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When father means further ahead

"It's the push I needed to spend more time with my daughter," said Mohammed Sharif, who volunteered for the Fathers and Reading project at Drummond middle school in Bradford.

"I hardly see Aisha, my daughter, because I work in the catering business. I set off for work at about 4pm and I don't get home until the early hours. I'm usually still asleep when she leaves for school in the morning.

"But I do have two days a week off and I wanted to use some of that time helping her with her reading. What I didn't know was there was more to it than just listening to her read and helping her with difficult words."

Mr Sharif, 32, joins about a dozen other fathers, uncles, brothers and "significant other males" every Thursday evening to learn not just how to encourage a love of books but also to be a positive male role model for his four young children.

The government-backed scheme, Fathers and Reading, was formally launched this week to coincide with Father's Day. At the moment it is running as a pilot project in five areas funded by the Basic Skills Agency, News International - publisher of The TES - and Marks amp; Spencer, each donating pound;10,000. It will be available nationwide from September.

"I have usually left all this kind of thing to Aisha's mother because of the hours I work," said Mr Sharif. "But I realise I need to spend more time with my daughter and reading is a good way of enjoying ourselves."

Kabir Ahmed, 19, a law student at Bradford University, is standing in for his brother - the father of 10-year-old Aamer Ahmed - who is in the Army.

"I think it's important Aamer has someone like me, his uncle, to help him when his father is away, not just with his reading but for all the other things we do, like sport," said Mr Ahmed. "I enjoy spending time with Aamer as much as he likes having me around. I think it gives him confidence."

The 16-week course developed by the Community Education Development Centre, an educational charity, is run at Drummond by English manager Steve Assanowicz. "Parents want to help their children but they don't always know how," he said. "It's important that men become involved in young children's education because there are so few of them in primary-school teaching."

Bradford is one of five education authorities, including Derbyshire, Dudley, Coventry and Newham, taking part in the project, to be evaluated by Elaine Millard, of Sheffield University.

"The scheme is all based on things that we know men like to do," said Lisa Capper, from the CEDC. "So, for example, newspapers play a part - which we feel is less alienating than getting them to do activities around a poem. At the same time we don't want to stereotype. There's not one football activity in the scheme."

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