Can parenting be taught?

David Cameron believes new classes in child-rearing are the way to improve family life. Lena Corner, mother of two boys and with another on the way, joins a session to find out what she can learn

It's first thing on a Monday at Edith Neville primary school, just behind London's King's Cross station and Jodie (not her real name) is sharing the details of her weekend. On Saturday evening, she says, her eight-year old daughter went to play with her friend who lives in her block. "But she lied about where she was going. It wasn't until 10 o'clock, after dark, that I finally found her and dragged her home," says Jodie.

"So on Sunday I banned her from going out. She wrecked the house, smashed a jar of pickle on the floor and tried to climb out of the window. But I stuck to my guns and wouldn't let her go."

A murmur of empathy and congratulation ripples round the circle of gathered mums and it's universally decided that Jodie deserves 10 out of 10 for her efforts. Another mother then tells of how her five-year old son, who has been strictly instructed not to kick a ball in the house on account of the wide-screen TV, smashed a picture frame while playing football in the hall. She deducted £2 of his £5 a week pocket money to buy a new one. Again, her firm-handedness is met with nods of approval.

This isn't just a gaggle of school-gate mums catching up after the weekend, it's week four of a five-week parenting course, currently being piloted in London, Middlesbrough and Derbyshire, of the sort that, if the Government its his way, will eventually roll out nationwide. The 13 mothers gathered today (and it is only mothers) are here for a two-hour session entitled Friends and Family about how to build up a support network.

Today's class is run by Parent Gym, the philanthropic organisation set up by Octavius Black, multi-millionaire old Etonian, who made his fortune out of corporate the coaching company Mind Gym. It already operates in 22schools in the most deprived areas of London and this government-backed scheme is currently being trialled at eight schools in the capital.

All the Parent Gym coaches are volunteers, the only criteria is that they should be parents themselves. Today's teacher is Ann Rebak, a former secretary and mother of three, who leads us through the session closely following the guidelines in the Parent Gym magazine that we are all handed. There's a section on how to stop arguments at home spiralling (tell them how you feel, listen to their feelings, too). There's a bit on the value of family meetings and there's a chunk on celebrities and how their upbringings have impacted their own parenting skills (Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Sophie Ellis-Bextor – all good role models. Britney Spears – bad).

We start by discussing the results of last week's "mission", or homework. Each mother signed up to do one thing to address a tricky issue at home, and such is the spirit affirmation in the room that every single one of them is rewarded with a gold star. The mothers form an orderly queue to stick their stickers on a parent reward chart. It's a bit like WeightWatchers without the scales.

Of course there is a lot of sense in training people how to be good parents. Many new mothers and fathers diligently sign up for antenatal or NCT courses before they give birth but the minute the baby is born are just left floundering. As the mother of two young boys – one who refuses to let a single piece of fruit pass his lips (one toffee apple aside) and the other who habitually pinches strangers in the street – I certainly could have done with the help. With a third boy on the way I'm determined to get it right this time, but I'm not sure whether queuing for a gold star or looking admiringly at David Beckham's parenting skills is quite the answer I seek. When the launch of the scheme was announced last month, its detractors were quick to point out that the Government was doing nothing more than cultivating a nanny state. Also, they said, in the light of the Government slashing the budget for children's services by 22 per cent, and hundreds of Sure Start centres under threat of closure, the scheme is little more than a PR gimmick.

Amanda Phillips, head teacher of Old Ford primary and Culloden primary, both in London's Tower Hamlets, disagrees. She has nothing but praise for the scheme. "My schools are in particularly challenging environments in terms of deprivation," she says. "And we have found the classes to be particularly effective. Parenting is a highly emotive subject and there is a stigma about asking for help because we all start out with the wish to be a high-quality parent and when things aren't going as easily or as well as expected it's difficult to ask for help. There tend to be very polarised views – you're either a good parent or a bad parent, rather than a combination depending on circumstances. We have found parents really value the opportunity to work on issues that they find difficult and it allows them to build relationships with a group of similar-minded people facing similar problems."

And this is quite possibly the crux of the issue. Judging by the overwhelming positivity of the women at Edith Neville today, it does make you wonder whether this is more of a bonding session for parents than a serious attempt to pass on proven child-rearing techniques.

"We don't use people with PhDs in child development, it's much more caring and empathetic than that," Nicola Marven, a Parent Gym executive, tells me. And while this is clearly very valuable, it's certainly not going to give me the answers I came looking for.

I end up chatting to Cathy Lettan, a mother of three with a disabled husband,who has been active in her local community for years. She was heavily involved with the Sure Start scheme, which preceded Parent Gym in her area. She is the kind of person the Government should be listening to.

"Because Sure Start was parent-led it was much more informal," she says. "Parents trusted us, they knew everything was confidential and they felt supported by that.

"We used to organise trips and events and we'd get the really hard-to-reach parents in the community involved as well. It was really, really good and it was really working, but then the council took over and the funds were cut."

Lettan believes that parents don't respond to council-run projects because there are often fears that social services are involved somewhere behind the scenes, which puts off the ones that need it most. Still, once the five-week Parent Gym course is over Lettan, plans to try and continue the sessions with the help of three other volunteer parents. "I am excited to hear about Parent Gym simply because I was so disappointed when Sure Start came to an end," she says. "I'm looking forward to getting something up and running again. But I do think parents supporting parents is the only way forward. Government telling parents what to do just doesn't work."

parentgym.com

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