Why do boys underachieve? Partly because of gender divisions inside the family - fathers often take no interest in their sons' schooling. Wendy Wallace talks to the men who are going back to school to inspire their boys
My brothers are being pains most of the time and my sisters are trying to do their best at school." In a classroom at Blyth community school, Northumberland, 11-year-old Kieran Walker is writing a letter on the computer to a friend from his previous school. What makes this unusual though is that it's 8pm, and sitting next to him is his grandfather, 60-year-old gardener Michael Walker. "I started school in 1945, when you still had slate and chalk. I left in 1955," says Mr Walker. "I've thoroughly enjoyed this."
Six men and their sons (Michael Walker came in place of Kieran's father) are gathered on a wild, wet night in an ICT room at this largely deserted senior school. Peering through the window from the corridor are three other drenched but curious boys. "I wanted to come but my dad's not interested in computers," says one. Another says his father is in Scotland.
But the purpose of this computer skills course for "dads and lads" is not just to teach mouse control and surfing shortcuts; organiser Helen Arnold is trying to find ways of helping boys do their best in school too, by increasing fathers' involvement in their children's education. Her organisation - Children North East - has set up this course and another like it in primary schools as part of a project called Fathers Plus. "We recognise that mums already come in to help out in schools, and that there tend to be more female than male teachers, especially in primary schools," she says. "We wanted to get dads more involved in the school and to have a dialogue with men about what to do next."
Helen Arnold is aware that only motivated fathers are likely to turn out after work in winter, despite the draw of the computers. And although Blyth, with its industrial past, is not exactly the spiritual home of New Man, the men here seem refreshingly close to their boys.
Forty-year-old Philip Morgan, here with 13-year-old stepson Graham Davison, came home from his job as a bus driver, had his tea, and was straight out again to the course. Graham is teaching his father some basic word-processing, although it doesn't come easy. "As soon as I write the date, my mind goes blank," Philip says. "I know what I want to say, but my mind is a complete blank." Philip Morgan - with four step-sons and one of his own, all aged between eight and 15 - is an involved father, if not a practised letter writer. He takes the five boys fishing, builds go-karts with them and is helping the oldest amass his own tool box. "I don't bother going out," he says, "so I can see the kids." But, like many men, he feels excluded from his children's schools. "There's not much for the kids and their dads," he says. "It's always mothers. Dads don't get the same chances. With the letters, it's mainly always to the mums."
Most schools routinely address correspondence to both parents by name or to parents and carers. But it's a question of perception. Despite the Government's emphasis on home-school links, parental involvement is often read by schools and families to mean maternal involvement. When researchers from Children North East and the University of Newcastle studied six primary schools in the north-east, they found that although all the schools asked both parents to induction sessions, one in three fathers believed they had not been invited. More than three out of four mothers turned up for the induction meeting, but only one in two fathers.
It comes as no surprise to Julie Bowman, head of the 270-pupil Malvins Close first school, also in Blyth. She and a fellow infant head began family literacy classes for nursery and reception class parents as a way of trying to "have an impact on our standards and results throughout the school, to involve the parents right from the beginning". The classes were a runaway success - with mothers. Of the 30 participants, only three were men. "It was what I expected," says Julie Bowman. "The mothers knew us already, so we didn't have to break down any barriers." The women came in on a literacy ticket but the groups developed to encompass health and parenting issues - four participants have gone on to train as classroom assistants and one as a nursery nurse.
This term, Julie Bowman is running a basic ICT course for men in the school, on Monday mornings. Recruitment, predictably, has been difficult. "Dads don't seem to like to cross the threshold," she says. "They'll stand in the yard but they don't want to come in. So we went out and gave them the leaflets." The schools also organised two mail shots advertising the course. Ten men have been recruited, two of whom are already interested in assisting in classes in future.
Julie Bowman believes it is vital to get men into school as part of addressing boys' underachievement. Baseline tests show that boys enter Malvins Close, with fewer social skills than girls, and less oriented to language and literacy. This fits the national pattern. "In this part of Blyth, from the minute they walk into school it's obvious that the boys are performing less well than the girls," she says. "We want to show boys - as well as girls - that dads are interested in learning too, that men do like reading books, they do like learning."
The research by Children North East and the University of Newcastle found that fathers were rarely specifically targeted by staff, even though schools appreciate the importance of the male role model. The researchers say: "On the whole the schools we interviewed could be described as 'gender agnostic'. Although they believe they treat mothers and fathers the same, they have not formulated an explicit view about whether working with fathers requires a particular approach or not."
Yet without being specifically targeted, men will rarely involve themselves in the classroom (although they may be prominent in fundraising, football clubs and the governing body). "Never in 23 years has a father come in to help," one teaching assistant told the researchers. New working patterns - increased male unemployment, and more women working outside the home - have apparently had little impact in bringing men into schools. "I don't like schools. I wouldn't want to be back there," remarked one father.
Even the most recent generation of parents, the ones with pre-school children, stick to old ways, says Carol Dufton, acting team leader for Sure Start, the government scheme for supporting deprived families with pre-school children, in Howdon, north Tyneside. Men are rarely sighted at the toddler groups the organisation is launching in the area. "A lot of the dads are very young," she says. "I think they lack the confidence. They think, should I be doing this, and am I doing it right? It's about them feeling that what they're doing is okay and is valued."
Ex-club steward Andy Hayes, aged 32, lives in the Byker area of Newcastle upon Tyne. He joined a fathers' group at the local family centre when he found himself a full-time father, while his partner was working full-time. "I was Mam and Dad while Pamela wasn't there," he says. "It was hard. I was used to being out at work, doing my own thing. But in the house with children, you put yourself on hold."
A year and a half later, Andy Hayes - whose children are now eight and five - is one of two male volunteer classroom assistants at Walkergate junior school. A teacher told him that some of the children who had no contact with men at home were nervous about moving on in school and having male teachers.
Despite initial whispering about his motivations on the part of some parents - "I felt a little self-conscious at first, but it's OK when people know what your intentions are" - Andy Hayes is enthusiastic about his part-time role. "I'm learning with the kids," he says, "because I never really stuck it at school. It was one big joke and I've suffered for it."
Helen Arnold of Fathers Plus is frank about the need to develop ways to involve fathers more in their children's education - there are no trails blazed and, despite a burgeoning "dads" industry in the voluntary sector, little attention has been paid to men in school. (The YMCA produced a 95-page magazine earlier this year "for fathers and men who care" without a single article on men's role in their children's schooling.) Computer courses such as the ones in Blyth may demonstrate one useful way to bring men into school. "We didn't know if we would be able to get dads to come along in the first place," says Helen Arnold. "But they're keen to learn things for themselves and to find out how to help their children with what they're doing at school."
Full research findings on 'engaging parents in a primary school setting' will be available in December from Children North East, 1a Claremont Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4AH. Tel: 0191 232 3741.The National Reading Campaign has launched a search to find male reading champions. For more details contact Genevieve Clarke at the National Literacy Trust, Swire House, 59 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AJ. Tel: 020 7828 2435 or visit www.literacytrust.org.uk