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How is it for you?

'I blame the parents.' It's a refrain that's been taken up by everyone from government ministers to television programme makers. Which could be why parents are turning to support groups for a non-judgmental hearing. Wendy Wallace reports

In a classroom at Rush Croft school in Chingford, adults gather for an evening session on "Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities", a 14-week course aimed at improving adultchild relationships. Run by teachers Rita Joseph and Coralie Isaac, the American-originated course casts its net borough-wide and attracts teachers and classroom support assistants as well as parents.

"It is suitable for anyone," says Rita Joseph, joint head of Year 8 at the Waltham Forest school. "We read things out, and do role play. There is no note-taking - participants get a manual - so there is no embarrassment for people with English as a second language."

Like many young men who have had bad experiences of school, Mark Richardson had vowed never to set foot in his comprehensive after he left at the age of 16. Now 23, and the father of three small children, he returns to Rush Croft each Tuesday evening with his partner, Tracy Adams. Looking for new ideas about how to manage a family of six (Tracy has three older children from a previous relationship), Mark signed up for the course with some ambivalence. "I thought 'sod it'," he says. "I'll try it out and if I feel uncomfortable I'll walk straight out."

Despite being the only man, he has been re-assured by Coralie and Rita's easy manner, and the attitude of others in the group. "The people there are friendly," he says, "you don't feel pushed into a corner. You feel comfortable and that's what makes you determined to go again." Mark and Tracy need commitment to get there; the school is a three-mile bus ride from their home and they get a babysitter in for the younger children rather than bring them to the creche. But they want to do a good job as parents. "You need different ways of coping with their behaviour," says Tracy, 34. "Now we give them time out, or takeaway treats. They get warnings so they know what is going to happen.

It means a lot less arguing and fighting."

The course at Rush Croft has been running for five years and, with the work of the school's on-site learning support unit, is credited by headteacher Pat Cutler with the school's four-year record of no permanent exclusions.

Funded by the school - at pound;200-plus per session - it is free and widely advertised in Waltham Forest. But this kind of provision is the exception rather than the rule, particularly at secondary level.

Television audiences are hungry for parenting information, as shown by the success of programmes such as BBC TV's The House of Tiny Tearaways and Channel 4's Cutting Edge on the work of behaviour expert Warwick Dyer, a former adviser in Tower Hamlets who now works as a parenting "coach".

A growing amount of research is emphasising the importance of parenting style on everything from children's self-esteem and educational attainment to their physical and mental health as adults. But while Hazel Blears, the new minister for crime reduction - already dubbed "minister for yobs" - criticises "neglectful parents", help for those struggling to cope with teenagers is hard to find. "There is a culture of parents being blamed but not supported," says Sue Ormesher, of the national support group, Parentline Plus. "Parents of truants risk going to prison. They call us and say that there is no support; they're desperate."

Support for parents is a growth area, with the Government stating its commitment in last year's Children Act. The legislation envisages a menu of services for families such as telephone lines, one-to-one support and drop-in centres.

But that is in the future. The current reality in most areas is quite different. Schools are aware of the need, but lack services to refer parents to, and are often ill-equipped to run them themselves, particularly since those offering parent support need training. "Parents cannot be relied upon to just ask easy questions," says Mary Crowley, chief executive of the Parenting Education and Support Forum. "If the answers were that easy, people would have worked it out for themselves."

Training standards were approved in April, and qualifications, up to MA level, are now being developed. "Some voluntary sector colleagues are nervous, but we're in the business of bringing people with us, not getting rid of them," says Mary Crowley.

The terminology is also changing. Where once parents were offered "education" on how to cope with children, they are now offered "support".

The problem of stigma attached to parent support groups remains, however.

While schools are obvious venues for voluntary courses, they are the last place some want to go. "There is no doubt that many parents do not find them conducive places," says Kim Roberts, service director for Parentline Plus. Secondary schools in particular can struggle to build relationships with parents without the informal "school gate" contact that is part of the primary culture.

The anonymity of the telephone line suits many. In an office block in north London, half a dozen trained volunteers take calls from parents around the country, worried variously about an 18-year-old boy's friendship with an older man, a 15-year-old girl excluded from school; one woman, a mother of three, including a child with Asperger's syndrome, is suicidal. Parentline Plus has taken 100,000 calls and emails at its five call centres over the past year, almost half from parents of teenagers. Ages 14 and 15, when hormones hit high pressure exams, are the peak time for difficulties.

"We try to avoid advice-giving," says Valerie Outram, area manager for Parentline Plus in north London. "The model we aspire to is non-directional and non-judgmental. When they come to us, there is a real sense of relief that we are about listening, not about telling. We're enabling them to sift through what can be very chaotic circumstances."

While close relationships with primary schools, plus help from agencies such as Sure Start, offer a lot to parents of younger children, parents of teenagers can be isolated - and coping with more intractable difficulties.

"Whatever patterns of behaviour have built up, they can explode as the child is searching for freedom. Many parents feel totally out of control," says Valerie Outram. Some callers are being beaten up by their own teenage children. The telephone helpline is "a safe place for them to offload negative feelings, without people judging them as a bad parent".

Parentline Plus offers extra support to those who need it. It runs six-week sessions where a helper rings the parent every week for an hour. For discipline issues there is a telephone support group, in which seven parents and a facilitator get together for weekly conference calls. "They seem to get an enormous amount from the fact that other parents are experiencing the same difficulties and they are not the only ones," says Valerie Outram.

Her branch of the service experimented with parent support groups in schools, but the trial was not extended. In schools where relationships with parents were already close, the groups worked well, she says. In others, parents feared they would be stigmatised by attending. "It is about trust, and you can't build up trust overnight. It helps if there is a relationship already established."

Local education authorities have a new duty to offer voluntary contracts for parents of truants and excluded children, but the response has been patchy. While Hertfordshire has set up a "parents' services" section, in other areas there is virtually nothing on offer. Some parents make a 50-mile round trip to attend groups organised by Parentline Plus in the Wirral.

But do parent services work? More than half the participants in a two-year parenting programme held at a college in south London went on to further education and training, as a result of their increased confidence. Parent support can have unforeseen consequences, however. Some women threw out the fathers of their children. The change in the status quo can also lead to an upsurge in domestic violence, as women take charge and challenge the existing order in their own homes.

Mothers (it is usually mothers) who go on courses arrive expecting to be blamed for their children's difficulties. "Instead they are asked, 'how is it for you?'" says Mary Crowley. "Nobody sets out to be a bad parent. It's just that life gets on top of them."

Parentline Plus:, national freephone helpline: 0808 8002222. Parenting Education and Support Forum: National Family and Parenting Institute: DfES Parents' Centre:

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