They look like average 15-year-olds. Sex, relationships, GCSEs - all the usual teenage problems are etched on their faces. The boys sit at one side of the classroom, the girls at the other, inevitably disagreeing. Yet they are discussing a subject few 15-year-olds get worked up about. These Year 10 pupils at Falinge Park High School in Rochdale are taking their parenting lesson very seriously indeed.
One of five schools that ran pilot parenting education projects last year, this 11-16 secondary school seems to have captured the public imagination. It has been inundated with calls from interested headteachers from all over the country.
"It was interesting stuff," says deputy headteacher John Vose. "More than anything, I was surprised how sensible the pupils were, particularly the boys.
"When we ask them about being parents, most kids say they haven't thought about it. So we ask them if they will have children and then suddenly they start thinking in a completely different way.
"When they start thinking of it from a parent's point of view - which for some is not far away - you start getting a completely different set of perspectives. We had some kids who completely changed the way they thought about their parents."
The parenting project, initiated by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in conjunction with the Children's Society, was based in five Greater Manchester secondary schools and carried out during the 19951996 acdemic year. Most of the schools have now incorporated parenting education into their personal and social education (PSE) curriculum. The report on the project, published in June, recommended that parenting should be part of the PSE national curriculum.
The philosophy underlying the project was that bad parenting produces children who themselves fail as parents. Traditionalists might expect an enforcement of two-parent family values, but these parenting classes do not really have a moral code. Rather, their aim is to "raise awareness". According to the report, "the diversity of successful family structures that exist today contradicts the notion that there is one model alone that always works better than any other". The project focused on such general questions as "what it means to be a parent", "child abuse" and "getting along together", using questionnaires and case studies.
"We certainly didn't set out to say all kids should have two parents at home or children should only be brought up by a married couple," says John Vose. "The whole basis of my approach to PSE is to raise awareness by bringing issues into the forefront and discussing them rationally."
In Falinge Park High School, this Year 10 class is discussing parental responsibilities and children's rights, concentrating on questions of when children should be allowed to have sex, leave school, smoke and drink alcohol.
Rather than stress the law or even social opinion, teacher Robin Lonsdale asks the pupils to suggest the ages at which children should acquire rights in law. What is important is that they all have to justify their opinions with arguments. Tabassam is takinga feminist line as she pits herwits against Joseph, equally vociferous in his views, across the classroom.
"Girls mature much earlier then boys," she declares as justification for allowing girls but not boys to have sex at 16 without parental consent. "Girls just like older men," quips Joseph. "I think it's wrong that girls are always seen as more mature than boys."
"Do you see how complicated your view is, of when your parents' responsiblity ends?" asks Robin Lonsdale. "Can you imagine how confusing this must be for parents trying to let go?" In a previous lesson, he says afterwards, he dealt with a question about Jenny Teague, the 12-year-old mother who sold the story of her premature parenthood to a Sunday newspaper. "One pupil said: 'Sir, what do you think of this 12-year-old mother?' I replied: 'Well, what does everyone else think?' Then we had a discussion, with many pupils arguing that it was the school's fault for not providing sex education."
Robin Lonsdale and John Vose reject the idea that this kind of discussion could encourage misguided or illegal sexual behaviour. "The pupils have had sex education since Year 7," says John Vose. "They know all about the law and the different kinds of contraceptives."
Some pupils are as traditionalist in their views as any adult. John Vose says of one of his first parenting classes: "I was actually arguing with this lad. He was trying to say that you have to have two parents to bring up a child properly and I was trying to put across the other point of view. But he was adamant about it. Children tend to be very black and white about things. " Most pupils believe that it is best to have children in a loving relationship and later in life.
Is there a danger of children criticising their own parents? John Vose says the opposite is the case. "What they actually found was that they understood their parents a lot better as a result of seeing things from a parent's point of view. In most lessons we put them in the position of imagining they were parents." A pupil from another school was quoted in the report saying that the classes changed his attitude completely. "I thought my dad didn't love me I but now I understand he does - he just can't show it."
The report recommended the country-wide adoption of parenting education. But it was also careful to say that it should not be an academic subject with attainment targets and examinations. Rather, it should be part of the PSE curriculum with the course - rather than the pupils - being assessed by outside agencies.
"While parenthood should be viewed as a privilege and not a right, nearly every individual has the potential and the freedom to become a parent," the report said. "Society does not prevent individuals from doing so or formally judge their capabilities other than in exceptional circumstances."