Education: One day, son, this role could be yours: Helen Hague reports on the use of theatre, workshops and discussion in schools to prepare pupils for the responsibilities of parenthood

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Hugh Whittingham, a God-fearing Puritan, gives his son a brutal caning to 'beat out the Devil'. Two centuries later, his descendant Samuel, a respected Victorian patriarch, throws a maidservant out on the streets when he makes her pregnant.

The two men are being given a hard time by today's teenagers. Dean, 15, challenges Hugh's view that vicious beating is appropriate childcare practice. Jane, 16, tells Samuel what she thinks of his Victorian values: 'You're just a hypocrite. How can you sleep?'

This is Theatre in Education, and such sparky confrontations between pupils and actors are happening this month as Snap Theatre Company takes Grounded: A Rough Guide To Parenting, a play by Kathleen McCreery, on tour in Essex and Hertfordshire. Theatre is one of the tools schools are using to encourage pupils to think about what becoming a parent entails.

Parenting is in the news. The Year of the Family started against a backdrop of stories about the Government's 'back to basics' campaign, single-parent families and children left home alone. Today, a report by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) is expected to make the news by proposing that parents could risk losing child benefit if they fail to attend parenting classes.

The plan has split the RSA steering group. Gillian Pugh, a group member and director of the Early Years Unit at the National Children's Bureau, thinks it is deeply flawed. 'Parents certainly need greater levels of support, but compulsory intervention into families' lives, and the assumption that training could perfect parenting skills, are both insulting to parents and likely to achieve opposite outcomes from those


'There is no perfect way to bring up children. But offering parent 'training' as a ready-made solution to inadequate parents may well exacerbate existing feelings of anxiety, guilt or depression, and can do nothing to pay the gas bill.'

Mrs Pugh, co-author of The Needs of Children, often described as the bible of parent education, believes building confidence and self-esteem is the best way of equipping young people for future parenthood. She advocates promoting 'the kind of skills that turn people into caring, coping adults. Teenagers have all got parents, even if the prospect of becoming one seems a little remote. The important thing is to focus what happens in schools on youngsters' relationships, feelings and excitements about their lives today.' This, she argues, is of far more relevance to school students than teaching the mechanics of nappy changing and baby bathing.

Parenting is not on the national curriculum. While there is a consensus among education and social policy-makers that pupils should be given some broad preparation for a role most will eventually take on, there is no compulsion for schools to include discussion of parenting in lessons. Schools can make space for it through cross-curricular themes of health education and citizenship, and personal and social education (PSE).

Education for Parenthood, a schools pack launched by the Children's Society earlier this month, aims to encourage 15- to 18- year-olds to think about the responsibilities of parenthood. Leaflets promoting the package have been sent to every secondary school. The pack provides a parenthood curriculum that has been fitted into the national curriculum, using a wide variety of activities and teaching methods - from structured discussion to brainstorming and role play. It is divided into five sections: exploring what it means to be a parent; the qualities parents need; parent/child relationships; rights and responsibilities and health and development.

It is not, says Philip Hope, the pack's author, 'about trying to promote one ideal way of being a parent. The aim is to help young people to make informed decisions about their futures, giving them a better preparation for the responsibilities and realities of bringing up children. There is room for enormous diversity.' He believes peer education, when young people challenge each other's attitudes, can be a very powerful tool. When the pack was piloted, a section on 'A Father's Place Is In The Home' generated lively discussion on gender differences.

At Hinchingbrooke School in Huntingdon, pupils leave the classroom well aware of the issues surrounding parenthood. All 15-year-olds, boys and girls, receive a short course in parenting in PSE classes. Peter Downes, the school's head, said: 'It is absolutely essential for boys to realise that their contribution to children is not merely to procreate, but to look after, play with, talk to them and provide good role models.'

Hinchingbrooke is involved in an innovative project in the town which aims to bring together GPs, social services and schools to develop a policy on one- to five- year-olds. It is called Minus 125, to get across the message, says Mr Downes, 'that a child's life starts before conception in terms of parental readiness'. As part of the project, a group of sixth-formers from the school help out once a week at a parent and toddler group. No boys have opted to help out but Mr Downes hopes that some will.

Towards the end of their Theatre in Education residency day, teenagers attending Grounded catch up with the Whittingham family in 1994. This nuclear family - mum, dad and two teenagers - breaks up after dad loses his job and finds it hard to accept that his wife is now the main family breadwinner. Sibling rivalry, teenage sexuality, parental expectations and the problems family members have talking to each other are all deftly, often humorously, woven in. In the workshops and discussion that follow, it is clear the snapshot of contemporary life has struck many chords with its audience.

Andy Graham, director of Grounded, says its message is optimistic. 'It's about taking responsibility for the choices we make as parents and potential parents. We can change the models of our ancestors and there's hope in that. We don't have to be trapped by the past.'

That sounds a much better way of preparing tomorrow's mothers and fathers for parenthood than teaching them how to change nappies.

(Photograph omitted)