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Forced to take parentinglessons

New laws will compel more truants' parents to go to special classes. Biddy Passmore visits Newham to see how they can help

No one pretends it is easy being a parent, especially in a society where family break-up increasingly complicates relationships But at a parenting class this week, mothers and fathers in Newham, east London, were given the chance to recognise the difficulties.

"She should sit down and talk to her son and not stand there and shout abuse," says a father. "Yes, but your emotions overwhelm you," says a mother.

They have been watching a video showing a confrontation between a mother and her teenage son. She is worried because he is in trouble with the police and staying out late. He is fed up with being shouted at.

Such classes, already proliferating under pressure from the Youth Justice Board, will become even more widespread as a result of last week's White Paper on anti-social behaviour. It proposes that parents of regular truants or those excluded for serious misbehaviour should be required to attend.

Newham's youth offending team (YOT) has already laid on four series of classes, each taken by about eight parents, as part of a support programme currently helping 150 parents. All have children who have been in trouble with police or are considered at risk of falling into crime. Most are single mothers.

The sessions deliberately include both conscripts and volunteers. Two mothers today are there under parenting orders. Two fathers are graduates of earlier courses who enjoyed them and now want to be mentors, helping other parents. Two parents cannot attend because their children are in court.

"Parents often feel punished by a parenting order and are reluctant to come," says Steve Barnibas, the YOT's parenting co-ordinator, who leads the discussion. "But they enjoy it when they get here."

Many welcome the chance to share their problems with others. Bernadette (not her real name), small, pale and fidgety, has five children, all in trouble of one kind or another. One, of primary age, is with her. His older brother will not get out of bed to go to school. "I've always got one at home, excluded or whatever," she says. "I've got no time for myself." She comes along to the two-and-a-half hour Monday sessions if she possibly can.

For families facing problems, from prison to depression to drug abuse, it would be unrealistic to expect the classes to produce a turnaround. But they do help.

Forty-four parents have attended the classes, which started last year. Of those, only 18 have seen children reoffend, says Mr Barnibas. "Parents say they feel stronger and it has helped them with their self-respect," he said. "They don't feel they're being lectured - it's a discussion. And other workers who visit them in their homes say that parents are being more assertive."

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