A poor father is worse than an absent father for young boys, according to a study which suggests that the sons of men who are unreliable and inconsistent parents are more likely to develop behavioural problems in later life.
The findings cast doubt on the widespread prejudice against single mothers who have been blamed for the psycho-social problems of their sons as teenagers and young adults.
Catherine Hepworth, of the Department of Psychology at Westminster University, London, told the British Psychological Society conference in London: "The quality of fathering is more important than anything else. If a father is unreliable he is worse than no father at all."
Ms Hepworth analysed the relationship of 99 young men (mean age 20) from north London with their fathers. The majority were white (84 per cent), working-class (83 per cent) and living at home (80 per cent). More than half came from intact families; 19 per cent from families of single mothers; 17 per cent from step-families, and 8 per cent were classed as "other".
The group included sons who had no contact at all with their fathers; others who had poor contact, and the remainder good contact. Ms Hepworth said that poor fathering - in which fathers saw their sons infrequently, were unreliable and regularly forgot birthdays and Christmases, or were repeatedly hostile or abusive - was associated with higher rates of behavioural problems in later life. This included theft, truancy, work absenteeism, damaging or destroying property, and cruelty to people or animals.
The sons who had no contact with their fathers or who had good contact with them, had similar rates of behavioural problems in later life.
"It seems that a disruptive relationship may be worse than having no relationship with a father," Ms Hepworth said. "The sons tended to blame lots of things on their fathers to do with their insecurity and disappointment. In contrast they tended to have good positive relationships with their mothers."
tMature students aged 25 and over who enter university with non-traditional qualifications obtain significantly better degrees than younger students who enter with A levels, the conference was told.
The findings are based on a study which analysed the degree results of almost 7,000 students at Plymouth University between 1991 and 1995. They are the first to show such a clear age- related trend and suggest a "clear superiority" of mature students over those aged 21-25, who in turn outperformed 18- to 20-year-olds.
Sherria Hoskins and Professor Stephen Newstead, of the Department of Psychology at Plymouth University, said the results were reassuring. "It reveals the expansion of non- traditional entry into higher education is not producing lower degree performances, but in fact may be raising it," they conclude.
Higher education in Britain is undergoing rapid expansion: in 1985-86 there were fewer than 1 million students in higher education but by 1994- 95 the figure was over 1.5 million. More than one-third of new entrants are over 21 and under 60 per cent of new undergraduates have A levels, qualifying instead through qualifications like HND, BTech or NVQs.
The study also found that women students generally obtained much better degrees than men.Reuse content