and a father of three (including two boys - seven-year-old Jacob and four-year-old Sam). "Jacob and I have recently read The Hobbit and A Series of Unfortunate Events, as well as Enid Blyton and Artemis Fowl. We read them to each other. I remember loving The Hobbit as a child.
"Boys need to be shown that reading can be fun and that books can take them on endless journeys of their own choice, ones they wouldn't otherwise experience. It's a matter of choosing books that suit their taste and personality."
A family holiday in Pembrokeshire prompted Andrew to write a children's story, The Adventures of Ronnie the Rock Goblin, which he uses as a prop for fiction writing with his class. "I can show it to them and say, 'Look, I'm a normal bloke. I like football and all the things you like, but I like writing, too. Writing is cool as well.' It makes them think, 'Yeah, I can do this'."
See www.dfes.gov.ukdadsandsons. Order free copies of Dads and Sons: a winning team on 0845 6022260. Details of the Reading Champions scheme on www.readon.org.uk. The Adventures of Ronnie the Rock Goblin by Andrew Page is published by Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, pound;5.99