A programme that combines sports coaching with parenting classes is setting pulses racing and turning lives around
The mums are having a bit of a St Trinian's moment. Hockey sticks are flying and there is more shrieking than is entirely appropriate for serious sporting activity.
This is the indoor football pitch at Ross County Football Club's stadium in Dingwall. The fake turf is so convincing it's spooky, and there's a chill in the air mirroring the frosty morning outside, where real men are playing real football.
The women are participating in the Parents-on-the-Ball project, a scheme that combines sporting activities and parenting education. With large families at home, a morning's hockey now has a recreational appeal that it may have lacked for them as teenagers.
Wendy McClung, 26, who has five daughters under 7 years old, says: "The girls can be a bit of a handful, but with what I've learnt here, it's easier to get in control."
Parents-on-the-Ball began three years ago, one of several projects pioneered by Ross County FC's Life Skills Through Sport venture. Originally conceived as Dads-on-the-Ball, it was extended to include mums and to run over 24 weeks.
On the face of it, it's all about improving fitness and family life, but these parenting sessions and the follow-up Get A Goal programmes (see box), have turned lives around - inspiring parents to beat addictions, lose weight, go to college, get jobs, and become healthier, happier people and better parents.
John Ford, welfare and education manager at Life Skills Through Sport, says the mums enjoy the programme because getting to hang out with footballers is a bit more exciting than the usual courses in draughty village halls: "It's a lot sexier being at a football ground - there's no doubt about that - and that applies to all our programmes."
John, a qualified football coach with a background in management development training, says the activities - which range from martial arts to mountain biking - are a crucial part of what they do: "The purpose is really to reinforce the lessons that have gone on in class, because we draw a parallel between the role of the parent and the role of coach. So we encourage them to set clear aims, set goals, give feedback - to praise in the right place and give rewards.
"We talk about the role of rewards as a parent and then we look at the parallel issues I deal with as a coach and how they feel about getting a reward - even if it's just a pat on the back or a `Well done' - the impact of a simple thing like that."
Showing parents how good it feels to be praised and rewarded when they do well at sport encourages them to take this back to their own homes and children.
"We've found that it works, and it's taken off like a house on fire," says John. "Attendance rates have gone up and, once they arrive, people stay rather than drifting in and out of the programme.
Parents may be facing a variety of difficulties: "I think if I was to put a word on it I would say they flounder," says John, who stresses how money worries, poor housing and health add to the challenge of coping with young children.
"We've had some quite heart-rending cases: families being re-united, children being allowed back home, parents moving back together and so on," he adds.
Life Skills Through Sport is part-funded through the local enterprise network, and Parents-on-the-Ball is delivered in partnership with NCH, the children's charity, and Healthways, a local authority project that encourages healthy living.
The charity refers parents to the course via social workers, health visitors and other agencies. Anyone with a child under four in the Dingwall and surrounding area is eligible. It also provides tutors who base classes on Carolyn Webster-Stratton's Incredible Years programme, which aims to reduce children's behaviour problems and increase parents' social competence at home.
Lorraine Talbot, project worker with NCH, is one of the tutors: "It uses play, praise, positive attention and boundaries to reduce bad behaviour," she says.
The project is assessed independently and evaluated by the parents.
Deborah Alliston, 27, has two children under six and has seen a huge improvement since starting the course. "Instead of me shouting, we've made up a rule chart," she says. "So my daughter takes off her shoes at the door and she knows, if she's mean to her brother, what the consequences will be."
GET A GOAL
There are seven staff members on the Life Skills Through Sport team and they run three Get A Goal courses, aimed at under-18s, over-18s and 50- plus. Parents can move on to these programmes, which are activities-based and aim to support people in finding work, further education or training.
Vicky Grant, operations manager, says: "The issue could be a history of exclusion or non-attendance at school, they could be ex-offenders or people with drug and alcohol problems, or long-term unemployed, with the issues that brings regarding self-confidence. There may be health problems, those who have been on incapacity benefit for years, who are ready to take the next step but lack motivation and employability skills."
Vicky and her colleagues deliver a range of sports-related activities and run tutorials on CV preparation, job hunting and interview skills.
A new programme has just been launched in Wick for people on probation or incapacity benefit. And a transition project is about to start at Wick High for 14 to 17-year-olds at risk of exclusion. It aims to re-engage younger pupils with school and help older pupils make the transition to work or further education.
The team also runs a curriculum support programme in Ross-shire for youngsters at risk of exclusion. The pupils work with special needs groups and get football coaching.
John Ford, the team's welfare and education manager, says the feedback from schools has been good: "It's not turning them into angels - let's not be under any illusion about that - but the kids are becoming more biddable."