A "life-cycle" approach to parent education that would start at school and continue into the years of parenthood is proposed in a new report on the family from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The aim would be to encourage "good enough" rather than "perfect" parenting, to make child-rearing a more enjoyable experience and prevent child abuse and family breakdown. "Parent education" covers a range of support services for parents and prospective parents, from courses to intensive projects where children are at risk of abuse.
The report, by David Utting, points out that recent political rhetoric stressing the importance of family life has not been matched by policies. Widening inequality since the late 1970s has affected growing numbers of families. Between 1979 and 1992, the report says, the proportion of dependent children living in homes with less than half average income rose from 10 per cent (1.4 million children) to 32 per cent (4.1 million children).
The favourable tax treatment of families with dependent children that existed 30 years ago has been eroded under successive governments, the report says. A married couple with two children living on the average male wage today contribute 12.9 per cent more of gross earning in direct tax than in 1964.
The report points out that research links economic disadvantage and impoverished living conditions to the chances that children will fail to thrive.
"Living on a low income in a run-down neighbourhood does not make it impossible to be the affectionate, authoritative parent of healthy, sociable children, " says David Utting. "But it does, undeniably, make it more difficult."
He points out that seven out of 10 families with dependent children are still headed by both birth parents and that forecasts of the demise of the "traditional" family are exaggerated. But the past 30 years have seen rapid change, he notes: * one in three births now occurs outside marriage, compared with one in 16 in the early 1960s; * a six-fold increase in the annual divorce rate means that four out of 10 new marriages will end in divorce if current trends continue; * one in five families with dependent children is headed by a lone parent, compared with one in 12 in 1971; among them, the proportion of families headed by single (never-married) mothers has grown from 1 to 7 per cent; * two out of three mothers with dependent children either have jobs or are actively seeking work compared with under half 20 years ago; * employment patterns have become increasingly polarised between "dual-earner" families and homes where no one has a paid job.
The report expresses disappointment at lack of progress with the family support provisions in the 1989 Children Act. Preventive services still tend to concentrate on parents whose children are registered at risk of abuse, rather than a wider range of families.
Family and Parenthood: supporting families, preventing breakdown by David Utting, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Pounds 9.50. A summary can be obtained free from JRF at The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO3 6LP.