Labour's Green Paper, 'Supporting Families', has given an enormous boost to parenting education. But there are still challenges to overcome, as Martin Whittaker reports
In a church hall in Acton, west London, seven mothers and one father meet on a Saturday morning. Each week they talk and share experiences for two-and-a-half hours, all of them intent on one thing - becoming better parents.
Yvonne Ayo, who runs this parenting course, says: "It helps parents who are perhaps a little uncertain to realise that it's OK to feel like this. They feel an enormous sense of relief that they're not on their own. Whatever their issues are, they feel the same sense of anxiety and concern. They feel supported in the group because people give them the time and space to listen."
This Open College Network-accredited programme is run by Parent Network, a registered charity that, since its launch in 1986, has become the leading provider of parenting courses in the UK. The 12-week Acton course costs pound;96, though subsidies are available. The cost of the course includes a copy of Parenting Matters: Ways to bring up your children using heart and head, which examines subjects such as self-esteem, dealing with feelings, setting children limits and the power of language.
There are now many parenting courses to choose from. And on November 4 their providers and parenting education and support generally were given a huge boost with the publication of the Government's Green Paper Supporting Families.
Labour's proposals include establishing a National Family and Parenting Institute, a new parenting helpline, giving an enhanced role to health visitors, and a pound;540 million scheme to help children in their early years, to be known as Sure Start. Other measures include giving more help to parents through family literacy and mentoring schemes, and giving parenting education a place in the curriculum.
At a conference, Parenting Education and Support - A New Deal for Children, held on the day of the Green Paper's launch, Margaret Hodge, under secretary of state at the Department for Education and Employment, and a mother of four, said: "Bringing up children is never easy in any circumstances. A long-standing criticism is that parents get enormous support and a lot of public investment when they have their baby. But once the door closes on that second or third visit from the health visitor, we are all suddenly expected instinctively to know how to be effective parents."
The Government has been quick to dispute criticism that this is the nanny state at work, and the Green Paper has been warmly received by those working in parenting education. Wendy van den Hende, chief executive of Parent Network, says: "For the first time, it includes parenting in a mainstream way. They are looking at the family holistically, which has got to be good news."
Despite the euphoria, it is recognised that much still needs to be done to provide a proper infrastructure for parents who need support most but who often do not have access to it.
One criticism often directed at parenting courses is that they tend to be populated by white, middle-class mothers. This view has just been backed up by a new study, Evaluating Parenting Programmes: A Study of Stakeholders' Views, which is supported by the National Children's Bureau and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One of its co-authors, Dr Roger Grimshaw, says mostly middle-class mothers attend with low participation from minority ethnic groups. "There's a need to bring in those people who formerly haven't had access and ask them the sorts of things they want to know," he says.
Those interviewed for the study ranged from funders and managers, to parents and those who dropped out of courses. Seventy per cent of the interviewees were women; about 80 per cent were white, the rest from multi-ethnic groups.
Parents' experiences of going on a course are generally positive, says Dr Grimshaw, but the study also highlights a serious image problem. One mother described how she wanted to get some advice but didn't want to attend a course because "I didn't want people to think I was a bad mother". Others were worried about facilitators being "pasta-eating Mother Earth" or "airhead social worker" types.
The study says that professionals do not tend to appreciate fathers' needs, and that the public profile of these courses is very low. It also calls for children's views to be taken into account in the debate on parenting education and support.
Dr Gillian Pugh, chief executive of the Thomas Coram Foundation in London, acknowledges there are still major challenges to be faced in establishing a coherent national strategy for delivering support to parents and children. "Parenting is hard work and we all sometimes need help. This is not only something we do when we are in trouble. That's why since I started writing in this field in the 1980s I have said that this support we are now talking about has got to be available to everybody.
"People go to learn how to mend a car or how to plant things in their garden. They're not worried about saying they don't understand that. We need to change public attitude towards parenting. We are talking about giving people opportunities to share from each other and learn from each other."
Parent Network enquiry line: 0171 735 1214