HL Deb 16 July 1997 vol 581 cc1005-13

3.10 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

rose to call attention to the role of schools in preparing young people for the responsibilities and challenges of adult life, including parenthood; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity which the ballot gives me to raise this important subject. It is topical because the Government have just produced a White Paper for consultation which refers to life skills education and to preparation for parenthood. It is topical also because the moratorium on the national curriculum will end in 1999 and it is not too soon to begin to consider possible changes.

The 1988 Education Reform Act requires schools: to prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life". I ask myself whether the present national curriculum is achieving those objectives. I think that the answer must be "not to the full". Let us look at the 1988 Act. It provides for a national curriculum with compulsory foundation subjects. I shall list them, although it is rather boring—English or Welsh, maths, science, a foreign language, history, geography, IT, physical education, technology, music and art. Religious education, sex education and careers education are also compulsory.

Sir Ron Dearing, in his report of December 1993, managed, with difficulty, to prise 20 per cent. of the curriculum time from those compulsory subjects so that some of the curriculum subjects could be chosen by the school. But still, in effect, at least 80 per cent. of curriculum time is taken up by the compulsory subjects of the foundation curriculum.

I argue that the compulsory curriculum does not include some of the most important life skills which young people will need in the 21st century. For example, it does not include important aspects of preparation for the world of work, self-knowledge, self-confidence, the ability to relate to others, the ability to communicate well, the ability to make decisions, to solve problems, to cope with change and to retrain when necessary. It does not include preparation for citizenship or parenthood, and I shall return to that in a few moments. It does not include health education or money management.

Of course, in the best schools those subjects are delivered either as cross-curricular themes or as part of a personal, social and health education syllabus—PSHE. But PSHE has to be squeezed into the free 20 per cent. of the curriculum. It is not part of the compulsory curriculum; it is not examined; and it is only partly inspected by Ofsted.

Therefore, in many schools PSHE has been marginalised. In some schools, it has been squeezed out altogether. In others, it is badly taught. In 1994, the last year for which I can find statistics, Ofsted inspectors found that only 40 per cent. of PSHE lessons in the secondary schools which they inspected qualified as "good" or "very good".

At present, initial teacher training does not cover PSHE and there is very little in-service training available. Teachers feel uncomfortable delivering a subject which involves exploring values and dealing with pupils' questions on sensitive issues such as sex, morality and family values without proper training.

Incidentally, I believe that the name PSHE should be changed. What a switch-off it is. Why do we not refer to it as life skills or skills for life or perhaps adult life skills, which I favour? The word "adult" tends to have a certain fascination for children. I hope that other noble Lords in this debate will focus on some of the aspects of life skills to which I have referred. I have time to deal with only one; that is, parenting education—education for parenthood.

Why is education for parenthood necessary today? It is necessary for two reason: first, because so many children today are no longer learning what they need to know about parenting from their own families or extended families or neighbours; and, secondly, because today's world is such a complex place in which to bring up children. Traditional moral values are no longer accepted. Many changes are taking place in family structures. I quote from the National Children's Home "Factfile" which states: Almost 1 child in 3 is born outside marriage today. One in 5 families with a dependent child are single parent families. Divorce rates have doubled since 1971. More than 1 in 3 marriages are re-marriages". I continue to quote: The implications of these trends are profound. It is important not only that social policy adapts to take account of this, but also that Young People understand the implications for themselves and for their children". I repeat, that Young People understand the implications for themselves and for their children". Parenting really matters. Children who do not receive the parental love and care which they need, even if it is given by another adult and not by their birth parents, will have much more difficulty in growing up emotionally secure and confident. An infant who is loved learns to love. An infant who is secure will grow up confident. A child who is taught that there are boundaries to acceptable behaviour will grow up responsible and self-disciplined. Children need appropriate role models.

Children who do not receive that basic support often fail to settle into primary school, fall behind and become disruptive. Others play truant and get themselves excluded. When young people are half educated or emotionally and behaviourally disturbed, they are difficult to train and employ. However good the schools are, the foundations of education are laid in the home. In passing, I should say that I fear that that may be the rock on which the Government's welfare-to-work programme may founder.

Nevertheless, unemployed and unemployable young people will breed and there is clear evidence that children from a background of poor parenting tend themselves to repeat the pattern of poor parenting. That has been called the cycle of poor parenting. It was the late Lord Joseph who, in 1972, first drew attention to that problem. He called it the cycle of deprivation.

In 1991 in a lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies, he said: For children to become self disciplined adults, capable of loving and being loved and of consideration for others, they need from their parents consistent love and discipline: unqualified love but firm guidance in values and behaviour. Most people experience this and, when they become parents, they pass it on. But some have had no such upbringing or fail to benefit from it. And parenting that is not good enough can lead to misery for the children and, as they grow up, failure at school, crying, violence, disregard for others and unhappiness for themselves". It is a sad fact that we still have cycles of poor parenting today. There are many causes. We must all work to break those cycles, and schools have an important role to play.

