A GCSE in parenting?

The government’s poverty tsar is wrong about what will most help struggling families, says the Young Foundation's Yvonne Roberts. Listen to them debate his ideas here
November 17, 2010

Listen: Frank Field discusses his proposal of a GCSE in parenting with Yvonne Roberts

[audio: http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/GCSE_in_parenting.mp3]

Labour MP Frank Field, the coalition’s new poverty tsar, believes that family life among the poor is under threat. The culprits, according to him, are “toerag parents” living in “a state of permanent squalor and hostility.” Selfishness, sloth and sexual impropriety mark the behaviour of too many of the poor, he argues, to the detriment of their children and society as a whole. Part of the remedy, he believes, is parenting lessons—at school.

Field, who chairs the independent review on poverty and life chances, which delivers its final report in December, has repeatedly argued that the unfulfilled potential of many of the young is not all about family income. “Non-monetary factors” are also “crucial to the successful nurturing of children.” On the latter point, research backs him up. But it also challenges his unrelenting pessimism about low-income family life. Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, published in 2008, for instance, concluded that low-income parents, single and in couples, are doing a good job in most circumstances. While a move out of poverty and more parenting support might help, the study said, more benefit would be accrued by the promotion of parental health.

Field appears to prefer a GCSE in parenting. It’s not a new idea. The charity Parenting UK has been advocating parenting education in schools for ten years—and there is already something about it in lessons on sex, relationships and marriage.

So what’s wrong with parenting as a GCSE? Just about everything. First, who will take it? Girls rather than boys—and girls deemed dim; so it will be shunned by many. Second, what will it achieve? Most GCSE pupils won’t become parents for more than a decade and research says we learn best from a hands-on experience, not “chalk and talk.” This means more than lugging around a five-pound bag of sugar, dressed as a baby, as they do in parenting classes in some American high schools.

It became clear from research I conducted for the Young Foundation that what works isn’t the focus on interactions between a parent (most often a mother) and one child: it’s a whole family approach, one that looks at the quality of the adult relationships and addresses issues such as mental health, debts, housing, unemployment and domestic violence.

So what might make a difference here? The public schools recognised the answer long ago. They invest heavily in character, education and life skills. They encourage self-discipline and grit; and develop in pupils a sense of agency and the ability to communicate, empathise and collaborate with others (in politics, see the Eton-Westminster coalition in action). We know that, from a very young age, resilience can be taught, well-being improved, and social capital increased even in the direst of settings—not via a GCSE or a sporadic course in emotional literacy, but if a belief in the value of life skills suffuses the entire educational experience. That has to be a better preparation for parenting than a GCSE.

Most parents do need help on occasions, and some children are growing up with too little affection, support or security as families divide and re-form—all exacerbated by welfare dependency. The Labour government, in 2007, identified 140,000 families as profoundly chaotic and in need of sustained intervention (though most don’t get it). But it is precisely these families upon whom a parenting GCSE will have the least impact. Think again, Frank.