John Walsh: The day I went back to school

These days it's not enough for dads to drop their offspring at the school gates: children need strong male role models both in and out of the classroom.John Walsh becomes a freelance father
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The Independent Online

It's 10am and I'm in the headmaster's study, receiving final instructions before my ordeal. "They're girls and boys of eight or nine years old," says the form teacher, Gill Hammond, a no-nonsense lady with a shock of ginger hair and a voice that's pure Linda Smith from Radio 4's News Quiz. "And they may see you as a bit of a soft touch. They'll say, 'Can I go to the toilet?' if they've already asked and I've said no. They think that, if they talk to you, they won't have to do much work. So don't be fooled. We'll be doing reading, then a performance of a poem, then games. Later there'll be an art session based on human emotions."

It's 10am and I'm in the headmaster's study, receiving final instructions before my ordeal. "They're girls and boys of eight or nine years old," says the form teacher, Gill Hammond, a no-nonsense lady with a shock of ginger hair and a voice that's pure Linda Smith from Radio 4's News Quiz. "And they may see you as a bit of a soft touch. They'll say, 'Can I go to the toilet?' if they've already asked and I've said no. They think that, if they talk to you, they won't have to do much work. So don't be fooled. We'll be doing reading, then a performance of a poem, then games. Later there'll be an art session based on human emotions."

"Speaking of emotions," I say, "my nerves are in shreds. What if they hate me? What if they won't let me sit next to them, or start to cry or something?"

"Don't worry," interrupts Steve Davis, the head. "They're used to having people coming to the school. You'll be an object of fascination, because you're a man. The only man they usually see is Mr England, who comes in on Wednesdays to take games."

"The only man apart from you, of course, Steve," I say.

"Well, no, actually," Steve says. "They don't see me as a man. They see me as a teacher." He rubbed his Elizabethanly-bearded chin ruefully. "They often call me 'Miss'. Or even 'Mum'."

The venue is Cooper's Lane Primary School in the borough of Lewisham, south London, a state school in a run-down area. Inside its sprawling, two-storeyed walls and narrow, custard-yellow corridors, it looks after 400-plus children from nursery age to 11. The school has picked up a reputation for being at the forefront of thinking about fathers, and how they might be used as educational secret weapons.

This month, Fathers Direct, the information centre, hosted a conference on fatherhood, at which a report from the National Family and Parenting Institute was launched. It told the thunderstruck nation that children thrive when their fathers are directly involved in their learning. Exam results are better, attendance is more regular, and children learn more social skills and are less inclined to turn to crime or go mad. The Department for Education and Skills recommended that schools should find ways of getting men to join their children (especially their sons) in lessons.

To this end, Cooper's Lane has set up a fathers' group called Dads Matter. It's been running a few months, convening 20-odd fathers in the Globe pub to discuss children's needs and "learning issues". Another 30 fathers get a newsletter, and suggestions for father-child bonding. It's not just a forum for bourgeois hand-wringing, but an attempt by the men to acquire skill in communicating with their offspring.

But does the presence of a father in the classroom make for a better atmosphere? How does the child, whose father is standing awkwardly by the blackboard, feel about it? And - crucially - does it matter whose father is in class? Hence my presence. I am here to find out how it feels to be a father-figure for a day to modern south London nine-year-olds. Will I be able to help? Will they notice me? What can I do that a teacher can't?

In a big, sunny, cheerful classroom, about 40 children are pretending to read. Gill, the teacher, is sitting on the floor with one of the boys (so as not to loom intimidatingly over him). The other children are looking at each other's books and chatting amiably, mucking about. The atmosphere is a far cry from Dotheboys Hall: in fact, it's as relaxed as a speakeasy.

Eighty eyes swivel when I come through the door. I say "hello" and they say "hello" in an unenthusiastic chorus. I'm sat next to a little girl, Sadie. Her hair is in corn-rows. She's reading a story about a unicorn. By page three, we run out of steam.

"You're very good at reading," I say. "Are you the oldest in the class?"

"Naoh," she whispers. "I'm only eight." She is, however, nine in a week's time.

"What are you getting for your birthday?"

"I dunno," Sadie says, searching my face as though I might have privileged information.

"What would you most like in the world?"

"A little baby sister," she hisses. It turns out she already has a little brother and two big sisters, about whom she's a little uncertain. "They're steps. My dad's got four kids and my mum's got two."

The lesson ends. A small boy strides up to me. "Hello," he says: "Nice to meet you," and we shake hands with grave formality. His name is Isaac and he asks very direct questions.

"Why you got them rings on?" he says.

"Because I want to look like an ageing rock star," I reply.

He looks in my eyes for signs that I'm kidding. He's keen on Lemar from Fame Academy, about whom I have no opinion, nor, indeed, any information. Daringly, I bring up Kaiser Chiefs, having watched them doing "Oh My God" on Top of the Pops. They looked about Isaac's age.

