“Yes, but is he knuckling down and doing as he’s told?”
Look, this post is going to brutally controversial, but I really think that the whole education equation could do with being balanced by some more input from The Dads, particularly when it comes to primary education. In fact, I reckon we could harness their potential as advocates for traditional education and as an additional defence against the currently unrelenting spiel that seeks to promote progressive education* in all its guises. Why? Because, on average, they don’t seem to go for this idealism that goes on about the ‘Whole Child’ and ‘Self-esteem’ or ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Creativity’. When I speak to fathers about their children, they tend to say things like the above quote; they want to know their children, particularly their sons, are on track for academic success with some sporting prowess on the side and they are definitely not interested in how much little Charlie loves talking about his feelings and expressing himself while doing group work and drama.
Of course, I can’t make the above sweeping generalisation without at least seeking to temper it with an acknowledgement of diversity. I do observe a key difference between divorced Dads and those who are married/co-habiting: the former are much more outspoken, perhaps galvanised into taking more of an interest because they’re not living in the family home any more, and the latter tend to let the Mother take the leading role at parents’ evenings and open afternoons. I’m a big believer in keeping both parents in the loop with regards to their child’s progress; so, even if there is only one time slot at parents’ evening, then I’m happy to make or receive a phone call during a lunch or after school to accommodate divorced/separated parents who work full time and can’t get away from the office or who, for various reasons that are none of my business, are not happy to attend a parents’ evening with the other parent. Frequently, the parent who can’t attend is the divorced or separated father and by making time for them and hearing their concerns, it strikes me that married fathers might also be thinking a few things but not actually saying them. From this, I deduce that many fathers are actually being denied a voice about their children’s primary education.
Firstly, I think there is a tendency for fathers to view the primary school and primary education as more of a domain for women, or that women are more likely to understand what is needed for a child in that age group, so they might be inclined step back and let the women get on with all that nurturing stuff. This is a mistake, but it’s not their fault. The whole rhetoric that views primary education as a sort of bubble of happiness, protecting the child from the vulgar demands of the brutal outside world (ergo more demanding expectations at secondary school) and instead upholding the convoluted ‘truth’ that children must be allowed to flourish in a stress and competition-free environment naturally excludes any parent who might want to ask whether this kind of education is suitable preparation for the realities of life, and this questioning parent I think is more likely to be male. I blame our society’s tendency, even in these enlightened times, to encourage or even enforce a division of labour such that women might work but still take on the lion’s share of childcare, thus men are excluded from The Conversation. Mind you, many women want this because they define themselves through their status as mothers, and any criticism of a child’s upbringing is viewed as a criticism of the mother; people just back off rather than invoke their ire.
Even the physical environment of primary schools I think can be off-putting for men. I’m not sure if teachers are aware of this, but primary schools are very girly places. All the decorations on the walls, the jewel colours, the cutesy Comic Sans, the crafting creations, the pretty cushions in the reading area and the swathes of luxurious material draped over the role-play area are more akin to an overly dressed living room or trendy coffee shop (where people tend to relax) than an office (where most people work). Could a man who works in a standard office tell a teacher that he finds the room where his child works hard on his handwriting to be overly distracting and busy? Er, no. Why? What does he know about how the tiny little innocent children learn? Harrumph! He works in an office and hardly ever interacts with his children. Does he think this is the world of Dickens or something? What a knob!
Other aspects of primary school organisation also exclude men. For example, the PTA will mostly be made up of stay-at-home mums who have the time to fundraise for their child’s school. No one’s saying this is a bad thing, but the flipside is that it does give an even bigger voice to the female parents. Further, any kind of public consultation or gathering about school policy will almost certainly take place during the day, thus excluding the majority of fathers who work full time. Who gets to go on school trips too? Mostly the mums.
Making time for the divorced/separated and time-pressed dads is interesting because they have a slightly different perspective and, free from the worry of getting on the wrong side of Mum, they’re more likely to do the following:
- Think about how their son is behaving now and extrapolate into the teenage years. They are therefore more likely than the mums to accept, without taking it personally, blaming the teacher for being a cow and then flouncing off in a huff, that their child is less than perfect. Dads are natural allies when it comes to zero-tolerance behaviour management.
- When they get a chance, Dads look closely at their child’s workbooks and grill their child on what they were doing at the time. ‘Why didn’t you get an A?’ comes up a lot. Dads are natural allies when it comes to promoting the value of academic achievement.
- Given the choice, Dads want their children to work hard and listen to the teacher even if their child doesn’t really like it at the time. They are concerned about things like chatting (a pointless distraction for my son because he can’t concentrate at the best of times) and groupwork (my son is likely to kick back and let a girl do all the thinking and writing). Dads are natural allies when it comes to the traditional viewpoint of making sure the next generation have respect for authority, learn from the experts and work damn hard as individuals.
- Asking for exact data on their child’s academic attainment and not being fobbed off with sugar-coated platitudes about progress and friendships. I find Dad’s are more likely to just come out and ask if their son or daughter is meeting the year group expectations and they would also like to know where their child is in the class rankings. Unfortunately, most primary schools, except in Year 2 and 6, will only permit conversations and information dissemination regarding progress.
Dads are great and we should include them more. It’s not enough to just ask or expect it; we need to make this process easy and we should make the effort to reach out to them. What can we do?
- Facilitate more opportunities for fathers to ask questions via email and phone calls rather than only allowing parents to come in at 3.30pm. I appreciate this involves more work for the teacher, but if we could dial down the 4-colour marking, then perhaps more time could be freed up for this.
- Hold parents’ evening exclusively in the late evenings rather than at the end of the official school day and make allowances for separate consultations for mothers and fathers who are divorced/separated. Again, more work, but fathers are taxpayers too and I believe have a right to a say about their children’s education. Perhaps we could cut down on the requirement for 1000 word reports that include lots of detail about how much a child loves/enjoys doing science experiments and playing outside with his friends (this information can be elicited at the dining table).
- When holding public consultations about new schemes and policies, make sure that editable questionnaires are emailed to all the Dads (be proactive in getting their email addresses).
- Actively encourage Dads to volunteer to help run clubs and help with outings rather than view them all as potential threats to child safety. It would help if the outings were appealing to males too; let’s face it, no man is going to want to feed some lambs at Mrs Plop’s Zoo if the option of Extreme Tarantula World is on offer.
If we engage the Dads more, I reckon we’ve got a shot at turning the Titanic that is (currently) progressive primary education.
Who’s with me?
*If you’re a random Dad who’s reading this because this blog found its way out into the public sphere, then empower yourself in mere seconds by reading this simple table on the differences between progressive and traditional education.