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Parents get to grips with rural isolation;FE focus

The picturesque market town of Appleby-in-Westmorland in Cumbria is a popular tourist spot. With its postcard image it is, perhaps, the last place you would expect to come to study parenting and its relationship with crime and disaffection among the young.

Yet the town is one of three areas taking part in an innovative project funded by the Department of Health.

The three-year project called Responsible Parents, Responsible Children is exploring whether parenting education can help improve the quality of family life and influence issues such as low educational achievement and criminal behaviour in youngsters.

It is run by Parent Network, a charity which runs accredited courses to teach parenting skills. The initiative is also being tried in south London and Gloucestershire to represent inner-city and suburban locations, and is being assessed by Brunel University School of Education.

Parent Network officially launched the project in Gloucestershire in the presence of health minister John Hutton. The charity's chief executive Wendy van den Hende said: "It is good to see the Government valuing the role of parents and promoting the kind of education and support provided by Parent Network." For the past year Katherine May, Parent Network's development worker in Cumbria, has been doing the groundwork for the project, forging links with local agencies including the police, schools and social services.

She said Appleby-in-Westmorland was chosen because it also reflects problems of rural isolation and boredom among the young in a district where sheep outnumber people. "You see young people loitering on street corners," she said. "They write graffiti and smoke cannabis under the entry to the parish church. They're frustrated and bored."

Parent Network is trying to reach parents of these youngsters with the help of other agencies. They will, for example, tend to be families who are known to the police or social services.

After identifying these parents, the next stage is to contact them and offer support. They will be invited along to an introductory meeting and then on to parenting education courses.

It is a delicate operation, says Katherine May. The charity wants to avoid being judgmental in what is a close community. "It's something that we're very conscious of and it's something that we're thinking about and talking about. I don't think we have come up with any particular ideas, except a blanket coverage approach, so that nobody feels particularly looked at or scrutinised."

Parent Network was set up in 1986. It now has more than 200 tutors running a range of parenting courses accredited by the Open College Network.

The charity claims its courses aim to empower parents, teaching to listening and assertiveness skills that they can later try out at home.

Its approach is in line with Government thinking. The Green Paper Supporting Families published late last year proposed a range of measures to encourage parenting education, but brought cries of "nanny state" from critics.

Philip Garner, director of research at Brunel University School of Education, said an early evaluation of the Responsible Parents, Responsible Children project indicates that families value such community-based education and support.

Parents also liked the idea of learning about the courses by word of mouth, and that they could go on to become facilitators and teach parenting skills themselves. "The overriding feeling was that this sense of support was quite vital and would be increasingly so in the future," he said.

"But the parents also highlighted some concerns about the way in which the Government had started to see the family as a focus for executive action through the courts, like probation orders which require some kind of parent training."

He said one of the dangers was that parents would have imposed upon them values that are foreign. "People understandably don't like to be patronised by other value systems which they have no chance or no wish to subscribe to.

"Certainly our worry over a longer period is that the work would be undermined if the whole notion of parenting is located within the penal system, which it may well be.

"It's stopping some way short of saying you can't have kids unless you go on a parenting course. But it seems that there are some uncomfortable connections to be made," he added.

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