Invisible generation

11th September 2009 at 01:00
One in three families depend on grandparents for childcare, especially in times of crisis. But despite their crucial role, few schools cater for the specific needs of these invaluable carers

If it wasn't for her grandmother, Bethany, 17, would probably be in a young offender's institution by now. She was sleeping rough at 14 after falling out with her parents, and was caught in a cycle of truancy, drinking and fighting. It was her 64-year-old grandmother who took her in, giving her the love and support she needed to get her life back on track.

Without this army of "grand-carers" who step in and fill the parenting gap, especially in times of crisis, schools would have even more disruptive pupils with pastoral problems, a report released this week has found.

Many families would crumble without grandparent involvement, according to a national study commissioned by Grandparents Plus, a charity that champions the role of the UK's 14 million grandparents. In the absence of working or separated parents, they regularly attend school events, provide emotional support, get involved in hobbies or "cheerlead" from the sidelines, it says.

You do not have to look far to see the influence of grandparents at the highest level. Barack Obama may not have become the US President were it not for his grandmother's care and guidance. Madelyn Dunham, who died aged 86 last year, helped to raise Obama. He described her as "the cornerstone of our family" and "the person who encouraged and allowed us to take chances".

Professor Ann Buchanan, the director of the Oxford Centre for Research into Parenting and Children and co-author of the study, is not surprised by the far-reaching influence of grandparents. She had expected those from more disadvantaged families to be more involved, but she found that grandparents from every type of family play an important part in their grandchildren's lives.

"While parents work, grandparents are increasingly filling the parenting role, be it watching plays or sports matches, helping with homework, giving advice or disciplining the children," she says.

One in three families depend on grandparents for childcare, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics in 2007, which Age Concern estimates is worth almost pound;4 billion a year in childcare costs. The support also continues as children get older.

One in every 100 children is living with a grandparent, the Grandparents' Association states, an average of two to four pupils in every primary school. These grand-carers often have to fill several roles in their grandchildren's life, including that of educators. Professor Buchanan's report, My Second Mum and Dad, shows that they are teachers, homework assistants, career advisers and general supporters. About a fifth of the respondents felt that their grandparents played the key role in supporting their schooling.

But despite their crucial involvement, only a minority of schools are actively catering for the specific needs of grand-carers. "Even when they are the key carers, grandparents are still quite an invisible group," says Sam Smethers, chief executive of Grandparents Plus. "Schools aren't always aware of how to help them. If they are to feel comfortable getting involved in their grandchildren's education, they'll need support and advice from the school."

ulham Cross Girls' School in west London is trying to do more to accommodate its grandparents. It has seen a marked increase in the number of pupils being looked after by their grandparents, especially among its white British pupils. The school has identified this as an area it needs to focus on and develop. A teacher is due to research how the school can better target and support grandparents as part of her masters degree next year.

"The affected children usually have very young parents who can't handle their children, or are divorced or moving overseas," explains Penny Harwood, Fulham Cross's assistant headteacher. "On the whole, we've been really impressed with grandparents' involvement and their level of questioning."

Despite relatively low parental participation at the school, most grand- carers come to parents' evenings and have been on parenting programmes about how better to support their grandchildren at home. They have also attended international evenings as part of the school's language specialism, and have helped with the planning and performance of school plays. "They're good mentors and role models," says Ms Harwood. However, the school decided not to organise "grandparent days" in case they shied away from the attention.

Other schools, such as St Paul's Cathedral School, an independent school in central London, now hold annual grandparents' days in addition to the more traditional parents' day. This year's involved a concert, a tour of the school conducted by pupils, and afternoon tea with some of the teachers.

Measures such as this help grand-carers to feel included, says Professor Buchanan. "A lot of grandparents want to help with homework or guide their grandchild through their options or the exam system, but they don't feel knowledgeable enough to do so," she says. "A little feedback about how they can help make a positive contribution goes a long way."

Yet schools like Fulham Cross and St Paul's are unusual. A large proportion of grandparents feel excluded from their grandchildren's education, according to research conducted by Jan Furlong, a pre-school development worker based in Leeds. Although baby and toddler groups were open to grandparents, some avoided them because they felt too self- conscious about their age.

"Many felt isolated and would appreciate a place they could attend where they could be with other grandparents and talk like grandparents rather than parents," she says. "It also gives them the opportunity to find out about dealing with children's behaviour."

One 67-year-old grandmother from Buckinghamshire says: "I love looking after my daughter's six-year-old and having her after school, but it does get exhausting, I hope my style of care is right, but I'm not sure if it's in keeping with modern ideas about bringing up children, or helping her develop educationally."

Grandparents like this will need extra teacher support if they are to be called upon to provide some, or all, of the caring responsibilities in the future, especially as parents try to make ends meet during tough economic times. For the three months leading up to June 2007, almost 72 per cent of married and cohabiting mothers were in employment, as were 57 per cent of single parents, according to the latest Labour Force Survey.

Some of these working parents will be both time and money-poor, argues Professor Buchanan. Others will be struggling with alcohol or drug dependency, or drifting in and out of crime.

Of the 1,596 young people between 11 and 16 who responded to the Grandparents Plus report, more than three quarters had experienced two or more adversities in the past year, such as a death in the family, mental health problems or parents in prison. Children who are close to their grandparent are less likely to suffer from adjustment problems during these difficult times, it states.

"Grandparents protect children from the problems they face," says Professor Buchanan. "If parents screw up in some way, they'd much rather go to their grandparents than go into foster care."

One anonymous teacher confirms that an increasing number of parents at her inner-city secondary school are ill-equipped to look after their children, let alone support their education.

"Some of the parents are drug addicts and bail out of parenting altogether," she says. "It's often the grandparents who pick up the pieces, but they can have trouble laying down the law.

"They may tell the child what to do, but the child refuses, saying, `You're not my mum'. They need help with how to handle that."

Grandparents also make a difference when a family splits. "There used to be a cousin or aunt round the corner who could step in, but now there's less family nearby who can be drawn on in a crisis. The ones with a grandparent round the corner are the lucky ones."

As grandparents play an ever-increasing role, teachers need to recognise the growing impact of the wider family in pupils' lives, argues Professor Buchanan. "It would be helpful to see grandparents as a second set of parents as opposed to an inconvenient add-on," she says.

The rewards will be far-reaching. Grandparents who get involved with their grandchildren are more likely to be "pro-social" (sociable), according to the Grandparents Plus report. Those who got "stuck in" with their grandchildren's life and education found they were more considerate and sensitive.

"They are generally nicer kids when their grandparents are involved," says Professor Buchanan. "They are less likely to have antisocial problems or Asbos."

Bethany's experience supports this. She used to be in constant trouble with the police. Now she is studying public services at college and hopes to join the Forces once she's finished.

She has received support from many different sources, including her mother, school and the youth offending team. But she is convinced that it was her grandmother's loyalty and devotion that really saw her through.

Grand scheme of things: How involved are grandparents?

  • Involved in hobbies: 66%
  • Come to school events: 47%
  • Talk through problems: 44%
  • Share things not discussed with parents: 27%
  • Talk through future plans: 76%
  • Offer advice with a problem: 76%
  • Give money or gifts: 86%
  • Say what children can and cannot do: 62%
  • Are respected: 85%
    • Source: `My Second Mum and Dad' by Ann Buchanan and Julia Griggs, Centre for Research into Parenting and Children, University of Oxford; September 2009.

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