Isaac looks put out by the mention of their name. Why? It seems his mum switched them off, because she didn't approve of them saying "God" on the TV like that. Isaac and I aren't hitting it off terribly well.

Having settled my 6ft 1in frame into a tiny doll's-house chair, I'm crippled with pins and needles. I'm also being minutely scrutinised by a gurning midget called Lee with a gold stud in his tiny ear. If Wayne Rooney were shrunk to a fifth of his size by a Vogon ray-gun, he'd be the dead spit of Lee.

"Can you play football?" he asks scornfully.

"I'm terrific in goal," I say, which is a half-truth (I'm terrific at standing in a goalmouth, looking big).

"Nah," says Lee, "I mean, can you do skills?"

"My son's better than me," I say. "He can do that thing where you trap the ball on your instep, when it comes flying out of the sky..."

"Gor," says Lee, suddenly interested. "Can you teach me that?"

"Sure," I say, praying I'll be excused football practice.

A fat boy called Allen joins in without preamble. He switches the conversation to basketball since he is, assuredly, not a natural footballer. His friend in New Cross has rigged up a hoop-and-board on a tree in a nearby park. It's wicked, says Allen, shooting hoops after school, provided you aren't mugged by bigger boys.

I sympathise. "Can't your dad get your own hoop, and fix it to the side of your house?" I suggest. Allen shakes his pumpkin-sized head: "We can't afford it." I have a strong desire to seize the child, drive him to the Decathlon sports shop and buy him a bloody hoop for - what? - twenty quid.

"It's really all about spending more time with your children," says Steve Davis, the head. "And I'm not talking about buying them new trainers or a iPod. I come from a very working-class background. I learnt all about politics and football from my dad. He was a great teacher.

"My mum did other stuff, getting me ready for school, making sure I'd done my homework. She's not very literate, so she couldn't help with the learning. But men and women have quite different approaches to learning and they complement each other in what they can offer the child."

The first thing to offer the kid is simple interest. The Dads Matter group asks fathers to become more engaged in their children's lives, at home and at school. They make "gift vouchers" for fathers to give children, the currency being one hour doing anything the child wants. They encourage fathers and children to review books together. They invite fathers to find out about their children's world, their favourite song, food, film, game, friend...

Greg England, the de facto boss of Dads Matter, is taking Ms Hammond's class for PE in the playground. Tall, precise and indefinably grand, Greg is a former IT whizz at Cable & Wireless who left the multinational a few years ago and is now a freelance consultant.

Having taken his son Tom to rugby matches for years, and been impressed by the social ambience, he resolved to bring a touch of enlightened self-help to Lewisham. "Ten years ago, the whole educational system started focusing on girls because they weren't keeping up with boys. They feminised the environment - 'Sit still, speak when you're spoken to, don't do anything the system doesn't allow.' Boys don't thrive in that atmosphere.

"But the real trouble is, a lot of these dads just don't see their kids. Many working-class parents have traditional views on the role of the father. They have blue-collar jobs and long hours, after which they go to the pub. At the Dads Matter meetings, we get fathers to open up and express themselves. They talk about their children in a way they'd never have done before."

Greg cites Scandinavian law, which allows parents of both sexes to arrange flexible working times around their children's educational needs. But as that's not likely to happen in the UK in the next 50 years, what can fathers do right away?

"It could be something simple, like taking the kids to school twice a week and coming in to the playground. Many men won't go past the school gates. They're afraid the women will look at them as if they're unemployed, or perverts or something. We've encouraged fathers to come into the playground. If I'm there, I'll say, 'Hi, are you a father, would you like to join our group?' Or I get an e-mail address. There's 64 on the list, and we're getting more all the time."

By noon, I've met half the class. They're chatty, charming, lively - and strangely frustrated. Things don't go quickly enough for them. Perhaps it's because the class is so huge, and it takes ages to give everyone a go at reading the poem (Hilaire Belloc's "Henry King"). Perhaps because dividing into four PE groups is an organisational nightmare, there's an atmosphere of suppressed wildness - the children are like prisoners wriggling out of jail.

"You see Roddy there?" says Ms Hammond. "Watch the two little dimples under his eyes. If they suddenly get deeper, it means he's about to go off. The only thing that works is to say, 'If you're going to be grumpy, Roddy, you must make a worse face than that.' That usually makes him laugh. But you have to watch him all the time." At lunchtime, a little madam called Karen says: "Goodbye, Mr Walsh, enjoy your lunch."

Outside on the PE court, 40 children play Star Wars, a complicated chasing game in which designated kids have special powers to release each other from captivity. I look on with fascination as Greg England peeps his whistle, orders the rabble about like a dictator, points here and there - and I'm equally fascinated by the children who ask if they're allowed to do this or that. It sounds as if they'd be happier with more rules rather than fewer.

