Ofsted’s last report on PSHE observed that parenting is frequently ignored in secondary schools. Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe outlines ways forward for 11-19 year olds.

SRE versus parenting education

Sex and relationship education focuses almost exclusively on the mechanics and emotions of sexual relations along with the pitfalls of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies. These topics are important and fascinating to pupils; however, they have lead to the neglect of a physical outcome of sexual relations, that of becoming a parent.

At the present time when small families are popular, few pupils have experience of looking after younger relations and may not meet babies and infants in the normal course of their daily lives. Yet data gathered from interviewing pupils about to undertake the transition from primary to secondary school showed them to be interested in babies and their care. Boys focused on fetal development and information about height, number of feeds and the hours babies sleep. Girls were found to be inherently curious about life with a baby and child development. But once pupils arrive at secondary school these aspects are seldom followed through. Long past are the days when childcare was available as a course for secondary pupils.

Parenting in the curriculum

So, are we helping potential parents-to-be?  In particular, looking after children, whether as parent or professional carer, means knowing about keeping a child healthy and safe and providing a secure environment that will help them to achieve their best. Successful parenting also lays the foundations necessary for enabling a child to achieve, make a positive contribution to society and, eventually, attain economic wellbeing. With the advent of Every Child Matters, we educators should be aware of the five ECM outcomes, not only as they relate to 11-19 year olds at present but also for the children they may parent. Now, in the later years of compulsory education, is the time to discuss these issues in relation to their role of looking after children.

Through their PSHE and other curriculum studies, teenagers can be assisted in their development of values and moral reasoning with regard to parenting. Knowing about, caring about, and acting upon core ethical values, particularly that of responsibility, can seem overwhelming. Pupils need to reflect on dilemmas and their resolution, and learn about choices and their effects on themselves and others, both in the long- and short-term. Parenting is a very serious responsibility for humans because the young are so dependent on their parents for many years. Discussing the roles and responsibilities of looking after a new life can shock many teenagers. It can make them think more seriously about their sexual activities and the possible outcomes on their own life, and that of a child, should they become parents.

Of course it is not only human beings who are parents! Parenting should be put into perspective as a role in which most living things are engaged in some way or another. Links with the science department can develop this emphasis. One of the foundation aspects of parenting is that young people should explore the role of parenting across the living world. In all organisms that have some form of sexual reproduction, at least one parent cares for the offspring before they are self-sufficient. This includes:

  • female plants laying down food reserves to tide the embryo over until it develops its own photosynthetic parts and can manufacture the ‘food’ for growth
  • animals which lay down nutrients in an egg which also encloses the baby
  • mammals which nourish their developing young in the uterus and then feed them milk after birth and look after them whilst they develop independence.

Setting human parenting in a holistic framework puts the role in perspective. It also prompts us to discuss with pupils both the facts and the practicalities of being a parent.

Questions pupils ask

Young people are amazed at the needs of babies. Given the opportunity, they appreciate being able to ask parents questions about their children about parenthood.

  • What TV programmes does the baby like?
  • What can the child do for themself?
  • Does the baby like hamburgers?
  • How much sleep does a parent get?

Making parenting personal

Helping teenagers to appreciate the realities of parenting is a challenge facing teachers and health workers, and society at large. We need to help teenagers to identify basic facts as they could be applicable to them individually. Key concepts which teenagers need to understand include:

  • time –  it takes up much time to look after a child
  • responsibility – looking after another life is a huge commitment
  • cost – a baby incurs many costs and the realities of financial support and housing need to be planned carefully.  

Losing time for yourself is one important aspect, which perhaps young people do not realise. I attended health education lessons with Year 10s at which the instructor had a doll, which cried and was meant to simulate a baby and its behaviour. The groups passed the ‘baby’ around and were staggered at its weight (life-like) and how it responded to them. The ensuing discussion made this group begin to realise that having a baby was a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job and that they would have to give up their own time for this!

While some teenagers have younger siblings and may appreciate the work involved in parenting, others sometimes meet toddlers through baby sitting. Learning how to look after younger children can be supported by providers such as the British Red Cross whose baby sitter’s course can be run in schools by a visiting instructor. Among other things, the course deals with childcare and child development and how to deal with emergencies. It also covers aspects of the law in relation to looking after other people’s children.

There is no minimum age for babysitting. Indeed, there is no legal minimum age that a child can be left alone at home, although endangering a child by leaving them unattended is an offence. The NSPCC guidelines (www.nspcc.org.uk/html/advice/childrenathomealone.htm) recommend most children under 13 should not be left unsupervised for long.

What can schools do?