Your Lordships may wonder whether it is possible to teach children about parenting in school and whether they will be interested. There is growing evidence that the answer is "Yes" on both counts. Yes, provided that the subject is delivered by teachers who are well trained and enthusiastic, and provided that it is taught interactively, giving pupils the opportunity to explore and to discuss.

Some schools are already successfully delivering parenting education. The most recent and compelling evidence comes from a report Tomorrow's Parents of which I have placed a copy in the Library of the House. It is published by the Gulbenkian Foundation together with the Children's Society. The report, which is written by Philip Hope, who has subsequently been elected the honourable Member for Corby in another place, records and evaluates an experiment in five Manchester schools during the academic year 1995–96. It used the Children's Society programme Education for Parenthood. It was taught in the schools and the outcomes were evaluated.

The report's key finding was, that inclusion of parenthood education in the curriculum of a school, particularly if it is taught alongside other personal and social issues, can have a positive influence on young people's thinking about their roles and responsibilities as future parents…There is a measurable positive impact on students' knowledge and understanding of parenthood". Indeed, some of the children's own comments give a flavour of their experience. One said, "It changed my views a lot, because nobody ever tells you what it's all about"; another said, "We learnt how much time and love children need"; again, one said, "It has taught me how children behave, and how to handle it without using force—that it takes understanding, love and patience"; and, finally, one said, "It has shown me that parenting is not a piece of cake".

One of the objects of parenting education must be to present young people with a more realistic and less romanticised picture of parenthood. One school nurse believes that some young girls have babies on the basis of what she describes as the "3 Rs"—that is to say, "Ahh, isn't it lovely! Ahh, I would like one of them! Ahh, how soon can I have one!". There is no thought there for the sleepless nights, the mess, the smell, the cost, the loneliness and the sacrificed youth.

An interesting American experiment included the objective of delaying teenage parenthood: each child—that is, both boys and girls—was given a raw egg to look after for a week. They were told that they were responsible for its safety, never to leave it unattended and, above all, not to break it, but to return it at the end of the week intact. History does not relate whether they were allowed to scramble it in revenge.

Becoming a parent should not be an enterprise which is undertaken by accident, or as a whim. Again, the late Lord Joseph said: Casual procreation is unacceptable both for the child and for society". Once again, I should like to give your Lordships one or two quotations from the children in the report of the Children's Society about their parenting course. One girl said, "It's made a difference to whether I get pregnant or not, you're stopping to think". Another said, "It made me think about all the compromises that I would have to make, and all the changes that a child could make to my life". Further, a boy said, "I have set my heart on being a father; however I need to give myself time to enjoy myself and live a little first". Indeed, education for parenthood is also very important for boys.

When she responds to the debate, I should like to ask the Minister to give the House an assurance that the Government will very seriously consider making adult life skills education, including education for parenthood, a compulsory subject in the national curriculum in the year 2000 and that, in the meantime, the Government will prepare a national syllabus for the subject and ensure that appropriate teacher training is available so that it can be delivered effectively. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for initiating today's debate on a series of very important issues. The Motion refers to challenges and responsibilities facing children as they grow into adult life. To my mind those challenges and responsibilities, as far as they relate to possible elements of the curriculum, fall into four areas. The noble Lord has already dwelt on the first area to some extent; namely, those issues to do with personal life and parenting and the fostering and nurturing of children. Some of those parenting skills are indeed skills and there is no reason why, in principle, they cannot be taught. Certainly the report to which the noble Lord referred gives much detail about how they might be taught and disseminated to schoolchildren with very beneficial effect.

Nevertheless, we should recognise that there are aspects of parenting, to which the noble Lord referred, which are not a matter of skill and which cannot in fact be transmitted through education in a very direct way, largely because it is a matter of values. Parenting ideally takes place in a context of loyalty, love, commitment and trust which are not skills and which cannot be taught in any straightforward way and are best learnt by example.

Those values are indispensable in family life. But, nevertheless, they run up against a number of other aspects in our own moral culture which make them peculiarly difficult to follow and implement in our lives today. After all, so much of what goes on in society places a premium upon choice, upon self-interest and upon following one's own inclinations. Yet the very values that characterise family life and parenting stand in opposition to those aspects to a great extent. Having children, nurturing them, and so on, cannot be understood in the terms that characterise so many of the ways in which we speak about our lives today; for example, choice, self-interest and contract. Indeed, those notions are just wholly inappropriate.

