Charity upset by 'Mums' Army'

Mothers may be recruited by the Government to assist poorer families with child care and education, reports Neal Sears. Mothers are likely to be recruited by the Government to advise and support new parents on how to care for children and educate them.

But fears that a "Mums' Army" would soon be marching into homes and barking out orders on how to bring up children correctly, however, have concerned the Home Start charity which provided the inspiration for the project.

The initiative emerged this week following comments made by health minister Tessa Jowell, in the wake of the proposal in the Education White Paper that parents should go into schools to provide children with adult role models.

Civil servants were caught unawares by the announcement, and plans have yet to be finalised - but both Education Secretary David Blunkett and Ms Jowell have been in talks with Home Start.

The charity was established 24 years ago to help and advise mothers of under-fives, and now has 5,500 volunteers supervised by paid organisers in 206 communities across Britain. It is working with 52,000 children and parents.

Ms Jowell announced this week that under the new scheme, volunteer mothers would be vetted and trained before being sent out to families - but that experience was their most valuable asset.

"Often what is needed is to pass on wisdom and guidance born of experience, " said Ms Jowell. "In the past lots of young mothers had their own mothers to help them, but increasingly families are separated and the extended family does not exist in the same way.

"Little boys are particularly vulnerable to a mother's depression after the birth," said Ms Jowell. "You need to work with mothers to help them to support the children so that the damaging consequences of depression can be mitigated. "

Ms Jowell added that the project would help to reduce inequality by assisting the development of underprivileged children. A spokeswoman for the Department of Health stressed that plans, and budgets, for the scheme were not yet finalised, but stressed that no-one would be compelled to participate.

Margaret Harrison, founder and director of Home Start, said she created the charity in Leicester in 1974 when she saw a need for it.

"I realised that what parents need, in addition to professional assistance from health visitors and social workers, is a friend," said Mrs Harrison. "Another parent who's got time to listen, to care, to help - and to have some fun."

Home Start volunteers, attracted by advertisements in local papers, are trained one day a week for 10 weeks, then given a caseload of parents to support.

Some 30,000 children and their parents are being helped by the scheme, and although a third of the clients are single-parent families, and many are on low incomes, Mrs Harrison said professional women were also on their books.

She said she had already met David Blunkett and Tessa Jowell, and was due to meet them again within the next month, but would be telling them of her concern at suggestions that the Government's volunteer mums would be lecturing their charges, and by any suggestion that the Government scheme could supplant her own.

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