Surely we owe it to our society and the children who may follow to develop ‘before and after’ parenting programmes to discuss and explore the facts and feelings of being a parent. Schools can facilitate such encounters through contacts in the local community:

  • Ring your local National Childbirth Trust branch which may have parents who are prepared to come to school and discuss with pupils the realities of having babies and caring for them.
  • Liaise with the school nurse to find out what advice and help facilities can be offered.
  • Arrange visits to nurseries, crèches and play groups for pupils to observe younger children at first hand.

Ask the pupils what they want to find out and compile a question-and-answer sheet before trips so that they can make notes. Support pupils in working out the timetable for a day, and then a week, in the life of a newborn baby, a six month old and a toddler. Encourage teenagers to work out the role of the parent in the daily routine of the child. Then add up the hours of care provided. Once their timetables are completed, find a means of checking them by asking parents or health visitors, researching on the web or reading books and diaries. Arrange for pupils to watch relevant television programmes. If you have a drop-in clinic at school invite the doctors and nurses to come to answer questions about the care of babies and toddlers.

Teens and Toddlers programme

Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe, so why not initiate a Teens and Toddlers programme to help reduce the figure?

There are currently 23 UK projects operating in four local authorities in London, which work with 600 at-risk teenagers (www.teensandtoddlers.org). Of the 200 teenagers who have passed through this 20-week course there have been no pregnancies. Selected teenagers, those who have been identified by their schools as at-risk, make a weekly supervised visit to a nursery for a session with a toddler.

 There are two main tenets of the project. The first is establishing regular one-to-one contact between the teenager and the toddler. The second is personal development sessions where the teenagers learn about child development, parenting skills, anger management and sexual relations. Comments from participating teenagers reveal how they had an idealised vision of parenting and saw it as a means of escape from their often unhappy and stressful everyday lives. Parenting had also been regarded as a means of obtaining ‘lots of money from the government and a council house’. While the Teens and Toddlers initiative is an intensive managed programme which many schools may be unable to pursue, some of the other activities suggested above can be adapted as a means of making teenagers aware of the realities of parenting.

Disabled teenagers and parents

Teenagers with special needs and disabilities also become parents and require core information but often some additional information. Some of them may not be able to receive information in the same away as able-bodied pupils. This point was brought home to me when a profoundly deaf mother pointed out, in antenatal classes, that she could not lie back, close her eyes and relax because if she could not see she could not lip-read and hence could not follow instructions. 

A gap in service provision was formally identified by About Disability Pregnancy and Parenthood International (DPPI). This small UK-based registered charity (www.dppi.org.uk) promotes better awareness and support for disabled people considering parenthood and offers advice and help during and after pregnancy.

DPPI argued that information on all aspects of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood was not accessible to parents and parents-to-be who have sensory impairments: those who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are blind or partially sighted. To improve communication between health profession workers and parents or prospective parents, DPPI set up steering groups to guide and instruct the production of information and resources. These include a Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth for Deaf Parents, which is in DVD format and presented in British Sign Language with sub-titles and voice-over. It is accompanied by supplementary information sheets. A Having a Baby Resource Pack for blind and partially-sighted parents and prospective parents is also available in Braille, Daisy CD, audio CD, standard and large print. These superb materials can be used in schools too.

Ways forward in parenting

At last the importance of parenting is being recognised. The government’s recently published Respect Action Plan outlines new measures for tackling antisocial behaviour.

One of the main aspects of this action plan is to consider the importance of parenting, not only for individuals but also for society. A National Parenting Agency will be set up which will help to train staff who work with parents. It is also suggested that parenting issues are raised in the reports written about young offenders for the youth magistrates to consider when they are deliberating on the most appropriate sentence for the young person in question. It is further suggested that there be a financial incentive for young parents to go to parenting classes and sanctions applied for non-attendance.

A number of agencies such as Home Start provide early interactions with parents as part of their priorities. But how much more logical and possibly effective, to help potential parents discuss issues such as pregnancy, birth, labour (and that it’s best not to lie on your back in labour if you can!), child development and childcare before they actually become parents. PSHE should encompass the facts of parenthood as young people need to be able to talk about these realities. Perhaps even more importantly, the feelings associated with becoming a parent and those feelings engendered by the child should be explored.

Further information

Home Start www.home-start.org.uk

Looking after other people’s children: a guide to babysitting www.redcross.org.uk/laopc

National Childbirth Trust www.nctpregnancyandbabycare.com

National Children Bureau www.ncb.org.uk

NSPCC www.nspcc.org

Teenandtoddlers.org www.children-ourinvestment.org/TTpage.htm

Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe is a researcher at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is a biology educator who has served on the education committee of the National Childbirth Trust. She has been an active member of the British Red Cross, teaching childcare.

First published in Learning for Life, September 2007