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Labour keeps the spotlight on parents

Teachers appear central to Government plans to improve the nation's skills in bringing up children, reports Neil Sears

The Government is pressing on with its campaign to make parents buck their ideas up - despite the embarrassment of having a Home Secretary who failed to keep his son away from involvement in drugs.

Jack Straw and David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, have this month again stressed that parents need to be "assisted" with bringing up children. And health minister Tessa Jowell last week told a lone-parent conference of her despair at families in which single mothers feature for generation after generation.

Parenting appears central to the Government's agenda and there is evidence that part of the burden for improving parenting standards will fall upon teachers.

The ministerial rhetoric has, however, been undermined by officially-denied claims that a cross-departmental ministerial group on the family has been hamstrung by the Treasury. As yet, there are no budgets or concrete proposals for action and the popularity of the mooted measures remains in doubt.

There was certainly a cool response for Miss Jowell at the One Parent Family: Myths and Realities conference in London last week. But the minister, a supporter of the policy of encouraging single mothers to work, did not shrink from her purpose as she appeared amid a spread of other speakers who praised single parents.

The importance of the issue was underlined by new figures showing that the number of one-parent families had increased by 27 per cent to 1.56 million in just five years - with more than 2.7m children now cared for by a lone parent.

"The greatest disadvantage that faces children in lone-parent families is the likelihood of poverty," said Miss Jowell.

"And one important factor that needs to be tackled is that in many cases the services that are available to support lone parents may simply reinforce the cycle of deprivation."

Miss Jowell said she had once visited a day nursery where the criteria for admission were that the mother was on income support, and the children were regarded as being at risk. She was introduced to a new girl who was the third generation of her family to attend the nursery, following in the footsteps of both her mother and her grandmother.

"The problem with that story is that it was seen by the people delivering the service as a measure of its success - rather than as a measure of its failure, " said Miss Jowell.

Families which neglected their children needed help at the earliest possible stage. Schools could play an important role, she said, by providing order and through suitable approaches to personal and social development.

Professor Carolyn Webster-Stratton, of Washington University, added to the minister's call for educational involvement by revealing plans for trainee teachers in Oxford to follow a course in teaching parenting skills.

Hetty Einzig, development officer of the Parenting Education and Support Forum, meanwhile, argued that parents needed assistance, not criticism. But she also said schools should focus on nurturing children's "emotional literacy".

This rather softer approach to parenting seems unlikely to be heeded by the Government. David Blunkett earlier this month stressed the responsibilities of parents, saying that those who did not control their offspring were damaging young lives, and creating problems for society. Home-school contracts would help to emphasise those responsibilities, he said.

And Jack Straw last week told a Pre-School Learning Alliance seminar about the central importance of families.

"They should teach right from wrong," he said. "They should be the first defence against anti-social behaviour. The breakdown of family life damages the fabric of society."

The Home Secretary said he was in talks with the DFEE over the teaching of parenting.

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