Fathers have ‘unique effect’ on children’s educational outcomes, study finds
Children whose fathers read, play, sing and draw with them show a “small but significant” increase in their educational attainment at primary school, according to research that suggests just 10 minutes a day could make a difference.
While it has long been recognised that parental engagement is critical for a child’s education and development, a study led by the University of Leeds claims fathers have “a unique and important effect” on children’s educational outcomes.
It found that greater involvement by fathers before their child attends primary school gives an educational advantage to children in their first year, while greater involvement at the age of five helps increase attainment in key stage 1 assessments at seven. The effect is slightly more pronounced in maths.
The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, drew a distinction between the impact of mothers and fathers. While fathers’ involvement had an impact on educational attainment, mothers had more of an impact on emotional and social behaviours.
The study recommends that fathers should carve out as much time as they can to engage in playful and educational activities with their children each week. “Engaging in multiple types of structured activities several times a week – even if just for short periods of time – helps to enrich a child’s cognitive and language development,” the study concludes. “Just 10 minutes a day could have beneficial impacts.”
It also recommends that schools and early years education providers should routinely take both parents’ contact details where possible and develop positive strategies to engage fathers. It suggests that the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, should consider father engagement in inspections.
Dr Helen Norman, a research fellow at Leeds University business school, who led the research, said: “Mothers still tend to assume the primary carer role and therefore tend to do the most childcare, but if fathers actively engage in childcare too, it significantly increases the likelihood of children getting better grades in primary school. This is why encouraging and supporting fathers to share childcare with the mother, from an early stage in the child’s life, is critical.”
The study, published on Wednesday, is based on a representative sample of almost 5,000 mother-father households in England drawn from the Millennium Cohort Study (which collected data on children born 2000-02), which was linked to the official educational records of children from the early years foundation stage profile at age five, and the national pupil database at age seven.
Fathers’ involvement had a positive effect on a child’s attainment regardless of the child’s gender, ethnicity, age in the school year or household income. The study acknowledged the significant detrimental effects of early poverty on educational attainment.
Helen Dodd, a professor of child psychology at Exeter Medical School, said: “This is a strong piece of research, showing the importance of parent involvement in children’s development. It is particularly interesting that they found that fathers’ and mothers’ involvement might be linked to different outcomes for children, with fathers’ involvement linked particularly to broad educational outcomes whereas mothers’ involvement was more closely linked to overall wellbeing, attention, mental health and social skills.
“This may reflect the different ways that mothers and fathers might play with and interact with their children within traditional parenting roles in two-parent heterosexual families. It serves to highlight the important role that fathers have. It is important though to keep in mind that irrespective of the structure of a family, children benefit when their parents engage in these types of playful, creative activities with their child.”
Andrew Gwynne, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on fatherhood, said: “This study shows that even small changes in what fathers do, and in how schools and early years settings engage with parents, can have a lasting impact on children’s learning. It’s absolutely crucial that fathers aren’t treated as an afterthought.”