Schools are looking to engage parents in their children’s education – and the forward-thinking ones are particularly keen to bring dads in. NICK THORPE reports on a rare opportunity to experience daily life in his son's high school...
WALKING up the steps to my first full school day in 30 years is a nerve-wracking moment. Even in middle age, I can feel a flutter of anxiety as the bell goes, taking me back to the days when life was partitioned into 50-minute chunks.
Still, I’m impressed that my son’s Edinburgh high school has invited S1 parents along for a full day of teaching – a great way to give an insight into what our 12-year-olds are going through. There are about 20 of us gathered in the library, of which only three are dads.
“We’ve had more dads in in the last couple of years,” says depute head teacher Kath Stewart, who is there to welcome us. “But the first time we didn’t get any dads at all, so it’s definitely getting better.”
This is important, because research shows that fathers who are involved with their children bring both immediate and long-term positive impacts for their cognitive and educational outcomes – and of course mothers clearly benefit too from shared involvement. But more about that later.
For now, Ms Stewart leaves us with a couple of senior pupils who usher us to our first lesson - split between Spanish and French. Both very rusty for me, but there’s no escape from trying out our pronunciation on the cartoon characters the teacher projects onto the interactive Smart board at the front.
This miraculous gadget – a projection onto a whiteboard that allows touch-screen functionality - is only one of a number of technological leaps apparent since my school days of watching teachers chalking assignments up manually on the blackboard.
Homework now involves an online system that allows pupils to type their answers directly into their own online profile – allowing parents and teachers to see exactly what stage pupils are at in their homework, how long it has taken, and what marks they’ve got for it.
Several of us are feeling a bit out of our depth, putting our hands up dutifully like the pupils we once were, to seek help at home with missing passwords and tech glitches. “The dog ate my homework” is definitely not going to cut it these days – but it seems “the website wouldn’t let me log in” has replaced it.
LIVE POETS’ SOCIETY
I’m pleased to find that English is much closer to what I remember of my favourite lesson. Ms Quayle has a passion for hersubject that would give Robin Williams a run for his money in Dead Poets’ Society, and gets us into groups to write poems about animals.
I’m teamed with an engineer dad Kevin and a freelance writer mum Kristie - and we’re very proud of our alliterated description of a grizzly bear: You crunch the salmon’s slippery shimmer into red ruin. Seamus Heaney eat your heart out!
Ms Quayle believes creating and dissecting literature is every bit as relevant in an internet age: “We’re giving kids the tools to see how they’re being manipulated!” she offers, before the bell signals all-change once again.
Maths with Mr McKay is also surprisingly pleasurable – with expert tips on how to help our kids with algebra. And Dr Robertson’s science class gives us all chance to don our goggles and fire up the Bunsen burners to work out the difference between chemical and physical reactions – something I was struggling to puzzle out with my son only the previous week.
There’s no easy ride for parents though: “Stand up, don’t lean on the desk!” instructs Dr Robertson, holding us to the same standards of safety (avoiding hair ignition) as our children.
We see only glimpses of our children. I have strict instructions not to embarrass my son by acknowledging him in the corridor - though he makes an appearance in lunch break along with others to help sample the shortbread we have baked in Home Economics.
All the children seem interested to hear what we make of their teachers – and I notice that I already have lots to talk about, and a much better sense of what school looks like for my son.
For one thing, it’s no small thing to have to concentrate in so many successive lessons. Despite being middle-aged, we’re all noticeably giggly during drama.
“Drama is about making sense of the world”, says Ms Gaughan, before getting us all to mime everyday activities while judging one another in merciless X-Factor style. I try to make sense of pumping up an imaginary bike tyre, with mixed results.
PSE (Personal and Social Education) gives a chance to debrief in a circle and reflect with Ms Oliver and Ms Stewart on what we’ve learned. I’m thinking it’s a shame more parents – and more dads in particular - haven’t had this opportunity to teleport into our children’s world.
But not everyone has the flexibility to take a full day to go back to school – and as we know in Fathers Network Scotland, fathers still have less access to flexible working than mothers, with many employers still assuming that schools are mums’ territory.
“This sort of session tends to attract parents who are used to being in primary school,” concedes Kath Stewart. “We’re not getting the ones who didn’t have a good experience at school themselves.”
This isn’t quite true today. One of the mums confesses high school was an ordeal for her from the moment she walked through the door till the moment she left – so coming in today has been a huge act of bravery that has paid off for her. She’s clearly enjoyed herself.
In fact the mums seem to cover a much wider social spectrum than the three noticeably middle-class dads in the room – which tallies with research done by Fathers Network Scotland and the University of Edinburgh at the East Lothian Father-Friendly Schools Project this year.
We found that class and income both affect dads’ involvement much more than mums’, meaning that the families most in need of dads’ positive impact may not be benefiting from their involvement – thereby widening the attainment gap between poorer and more affluent households.
It’s a gap Kath Stewart is keen to close. “We’d like to target specifically those we feel would benefit from coming in and maybe having a more informal meeting,” she says, as we leave for the day to meet our kids on the steps.
But it’s been a great start and a fun way to bring a bit of insight into what my son does every day. Feeling frankly dog-tired after my first day at school in 30 years, I’m a lot more sympathetic when he says he needs a bit of downtime before starting his homework.
And we’ve got a lot more to talk about next time I ask: “How was school?” And it’s been good to compare notes with other parents and discover that we all have basically the same questions and desire to be there for our children.
My verdict on this parental-involvement exercise? Top marks – and let’s get more dads involved. Why not suggest it at your child’s school?