Focus: Parents who divorce are selfish, says a leading headmaster. Try telling that to Annie (and Kate and Liz and Laura ...)

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The Independent Online

When Kate and Jonathan Rogers decided to split up earlier this year, it was after a great deal of soul-searching. "We really didn't want things to end that way," says Kate. "We'd been through two courses of marriage guidance and tried to make it work several times. We both knew that Scarlett, our six-year-old, would be hit heavily by a decision to separate, so for her sake we went on longer than we would otherwise have done."

Kate is incensed by the comments of Graham Able, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of public schools, who told his organisation's annual gathering last week that too many parents were rushing into divorce without considering their children's needs.

Mr Able said schools had neither the hours nor the resources to give the rising number of pupils from broken homes the pastoral care they needed. The need for pastoral care in schools had never been more crucial, he said, and unless society could reverse its selfish and self-indulgent attitudes, the trend would continue. "Unfortunately there is more interest in and concern for individual rights than there is in our duties to one another, to society at large, and especially to our children," he said.

Mr Able says he has had "more positive than negative feedback" to his remarks, but Kate was appalled. "I'm sure he wasn't saying every last divorced couple were selfish people, but that's not how it comes across in the press," she says. "When you're a single parent you already feel you're battling against other people's prejudice, and something like this just inflames it."

Annie Oliver, 34, who is raising her 12-year-old son Alex alone, says she too was "angry and upset" when she read Mr Able's remarks. "There's still this stigma attached to single-parent families. I think people seldom divorce without giving it a lot of thought. Sometimes, of course, children do struggle with issues around their parents' marriage break-up, but sometimes their situation in a one-parent family is more stable and secure than it would have been if their parents had stayed together - that's certainly how I'd see my son's life. Mr Able mentioned teenage boys in particular as having problems if their fathers were absent or non-existent, but I'd challenge that view. Alex has a step-grandfather as well as uncles and he plays athletics and games and is around plenty of guys. I don't think he misses out at all."

Ms Oliver was eight when her own parents split up. "That was also a case of thank goodness they did," she says. "My parents didn't like each other and life would have been intolerable for my brother and me if they'd stayed together. They are much happier apart, and consequently so were we. You have to ask whether, in a situation where a couple don't love one another, that's a good atmosphere in which to bring up children. I think splitting up is a brave decision."

Liz Jensen, who has sons aged 14 and nine, got divorced two years ago. She and her ex-husband have, she says, an extremely amicable relationship. "Does Mr Able really think many couples get divorced lightly? He's assuming we use our children as accessories, and that's insulting. One thing you never hear about is children whose parents have a good divorce, as I'd say mine is. So many parents are struggling to make it really work - trying to make their children's lives stable and happy. When my ex-husband and I went for mediation we were very aware of the importance of never bad-mouthing each other in front of the children or to anyone else. We've always tried not to do that, and we've always worked hard to keep our relationship calm and on an even keel."

Laura Simpson, 33, whose parents divorced when she was a teenager, says it is wrong to underestimate the impact on youngsters of parents whose marriage is on the rocks - even before they split. "Most kids will have realised somewhere along the line - they're not stupid," she says. "They are also far more resilient than many adults give them credit for. Having been on the receiving end of it, I truly believe that it's not the act of separation and divorce that's damaging to a child; it's the way it is handled. Done sensitively, with the child's needs as the guiding factor, it can be the right decision."

Kate Green, director of One Parents Families, says Mr Able's comments were hurtful, and would serve only to make divorced people feel upset and unhappy. "I think he's distorting the picture to suggest that parents just dump the problems on schools," she says. "Some schools may not be sufficiently geared up but I don't think parents are trying to abdicate their responsibility for dealing with the fallout of marriage break-up. Our organisation provides help for schools to support pupils, and certainly some are better than others. There's no doubt that teachers are seen as people that children can go to for help, and I think professionals working with children have to be sensitive to this part of their work. I don't know what's happening in Mr Able's school, but it's not something I hear teachers saying across the board."

Ms Green says single parents in Britain feel "in despair" and are being "blasted from all sides". "People just don't seem to understand their circumstances. I think this is one more in a long line of unkind and unhelpful comments."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says he considered Mr Able's comments "highly inappropriate". "I thought we'd got beyond making blanket criticisms of this nature," he says. "In a significant number of cases staying together would be more traumatic for children, and in any case matrimonial disputes are not the only kind of problem that impacts on children's educational performance. What about poverty, deprivation, neglect and so on? These comments give the impression that parents who have split up are in some way not good parents, and that parents who stay together are in some way good. But the fact is that there are good parents and not so good parents, and some are married and some are divorced."

In at least one area, though, Mr Able's views and those of many campaigners for single parents do converge. "I think it would be good for society generally if we had someone who would talk to both sides about what's involved for the children," says Mr Hart. "At the moment lawyers represent the interests of half the partnership, but there could be someone who was neutral who would mediate on behalf of the children in a dispute."

Annie Oliver, whose own experience of being a lone parent led her to work with the Bristol-based Single Parent Action Network, says she too believes the wider needs of society would be met through a more caring approach to the court system. "What happens now is that many people go down the official divorce route, and however much they want to be civilised to one another the system ranges them against one another and you end up pitted one against the other, with the fur flying. No one is served by that - least of all the children."

Some names have been changed

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