I'll vouch it could work

1st June 2012 at 01:00

Cor, look at this, Mabel. You know we're pretty rotten parents, what with Darren out half the night, Tracey nickin' our fags and the twins runnin' a bit wild? Well, that nice Mr Camron is offerin' money for parentin' classes. Better get down there right away ...

When I read about the proposed #163;100 parenting voucher, I wondered who would take up the offer and how it was going to work.

After last summer's riots, the government certainly had a lot of thinking to do. Is the country's youth in crisis? Has discipline broken down? Are our children out of control and, if so, what can be done about it?

When I consider my own childhood, we were, by and large, fairly well behaved. You knew where you stood. Muck about at school and you got a severe telling-off, a slap or, at worst, a caning. If the school told your parents you had been a nuisance, your parents would give you grief as well. You were respectful to the police, the clergy, most grown-ups, and you didn't assume you had any rights. But it certainly wasn't an ideal world. Maths, for example, was ruined for me by a sadistic secondary school teacher who considered that the key to understanding algebra was a thorough caning. This simply couldn't happen now.

Trouble is, things have slipped too far the other way. During my headship, our school took many teaching practice students who told hair-raising tales of previous placements, where teachers seemed unable to contain poor behaviour, were sworn at and verbally abused by parents if they so much as wagged a finger at a child. Attempting to manage behaviour made learning come a very poor second, and the reason was obvious. Nobody was steering the ship. Headteachers were buried in their rooms or out at meetings, deputies often showed no interest in dealing with the problems and staff morale was low ... which children sense immediately.

In schools like mine, many children came from chaotic homes. People can so easily drift into relationships these days, have children and then split up, with no extended family to offer support. Many parents don't spend enough time with their children and meal times are rarely shared as a family. They are afraid to let their children play outside, so they spend hours in tiny bedrooms with televisions and computer games as the only stimulant. In my last two years of headship, I watched the quality of incoming nursery children plummet; so many had no social skills and were virtually feral. In one home visited by one of my teachers, there was no furniture in the lounge at all, just some paper plates and a huge widescreen TV.

So could parenting classes help and can primary schools play a part? I think the answer is yes, but it has to be done with sensitivity. It is so easy for teachers in a challenging area to feel they are social workers rather than educators, and a good, caring relationship with parents has to be built slowly.

But it is quite possible to build social group activities that parents will want to attend, especially in the early years, and once the classes' reputation has grown, parents will be receptive to discussing their shared problems with group leaders and visiting speakers.

I just hope the #163;100 vouchers don't disappear into the pockets of hastily set up consultancies.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school head. mikejkent@aol.com.

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