If we are to stress the importance of parenting skills and parenting values, it is important in family life, in schools and in society generally, that we should keep affirming the fact that there are things in human life which are more important than choice and self-interest. We should stress that these have a totally ineliminable role to play in family life and in human nurturing and that, against that background, society as a whole has a right to be interested in what goes on in the family. Given the problems about breakdown, and so on, to which the noble Lord referred, it seems to me that that can no longer be seen as entirely a private matter. Indeed, there are other aspects to it which are of social concern. Therefore, schools should certainly play a role in awakening children to such adult needs and responsibilities.

The second area of challenge and responsibility which I believe to be most important relates to individual employability which, again, the noble Lord mentioned. Gone are the days when the labour market or government intervention could produce a sense of security for the whole of one's life in which families could be confident. Any sense of security derived from being in the global market has to come much more through the individual's own skills, the transferability of those skills, and so on. In other words, the individual has to be able to do not just one job but many jobs during the course of his or her working life. It seems to me that this Government have that very much at the top of their agenda—as was the case with the previous government—in trying to work out exactly what kind of skills people will need to have in order to retain employability throughout their careers. As I said, it has become much more of an individual concept as problems of state intervention in the economy in the context of a global market have made other forms of security much more difficult to achieve. Again, welfare into work requires that those who are being put into work also have employable skills. That is the second area where life skills, as the noble Lord put it, have an importance in the school curriculum.

My third area relates to the fact that more and more responsibility is being pushed on to the individual; for example, self-assessment for taxation, buying one's own pension and buying one's own unemployment insurance—what the noble Lord called money management. I believe that most of us find such tasks extremely difficult and, therefore, those who are not, so to speak, on top of such things are very vulnerable as we saw through the mis-selling of pensions. Yet if, because of agreed views about the limits of government, individuals increasingly have to take control of their own arrangements in terms of investment, pensions and insurance, it is very important for them to have some kind of training and thus some ability to manage their affairs.

The final area that I should like to mention is what one might call "civil engagement—that is to say, along with pushing down responsibility to individuals, we are now trying to attract people to serve on school governing boards. Parents will be expected to interpret league tables and understand them properly, whether they relate to schools or hospitals. Indeed, trying to understand how the public sector works against the background of much greater information is a new concept. Therefore, as they grow up, children will need to be able to understand how to make sense of that information and translate it into good judgments about how to deal with matters which will be quite crucial to their own children's lives. As regards those four areas, the noble Lord is quite right at least to ask whether there should be room in the curriculum for those kinds of topics.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, 1, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, for introducing this most important debate this afternoon. The issues that he has raised are fundamental to society. In the time available I wish to make just two points. First, this Motion is similar to the terms of an amendment that I moved in the course of the debates on the education legislation. Section 351 of the Education Act 1996 states, The curriculum for a school satisfies the requirements of this section … prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities. responsibilities and experiences of adult life". My amendment, which was debated, would have added the words, "including marriage and parenthood".

The first part of this Motion is similar to the terms of the Act. When the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, replies to the debate perhaps she will tell us how that part of the Act is being implemented in schools. I entirely agree with what the noble Lords, Lord Plant and Lord Northbourne, said about responsibilities, the teaching of life skills and the importance of being able to work together, to work co-operatively and to give a commitment to a job that is being undertaken. I have heard myself mentioning those points on many occasions when I was a Minister for education, but they need constantly to be repeated.

However, children need more than that. They need the firm guidance to which the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred. In my view they need a set of ideals by which to live. We all need these even if each one of us knows that we shall never be able to live up to those ideals. One of the tragedies today is that children do not have these ideals because we seem to be totally unable to agree on any of them. I believe that there are three points on which we can agree; namely, that bullying is wrong, that stealing is wrong; and that cheating is wrong. Why not build on those points in other areas?

I now turn to the final part of the Motion which is before the House. In referring to parenthood in the Motion the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, has not included marriage, which seems to me to be fundamental. I find it extraordinary that the report Tomorrow's Parents, to which he referred, said nothing at all on that matter. I rang the authors to check whether had failed to spot that but they confirmed that they had not written anything about it. I refer to opinion polls in the hope that that will appeal to new Labour who I think set great store by them. An opinion poll conducted in the past six months has shown that 75 per cent. of the public believe that schools should teach children that marriage is a good thing while 73 per cent. believe that moral teaching in schools should focus on marriage and the traditional family. It is interesting to note that no less a person than President Clinton has said, as quoted in the New York Times in January, It is wrong to be pregnant or father a child unless you are married and ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood". Nothing could be clearer. That is why in my opinion it is so unfortunate that the SCAA report which examined values in schools is so disappointing. Some 150 people were consulted and only five did not think that marriage should have been included in the values and that it deserved to be supported in the statements that were set out.

