WITH meticulous care, Jimmy has made a mobile for his five- month-old daughter. He has also learned how to make up a bottle and give a feed; what to do if she burns herself; how, as she gets older and 'comes up against him' to discipline her with words rather than wallops. He now knows how babies are conceived and how contraception prevents that - something he was a bit hazy about before.

Jimmy is 18. He may be a father, but he says: 'My girlfriend fell pregnant and I didn't know owt about looking after a baby. I knew I wanted to do right by her but I'd not had anything much to do with kids before.' In two months he will be released from Lancaster Farms young offenders institute, where he is serving a sentence for burglary and assault. By that time, Jimmy will know about the physical and mental development of children, and he will know something of what a mother goes through in pregnancy and after. He will have a working knowledge of how to change nappies, bath a baby, how to hold and place a baby in a cot to sleep, what to do with a choking child. He can recite the rudimentaries of nutrition and the basics of first aid.

He is a pale, shy boy who finds it difficult to articulate what he wants to say, but on the subject of his baby daughter and future plans he becomes positively expansive. 'She's wonderful, she's a reason for getting my life straight and doing things properly. I want to get a job and look after her and her mum - and when I get home in the evenings, I want to do all the things I can for my daughter. I tell my girlfriend what we are learning here and she's really buzzing, because she thought I would just lie around in the pub all day and leave her to do everything with the baby.'

Jimmy is one of a group of about 10 young offenders at Lancaster Farms who have volunteered for the Education for Parenting course - nine, full- day sessions which take place once a week. Lancaster Farms has been opened just 15 months. The course was begun, says deputy governor David Thomas, after they realised that as many as three-quarters of the inmates - some on remand, some serving sentences for crimes ranging from theft to manslaughter, sex offences to murder - were teenage fathers. 'Our starting point was the importance of close family relationships,' he says. 'It is very clear that many of the lads who come here have not had good experiences of parenting. Many have suffered emotional deprivation, neglect, physical abuse. Often fathers have been around very little or not at all. With such poor role models, where would they get information about how to parent?'

In the classroom Pauline Bailey, a kind, sparky woman who is good at pulling the lads' legs, is holding a brainstorming session about their family lives. Craig, a sweet-faced Glaswegian who spent much of his childhood in care, talks of having cried when he 'realised how much it hurt that there had been nobody who really cared for me when I was growing up. I had to pretend I didn't care. Now I feel angry about that, angry that my parents couldn't have given me love.' Darren, who, with his long floppy hair and light fuzz on the upper lip looks considerably younger than his 18 years, is due to become a father at any time. He says: 'I want to be a good Dad. Although mine used to wallop me, I don't want to do that. I think the most important thing is to show my child love.' Jimmy agrees: 'Even when they are naughty and drive you mad, it's better to pick them up and hold them and try to stop them that way than to hit them.'

According to Debbie Twist, co-ordinator of the parenting course, many of the young men arrive full of bravado, saying their childhood is over and they have forgotten the often violent and saddening experiences they had. But she sees 'boys full of pain and anger which is just beneath the surface'. She says: 'We think it's important they get that out, and do a bit of going back to being children themselves, before they can be caring fathers.' So there is role play, drama and art. 'We also look at the dreams many of these lads have of achieving the perfect soap opera family. Most do not have the skills to attain that. But we try to increase their confidence in themselves so that they can accept something less than the dream, and feel positive about what they can achieve. We watch the boys become softer, much more able to admit fears and anxieties and talk with each other about what they feel, if they are here for a reasonable length of time.'

Deputy Governor David Thomas is a quiet man, who combines a conspicuous degree of caring for the psychological welfare of his charges with a practical belief that 'they ought not to simply waste time in here'. He explains that the parenting course is part of a whole package of things they are doing to try to make the inmates' time there constructive. He knows how difficult it may be for many of them to cement strong parental bonds. 'Too often, I'm afraid, having a child is just some sort of temporary wild experience rather than recognition of going into a family unit with a commitment. A significant number of lads will talk about the girlfriend and the child and so on. There's some sort of link there, but it's quite easily severed.'

Mr Thomas stresses the importance of trying to empower these young fathers so that they can feel more committed to their children, and have a sense of self-esteem in their abilities as fathers. He sees a clear correlation between children growing up in an emotionally deprived family background and the path to criminality. 'We hope teaching the inmates a range of skills including parenting might change the pattern,' he says.

If he is right, the importance of parenting education cannot be underestimated. There are around 7,000 young offenders in custody in Britain, of which perhaps two-thirds are or will become young fathers. Some 20 young offender institutes around Britain already have parenthood courses, although they differ in approach and the time spent on the subject. Diana Caddle at the Home Office Research and Planning Unit has evaluated the courses. 'Two-thirds of the fathers said they would not bring up their own children as their parents had raised them,' she says. 'Since parents are often used as role models, this may be a further indication of the importance of training for this group.' She also points to research demonstrating that parent training should provide the greatest benefit to those families 'in which one or both parents have a criminal record and are most at risk of having delinquent children'.

Research at Nottingham University has identified two pointers to whether a child is going to get a criminal record by the age of 21 , and also whether they are likely to achieve any or many GCSE passes (education being a 'protection' against the route to crime). One is the amount of time the father is reported to spend with a child between the ages of seven and 11 , and the other is the amount of physical punishment (which has been found to be damaging) is used.

It is well known that teenagers, thrust into the role of parents at a time when they are still learning to be adults themselves, all too often fail to stay together as a family. It is frequently the fathers who separate, or are separated, from their children and very often lose all or virtually all contact. Significant though the practical part of the parenting work at Lancaster Farms is, tutor Pauline Bailey knows it is vital the young fathers understand how important their love and example as a role model is in their babies' lives. 'Lads who can be involved in their childrens' upbringing in a constructive way are not only a far greater help and support to their partners, they are also more likely to feel good about being fathers, and to be more involved in a way which creates a bond.'

Optimistic talk, perhaps. Nevertheless, the young offenders on the current parenting course say that they do plan to live with the mothers of their children when they leave Lancaster Farms - and talk with beguiling enthusiasm about how it will be. (The reality, however, is that it is not always what the mothers want, and some have to be helped to get access to their children.) Jimmy is planning a wedding for a couple of weeks after his release. 'When my girl brings the baby here for visits, I cuddle her and feel very pleased by her,' he says. 'But I won't really be her daddy until I'm living at home and making sure things are all right for her future.'