Why expect granny to be supernanny?

4th November 2005 at 00:00
I was negotiating the melee of parents and Primary 1 pupils in the cloakroom at the start of the session when I heard a low growl. "Hullo Missus Fenton, Ah'm back!"

The greeting came from a dedicated smoker and great-grandmother of a P1 child. It turned out that she had been prevailed upon to accompany the boisterous 5-year-old to and from school and provide before and after school care.

A few days later I saw her again in the cloakroom, hanging on to the packed lunchbox trolley, gasping for breath, having completed one leg of the first school journey of the day. She managed a smoke-laden waft at me of "Ah'm too al' fur this."

Early this year a Romanian woman made headline news by giving birth to a daughter at the age of 66, following nine years of fertility treatment. If we can get beyond the issue of ethics, we can begin to predict various scenarios causing her maternal stress as her child grows and presents with normal behaviours.

She may find it quite taxing to have to deal with a toddler having the screaming habdabs because she wants to wear her pink wellies to bed or with a hormonal teenager whose method of communication is an occasional dirty look. Perhaps the Romanian equivalent of "Ah'm too al' fur this" may also become her conclusion.

I am aware of a growing number of grandmothers agreeing to become principal carers of grandchildren, to prevent them becoming "looked after" by the local authority. I am full of admiration for these women, as inevitably they are picking up the pieces in an already critical situation and probably treading in an emotional minefield, one that would be challenging for any young parents in full possession of their physical and mental faculties.

Their situation is different from the Romanian mother of advanced years in that they have already raised a family and are applying their parenting experience a second time around. But how does that application compare with current practices in child-rearing?

I hear that statistics are beginning to show that grandparents as carers are less successful in coping at home with the management of children who are experiencing social and behavioural difficulties in school. It may not be too outrageous to suggest that their style of parenting could be a contributory factor to a second generation of familial dysfunction.

They may still be instinctively reacting the same way they did as parents 20 or 30 years ago in a very different world, when the sound of one hand clapping earned nods of approval as the recognised response to the slightest sign of dissent from youngsters. How inclined are elderly carers to adopt today's Supernanny approach to managing children's behaviour?

The future may be brighter. I have digested the rhetoric about integrated children's services in the many glossy publications which have landed on my desk over the past year. I would like to believe that it promises an end to feelings of professional frustration when faced with situations where children are clearly at risk and avenues for seeking support for them are strewn with barriers of protocol and paperwork.

What we need now is some implementation reality. Ideally, we would move quickly to working with different agencies in a climate of mutual trust and voluntary sharing of information about all aspects of children's lives, despite the constraints of data protection.

No longer would we discover after the event some "confidential" background details which would have changed the way we handled a situation from the outset.

Instead of arranging meetings to endlessly chew over the causes of an escalating problem, we would take real, preventative action, which might even cost money to adequately resource with frontline staff, so as to bring about lasting improvements. We would have to think radical thoughts, such as allowing teaching staff time off in lieu of working outside school hours with colleagues from different services.

A seminal change and the introduction of seamless support for families might just begin to break the cycle of impoverished parenting for generations to come. Surely the system is not too al' fur that?

Joan Fenton is headteacher of Dyce Primary in AberdeenIf you have any comments, email scotlandplus@tes.co.uk

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