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Help before the last ditch

As parent education develops a sharper profile, Wendy Wallace examines the key issues and reports on the success stories. A new organisation launched this week aims to promote collaboration within the sprawling field of parent education. The Parenting Education and Support Forum, based at the National Children's Bureau, is intended to raise awareness of the importance of parenting, and bring together many of the hundreds of organisations now trying to help families.

"There's an enormous amount of good work going on all over the country but it seems that most people are working in isolation. So there's a lot of re-inventing the wheel," said Hetty Einzig, the forum's development officer.

The new group will press for more support for all families, not just those in crisis. "We're very last-ditch in this country. We tend only to move in and act when things are on the brink of crisis. We need more primary prevention, to stop things reaching that stage," said Hetty Einzig.

Parent education and support programmes spring from a wide range of disciplines, including education, health and social service departments, the voluntary sector and churches. The current state of provision can be seen at best as rich and varied, at worst as chaotic.

Hetty Einzig admits that it will not be easy to try to bring together this multiplicity of agencies and interest groups. "You get not only professional jealousies but different terminologies, different histories and different visions," she said.

One of the thorniest questions for those working in parent education is how didactic they can or should be. "There's a lot of discomfort at the word 'education'," said Hetty Einzig. "It suggests that it could be about imposing a white, middle-class model of what parenting should be on people who don't necessarily want it, or don't have a choice in the matter. But it's fundamental that it should be an empowering model, not one that encourages dependence or guilt."

While different parents require different provision, the rapid and continuing expansion in parent education none the less demands some form of co- ordination. "Issues arise such as professional identity, a value base, who gives the mandate for doing this work, what is one trying to do? These are key questions that need urgent answers," said Hetty Einzig.

The concept of "good enough parenting" is widely used but continues to elude definition.

Families are an increasingly live issue across the political spectrum, with parents blamed for rising crime, indiscipline in schools and other social ills. Parenting education is currently seen mainly as a way of trying to compensate for parental inadequacies. The Parenting Education and Support Forum hopes to bring about a change of social climate, so that "all parents are better supported in everyday life, and encouraged to ask for help and advice and education as a right."

It sees education for parenthood as a lifelong process, in which schools have an important part to play. Parent education in schools may once have meant showing girls how to bath plastic dolls, but it is now more likely to be interpreted as education for citizenship, or communication skills. "It's no good telling a 12-year-old how important it is to talk nicely to your child. You start with what interests them, what the issues are for them. Emotional literacy is absolutely crucial," said Hetty Einzig.

The idea of increased help for parents has received some Government support. Virginia Bottomley, in her role as minister responsible for co-ordination of family policy, gave Pounds 300,000 to parenting projects under a Parenting Initiative launched by the Department of Health at the end of last year's International Year of the Family. Thirty-eight of the 260 organisations which applied received grants, including the new forum. The Home Office has provided funds for parent education activities aimed at crime prevention.

But despite expressions of interest from the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Home office, parent education has yet to find a departmental home. It belongs naturally to none and all of them, and the Forum will try to foster cross-departmental discussion on family support.

Even its strongest supporters concede that parenting education alone is not enough to significantly help families. It cannot compensate for bad housing, poverty and lack of services. "It's a delicate issue," said Hetty Einzig, "because it can become a weapon in the hands of the right to abdicate government and societal responsibility."

On a related theme, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) last week published a policy discussion paper on "family learning", as a precursor to a proposed national campaign for "learning in a family context".

But what is family learning? To the uninitiated it might suggest another way of describing parent education, or perhaps family literacy activities. In fact it is a term coined by a NIACE working group to cover a broad group of issues which the group rightly perceives to be related.

NIACE defines family learning as covering five main areas: informal learning within families; family members learning together; parent education; education for citizenship; and, finally, people learning how to deal with agencies that serve families.

Could a campaign with such a broad sweep hope to be effective? "Family learning is an emerging concept," said Titus Alexander, co-author of the report. "The heart of the argument is saying that for people's real learning, the family experience is what comes first. We need to look at how our institutional arrangements support that process, rather than expect families to fit in with the institutions that face them."

NIACE argues that despite numerous moves over the past 30 years to increase parents' involvement in their children's education, much more needs to be done. Teachers are insufficiently trained to work with parents, and many are afraid of them, said Titus Alexander. But with increasing evidence that what some children learn in the family damages them irreparably, NIACE calls for government funding for family learning "so that everyone has access to affordable, appropriate and effective support at each stage of life", he added.

Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, stressed that the intention is not to regulate families. "We are not trying to 'shape up the feckless', nor do we wish to contribute to that strain of thinking," he said.

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