I am glad that some of the children who have taken part in the courses we are discussing have found them valuable. Tomorrow's Parents argues that as families come, in all shapes and sizes there is no 'ideal' parent or an ideal model for a family structure in a society with different cultural, social, religious and ethnic traditions. The values and beliefs about parenting and families which underpinned the project included the pluralism of family structures in our multicultural society without generalising about parenting in different cultures". These are the central values of the project. Yet the facts show that these values are based on an entirely false premise. Only 6 per cent. of the population is part of a minority ethnic culture according to Social Trends.However, many of the minority cultures, particularly the Asian population, are strongly committed to the married family. Only 3.1 per cent. of the population adhere to a non-Christian faith and of these many tend to believe strongly in the married family. Although 40 per cent. of marriages end in divorce, where children are concerned married families are still overwhelmingly the norm.

Even if British society was as pluralistic as the Gulbenkian report makes out, it is an astonishing claim to imply that all family structures are just as good as one another. It will be unfortunate if the age for consenting homosexuals is lowered to 16. Just because there are lone parents who do a tremendously good job does not negate the fact that in general children in married families do better than children in broken homes or single parent families. Any teaching about parenting must be teaching about parenting within marriage for the sake of children and the whole of society.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Jakobovits

My Lords, I learnt only on arriving here this afternoon that we were allocated on average no more than six minutes in which to speak. I had prepared myself to speak for rather longer because I attribute such importance to this subject. However, I now learn that the speaker who was to speak before me, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon, has not been able to be with us this afternoon. I deeply regret that as I was looking forward to his speech. Therefore I now have an extra six minutes in which to speak⁁with your Lordships' leave. However, I cannot promise to say what the right reverend Prelate might have said.

This is not the first time that we owe a significant debt to my noble friend Lord Northbourne for raising our collective concern with the stability of the family. Seven months ago he drew attention to the importance of the family in general. This time the Motion is more specific and mentions the role of schools in preparing citizens for the responsibilities and challenges of adult life, including parenthood. Schoolchildren will not be the only beneficiaries of this discussion. If we are successful and our deliberations help to introduce some pre-marital training in our schools, any number of marriages might eventually be saved from collapse for lack of proper preparation.

More than that, your Lordships' House may itself be a primary beneficiary. I need not remind the House that we are under scrutiny and under increasing pressure either to justify ourselves or to disband. If through proper training in schools we could save even a fraction of the marriages that are currently coming to grief, we would have contributed more to stable marriages and to a decent society than through much of the other legislation that we debate. As of now, we do not even have properly trained personnel to teach such subjects. We have not brought any into existence.

Let no one argue that we do not have the resources to produce them. Much lesser causes benefit from substantial public and private funding. What could be more wonderful to herald our entry into the new millennium than helping to eliminate the ravages of broken homes, broken hearts and broken promises?

Also, let no one argue that enduring marriages are no longer fashionable. What a beautiful demonstration to the contrary we witnessed only yesterday when the Queen invited to a royal garden party some 4,000 guests who celebrated with her their golden wedding this year. They were only a fraction of those who had applied to be invited. Such stability of marriage should be highlighted in the media, and taught our children at school.

Let me give your Lordships a few illustrations drawn from the Jewish experience to demonstrate the type of teaching to which our children should be exposed, notably at school. An ancient Jewish source has it that when a young marriage breaks up "even the altar sheds tears". Why the altar, my Lords? The altar is the vessel reserved for sacrifices. If a young marriage fails, we feel that the primary reason is that the couple were not prepared to make sacrifices for each other; and therefore the altar weeps. The altar has failed to teach its message.

I give a further illustration. No doubt the bulk of marriage breakdowns is due to selfishness, and to an unwillingness by each partner to give up something for the sake of the other. We all know the biblical proverb which says, "stolen waters are sweet", or illicit pleasures are more exciting than legitimate joys. Once young people have tasted the temptation of illegitimate experiences before marriage, marriage becomes an anticlimax and starts on a note of disillusionment. It would be sensible to convey that, too, to our children.

Through wise instruction our schools must counterbalance the hedonistic doctrine that all that matters is to have a good time. Our youth must learn that what you get for nothing is worth nothing and that what you do not put into life you will never get out of it.

In conclusion, I do not wish to become involved here in current debates on basic moral issues concerning marriage. But suffice it to say in general that it would be churlish to leave the teaching at schools in general to those who themselves do not accept a moral discipline or do not have the moral courage to stand by their convictions. Nothing can be as morally debilitating, especially for children, than an ambivalence and moral neutrality, where conflicting doctrines can all be equally valid, when generating human life inside or outside marriage.

I hope that our debate will help to stir our determination that no child will leave school without some key to unlock the mystery of how to maintain the stability, happiness and creativeness of marriages they enter full of hope—hope that we share with them for a better society in the millennium to come.

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