The last lesson of the day is art. My 40 new charges are ranged around two large tables and are drawing with charcoal sticks across huge expanses of cartridge paper. Ms Hammond has had the inspired idea of asking individual children to express an emotion - silently, facially. The other children must guess what it is and draw the actor's features in charcoal.

First up is "happy". George and Harriet stand on the tables, adopting expressions of imbecilic rapture. Then Roddy and Shaun get up to do "angry". This is more interesting. Shaun stands with his head half-bowed, his fists clenched beside his trouser pockets, his eyes hurt and sad beyond belief. He looks about to cry. Roddy, by contrast, is fighting back. He stands on the table like a furious prizefighter, fists raised, face horribly contorted, ready to take on platoons of enemies.

Roddy's dimples deepen beneath his eyes. Ms Hammond's attention is elsewhere. Something must be done. I rush over. "Roddy, that's a fantastically angry look. It's brilliantly grumpy. It's vicious. It's savage. But it's not very cool. You don't want your opponent to think you're crazy. Why don't you try a new expression, where you narrow your eyes a bit? Like you're saying, 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!'"

Very slowly, I walk round the side of the table. Roddy's expression has not altered a jot. His face is still contorted with loathing. But the dimples are no longer threatening.

Finally, up are Holly, Annette, Rick and Darius. Working in twos, they will express "jealousy". I take Holly and Rick and direct them. "Right, er, Holly - in this tableau, Rick is jealous of you because you're rich, gorgeous, popular and, um, you've just been to New York. Okay?"

Holly looks at me steadily. "I can't do that," she says.

"Of course you can," I cajole. "Imagine you're, I dunno, Britney Spears. Stand up straight. Say, 'Lah-di-dah, I'm so wonderful, I'm the most popular girl in school.' Pretend you're on a mobile to your friend, and you're saying, 'Hi darling, yeah, just back from New York. Oh you know, usual stuff'... "

She watches me dispassionately. "No," she says at last. "I couldn't possibly do that." You'd think she never in her life dressed up in her mother's best frock.

To encourage her, I pull out my mobile phone and say, "Look, you can borrow this if you..." Pandemonium breaks out. The quartet leaps for it. "Canniave it?" "CNIVE IT?" "I WANNA DO IT." I decide not to offer up my wallet as another prop of success, riches and fame.

Standing on the tables, Holly looks jealously at smug Rick, while Darius looks ready to bash up the airily whistling Annette. Lots of children guess that the word is "jealousy".

Ten minutes later, I look to see how my friends from the morning are doing at their pictures. Sadie has only managed to draw a balloon head and a stick body. I lean over and draw a jealous-sounding "Grrrrr" inside a thinks bubble. Five minutes later, passing her desk, I notice both her neighbours now have "Grrrrr" in think bubbles over their little stick men.

Three seats away, Cressida has fallen behind with her drawing, so I do a rudimentary outline of Holly and Rick. Next to her, Maya watches every move and shoots her hand up. "Do mine! Can you do mine please?"

"For God's sake, you idle child," I say, "I'm not doing all your homework for you." It dawns on me that's exactly what I used to say to my children in homework evenings gone by.

Good heavens. I've just turned into a freelance Dad.

"Our dream, John," says Steve Davis, "would be that, every single day of every working week here at school, we have at least two dads working in the infants' classes, and two or three mums and dads in the senior classes.

"The Government needs to be able to approach employers and to say, 'Dads matter, their role in their children's upbringing is important.' When it comes to our children, we must begin to prioritise."

It's three o'clock. The school day is over. We have read a bit, dramatised a poem, run around a lot, drawn a bit and learnt to read human emotions from people's faces. Most of the day, though, has been a learning curve of getting children to feel just about all right about themselves, about their place in the class and in the world.

I feel exhausted, as if I've been keeping 40 plates spinning simultaneously, dashing here and there to tweak them into activity or to stop them "going off".

My chief instinct is to tell each of the children in turn that they are wonderful, clever and funny, and to persuade them that everything will be all right if they just stop worrying so much.

Some of them have no fathers, some have occasional, absentee fathers, and some have loving fathers who don't take quite enough interest in them. If any of their fathers saw them here in school, in this atmosphere of carefully controlled desperation and kind, vocational nurturing, they would, I'm sure, have a change of heart.

I say: "Goodbye everyone, it was nice meeting you."

"Goodbye Mr Walsh," choruses the room. "Goodbye John," says Karen. I looked at 40 suddenly-familiar little faces. It seemed awful to be leaving them. But I could come back, couldn't I? I could always pop in and be a father-figure again, couldn't I?

Annette lifts her hand and waves it listlessly. "Goodbye, Miss," she says.