Push the parent and you push the child

4th February 2005 at 00:00
The influence of home and hearth on learning is as crucial today as it was in the days of Burns , says Ewan Aitken Ensconced as I was at this year's excellent Young Scot Burns supper, traditional beverage in my hands and enjoying good conversation, my expectations of the speeches were no more than to hear exhortations to the bard of a nature similar to many I had heard before and banter between the genders.

But in the superb immortal memory gifted to us by Sandy Watson, chief executive of Angus Council, there was a wee gem of a line that leapt out, ready for deeper exploration.

Watson said: "Burns's father was a strict Calvinist who, however, ensured that his son had a good education." In light of recent debates about parent rights and responsibilities, it struck a chord. Burns grew up in a family of great poverty. By 13, he was working in the fields. At 15, he was the principal labourer on the farm.

But yet at 14, the family also found what it took to send him to Ayr with Dominie John Murdoch and then a year later to Kirkoswald to study under Hugh Rodger. For all their struggles, Burns's parents worked hard to ensure he had the gift of opportunities that education brought.

There are some studies which suggest that 85 per cent of learning happens in the home or at least outside school. Children learn from what doesn't happen inside the home as much as from what does. Like Burns, children with good parental support are more likely to achieve their potential.

I had a letter recently from a learning support teacher suggesting that the best way to achieve a truly inclusive education service would be to spend more resources on supporting parents of children aged five and under. Phil Hanlon, professor of public health at Strathclyde University, goes further and argues that, if we want children to succeed in school and in the wider world, we should work hardest on their parents when the child is still in the womb, questioning everything, especially what they are putting down their throats.

The challenge is to design this level of often quite intensive early intervention in such a way that it is seen as providing support and not just criticism.

My experience as a ward councillor is that any debate about negative activities of young people outside school invariably ends up with two cries from the floor of "it's the parents' fault" and "the schools need to teach them to behave", both of which simply perpetuate a blame culture.

Locally, I set up a parenting project in partnership with 15 voluntary and statutory bodies managed by the Family Service Unit Scotland to offer both support and challenge to parents. Taking referrals from local schools, the project's objectives are to ask parents: "do you need some help?" and to say "if you keep up what you are doing your child will suffer".

It is not easy and the staff face many rebuffals, but they refuse to give up on anyone. I know that there are a number of similar home-link type projects across the country, but we need many more.

Parenting is the hardest job anyone can attempt, yet none of us is required to have completed any training or qualifications to be one. Recent surveys show that more than 80 per cent of parents live in fear of getting things wrong and I am one of them.

Despite Larkin's famous poem, most of the time we do not, or at least what we do causes little lasting damage.

Yet there are times when some parents are not giving their children what they need, either physically, socially or emotionally. In those cases, schools and other agencies need to act accordingly without fear of abuse, litigation or accusations of a "nanny state" culture. We need to find ways of intervening more in families' lives where things are happening that are not allowing children to grow to their fullest potential - whether that's about how bodies or minds are or are not being nurtured.

This means providing options, ranging from parent groups in schools, family learning opportunities, home-link services and health teams to much more intensive and intrusive action where staff are in homes daily, sometimes several times.

We also need yet more radical approaches, for example, an even greater expansion of the foster care network to give local authorities the ability to remove more children for periods of time. They can then be nurtured and their parents given the space to learn and understand what being a parent really involves, rebuilding those families again with support in place.

This is very resource intensive and has huge moral and ethical ramifications. But the earlier and greater the intervention, the less the cost to the child, the parent and the state in later years.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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