There are 1.7 million lone parents inBritain, and most are women. In theirstruggle to raise children alone, does education take on a new significance? Reva Klein met three single mothers - all working in schools and colleges - with aspirations in common
Sonia Clarke's childhood was cut short at the age of 10 when she came to Britain from the Caribbean island of St Lucia and found herself looking after her three brothers. Looking back, she reckons it was good training for when she found herself a single mother at the age of 21, left by her partner in the latter stages of her pregnancy.
Since then, she and her daughter Lowella have always managed on their own. Plain sailing it hasn't been. Sonia went out to work when her baby was eight months old, leaving her with her mother or with a friend. She hasn't stopped working since. Now in her 16th year as classroom assistant and meals supervisor at William Patten Primary in Stoke Newington, north-east London, Sonia's day begins at 5am, when she goes out to a cleaning job before setting off for school.
For her, double shifts have been a way of life. "You name it", she laughs, "I've done it - everything but sweeping the streets. I've worked as a riveter, in a fur factory, as an accountant's clerk, as a hospital casualty officer."
It has been the only way to make ends meet, as she has not been on benefit for years. At the moment, she is paying pound;100 a week to maintain Lowella, who is in her first year at the University of Kent and the first in the family to go to university. While the London borough of Haringey pays the bulk of Lowella's accommodation costs, Sonia pays for the rest of her keep. When she considers the prospect of having to pay fees as well, her voice fills with despair. "I can't think of having to pay the pound;1,000 upfront. I don't know how I'll cope."
Doing without and resourcefulness have been a way of life for as long as she can remember. She learned to sew because she could not afford to buy clothes for the two of them. And they walked everywhere to save money on fares. In the winter, their housing association flat was so cold that they made a tent with blankets and slept huddled together in the living room to keep warm. "But we always managed to have fun. And though it was hard, I managed to save a few pounds so that at weekends we'd go swimming, ice skating and do all the other things that normal people do."
Somehow, Sonia also managed to save money, not only for piano lessons for Lowella, who is now qualified to teach music, but also to take her on regular holidays to the Caribbean. Most recently, she was able to buy her daughter a "fancy" computer to take with her to college.
Lowella, who's not able get a part-time job at the moment because of her heavy college workload, does not approve of her mother working so hard. "But", Sonia says, "I'd do it all again if I had the chance. To me, Lowella is all I have and the most important thing is that she is happy, whatever she chooses to do. There'll never be anyone like her in my life."
Christine Peters has spent her working life in schools and is head-teacher at Parliament Hill, a North London girls' comprehensive. Her 25-year-old daughter Tania was two when Christine and her husband split up; in the same year, she got a job as head of department at the erstwhile Woodberry Downs School in Hackney, north-east London. "I remember a governor asking me at my job interview 'Don't you think this will damage your child, going back to work?' It was the first and last time I faced obvious discrimination as a single parent."
For her, there was no question of not going back to work. "In that kind of situation, you just do it. But I was lucky. I had a good childminder and a strong network of friends with children of different ages. We'd take turns looking after each other's children at weekends." And when Tania got a bit older, she would accompany her mother on residential weekends, when staff would take students to a teacher's cottage in Wales.
Christine recognises her own talent for focusing on whatever she's doing, to the exclusion of everything else. When she's at school, she can block out her domestic life but when at home she can relax and forget school.
This knack was her salvation five years ago when Tania was diagnosed with second stage lymphatic cancer after her first term at university. It was two months after Christine's mother had died suddenly and coincided with an Office for Standards in Education inspection at her previous school, Islington Green.
"I don't remember very much about the inspection," she says. "I had a pretty high level of stress all around. But our approach was that she'd get better. I have so much admiration for the way she dealt with it, never once complaining or feeling sorry for herself. And the community of Islington Green sustained me by allowing me to get on with my work. I felt great strength in being focused on what I was doing."
Tania graduated from university and now, with her health restored, is a social policy adviser for the Citizens' Advice Bureaux in Scotland. Although she is so far away, mother and daughter see each other often and go on holidays together.
"We've always had the space to develop in the ways we've wanted to as individuals as well as being able to have great times together," Christine says. "As a single parent, the issue is about being able to make choices. To be poor and a single parent must be incredibly difficult. I think I've been very lucky."
Gaynor Joseph left school without any qualifications. At the age of 33, she embarked on a seven-year journey through education that resulted in a PGCE teacher's qualification. She now teaches on an hourly basis at a further education college and both her children have assisted places in a Welsh independent school.
Five years ago she and her children Lia, aged 12, and Peter, 13, moved from east London to a council estate in Llanrumney, Cardiff. "I didn't want my children to go to secondary school in London. The local schools are rough and I didn't like the youth culture, especially the macho, hard-nut culture of boys."
But her assumptions about schools in her hometown were wrong. "It's worse here. When Peter entered junior school, he was out on a limb. There was a very anti-learning culture which meant that if you worked hard, you were ridiculed."
She was certain that her children needed something different. Both had been assessed as having adult reading ages when they were seven and eight years old and were considered exceptionally bright at primary school. Not only that: they are mixed race (their father is Jamaican) and the local comprehensive is predominantly white. For their sakes, she wanted a school with a racially mixed intake.
"There's no black middle class here in Cardiff. In the education system, I've seen black children labelled troublemakers and considered exceptionally thick. Being mixed race is worse: it means that you're not one thing or the other."
The idea of private education did not rest easily with Gaynor - a lifelong socialist from a working-class Welsh family. But, in her view, "society is unequal because some people are given better life chances than others. Knowing that, how could I stand on principle when my children's futures are at stake?" Gaynor managed to get Lia and Peter assisted places at Kings Monkton, an independent school in the centre of Cardiff. It is racially and culturally mixed, the standards are high and it gets them out of the environment of impoverishment in which they live. In protest at Tony Blair abolishing the assisted places scheme, she left the Labour party.
She has not regretted her decision in opting for Kings Monkton. Both Peter and Lia are flourishing. "I want my children to become professional people and have incomes that will allow them to live in ways they want. I don't want my children ground down by poverty like I was, or for Peter to join the army of unemployed black men, or for Lia to get pregnant in order to get somewhere to live.
"I don't have two ha'pennies to rub together because I'm only on hourly contracts. But the one thing I've got going for me is getting my children into that school. I want them to have a life. Without money, it's just bleak."
HOME ALONE: THE STATISTICS
* There are 1.7 million lone parents in the UK; 91 per cent are women.
* Nearly 3 million children live in one-parent families.
* One third of today's children will spend part of their childhood in single-parent families.
* Thirty-two per cent of lone parents are divorced, 23 pc are married but separated, 4 pc are widowed and 36 pc have never been married but have usually cohabited with the father at some point.
* Less than 4 per cent of lone mothers are aged under 20.
* 40 per cent of lone mothers work, as opposed to 65 per cent of married mothers.
* 41 per cent of lone mothers live on less than pound;100 per week compared with 4 per cent of married couples.
* 1.1 million lone parents (65 per cent) are on income support;a further 335,000 (17 per cent) claim family credit.
* From this month, new lone-parent claimants of income support will not get the pound;4.70 top-up on family premium. But family premium rises by pound;2.50 from April 1999, and those on income support will get an extra pound;2.50 for each child under 11 from November.
* The Social Security Bill 1997 being enacted in June means new lone-parent recipients of child benefit will no longer get the pound;5.65 top-up, but child benefit rises by pound;2.50 from April 1999. child