Children who can't cook ... can't sew ... can't save

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Critics say that the devaluation of home economics and a lack of parental guidance has produced youngsters ignorant of basic life skills - such as knowing to boil potatoes before mashing them

A NEW generation of children is growing up as "life incompetents", unable to sew, care for their clothes, or even realise that potatoes are boiled before being mashed.

Research published yesterday, after a three-year study by Stirling University, revealed youngsters today fail miserably in "Mrs Beeton’s skills" - the basics of cookery, cleaning, repairing and money management, which their grandparents took for granted.

A combination of a cosseted lifestyle and being raised by parents who are barely more competent than the children is to blame.

It has left a generation unable to care for itself.

The solution, according to the academic who led the research, lies in a "back-to-the-future" restoration of home economics to the school curriculum.

The team, led by Suzanne Horne, a senior lecturer in the department of marketing, investigated the lifestyle of nearly 1,200 Scottish schoolchildren. They were "stunned" by what they found.

She said: "Some did not know that you mash potatoes only after boiling them - and they were ‘educated’.

"Some children could not interpret wash care instructions on clothes labels and one girl took everything to a dry cleaner."

Others discarded perfectly good clothing because they did not have the skills or the inclination to effect small repairs, such as replacing a button.

It is a situation known only too well by young people such as Margaret Dyer, 20, who comes from a middle class home in Clarkston, near Glasgow.

"I was a ‘life incompetent’," said the student.

She added: "To a degree I still am, but I’m not nearly so bad as I once was. I was a whisker away from phoning helpline numbers on shampoo bottles.

"And I swear the first time I saw a George Foreman Grill I thought it was an industrial ironing machine.

"However, I did know you boil potatoes before you mash them. I just would have problems with the boiling bit.

"My main problem is that I was too well looked after at home and ‘Home Ec’ in school was a less than sexy subject.

"In retrospect, I wish I had paid more attention. It would have made the transition to living on my own easier."

Most children who took part in the study agreed.

The majority said they wanted to learn the skills previous generations took for granted.

More than 60 per cent said they needed to know more about money management and more than half wanted to learn about cooking, consumer rights and parenting.

Ms Horne said that home economic subjects had played a vital role throughout generations and unless children are taught them, they will be unable to cope.

However, there are problems. One is a shortage of teachers. There are presently 50 vacant posts, which are increasingly perceived as "Cinderella" appointments. The other dilemma is that the subject has been massively devalued.

In recent months, home economics was shortlisted to be axed from Scottish school exams in a review planned by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Ms Horne believes education chiefs have turned their backs on vital life skills because they made an erroneous assumption that they are taught in the home.

Restoring home economics would also make more sense than uselessly spending 3 million on "healthy living" campaigns that fall flat, according to Ms Horne.

She said formal lessons in school should continue until the upper leaving age of 18.

She said: "Home economics could be a superbly academic subject, but it is not given the curriculum space.

"It would have been much better to have put [the 3 million] into teaching young people better skills."

Celebrity chefs such as Nick Nairn have also campaigned for the retention and expansion of home economics classes.

But a Scottish Executive spokeswoman said it was up to local authorities to decide on "priority".

She said: "Subjects which have low uptake in exams will be reviewed, but that does not mean that they will be axed."

And she defended Executive health campaigns.

"Our approach to tackling poor health has been highlighted by the World Health Organisation as an excellent example," she said.

The problem of social ineptitude is not confined to Scotland. Indeed, it is a national and international problem.

A proliferation of UK web sites offer advice on food and health that would be regarded by anyone middle-aged as ridiculously obvious.

In the United States, the National Urban Technical Centre is providing "lifeskill" curriculums on the most basic skills.

And one US "guru" - Dr Janet Woititz - has become famous for her book Life Skills for Adult Children.