Family Learning – boosting the skills of adults and children

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This month, Susannah Chambers, Education Strategist at PrimarySite, explores how Family Learning can aid learning in both the young and old.

Family Learning can be defined as “… any learning activity that involves both children and adult family members, where learning outcomes are intended for both, and that contributes to a culture of learning in the family” (Family Learning Works, 2013)

In England and Wales (where I worked until recently as national policy lead), Family Learning is recognised as adult learning courses that invariably – but don’t always – involve adults and children learning alongside each other. They are often hosted in schools, Children’s Centres and other community venues and historically have been targeted at engaging the most disadvantaged families.

Research shows that family learning could increase the overall level of children’s development by as much as 15 percentage points for those from disadvantaged groups and provide an average reading improvement equivalent to six months of reading age. We know the impact that poor basic skills can have on a range of personal, social and economic outcomes. We know that children who start school at a disadvantage will, by and large, not only remain at a disadvantage but actually fall further and further behind.

Disadvantaged adults can be brought back to learning, and encouraged to develop, through their families. Family learning provides a low-pressure, safe and enjoyable step back into formal adult learning – one that appeals to parents’ strong desire to support their children. It strengthens communication and maths skills, develops confidence to learn and can be a stepping stone to further education and training.

Family Learning Works, 2013

Some schools claiming to offer Family Learning may not actually be doing so as the term is often confused with 'parental engagement'. It is crucial educators and school leaders understand the similarities and differences between the two terms. Parental engagement might be summed up through two types of activity:

  1. Parents/carers getting involved in school life, often supporting teachers and schools to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils1 and
  2. Parents/carers getting involved with supporting their child/children at home.

Some schools consider that hosting a coffee morning constitutes parental engagement because parents visit the school.

On the face of it, these activities do appear to be synonymous with Family Learning. A Family Learning course offer is arguably greatly enhanced when both these things happen. However, parental engagement is not necessarily linked to learning outcomes for both the adults and the children in a family. With careful planning and high engagement and commitment from host schools it is perfectly feasible to define and measure learning outcomes of children whose parents are attending an adult-only programme meaning that the impact outside school could be taken into account.

Family Learning is not mainstreamed across Europe, although research evidence supports this suggests this would be of value. When presenting at the European Family Learning conference in October 2015, I was very reassured when I heard esteemed colleagues from the European Commission and UNESCO relay the importance of a commitment to investing in Family Learning, both in terms of improving the skills crisis and responding to The United National Convention on the Rights of the Child. Variation across Europe in the commitment to Family Learning is huge, ranging from Luxembourg, where the government has promoted and implemented Family Learning activities with a strong national infrastructure rich in history, to Sicily, where the infrastructure is in its infancy but the passion to make it happen is evident.

Research evidence shows the hugely positive and cost-effective impact of Family Learning on educational attainment (up to 15% points improvement in a study conducted in Sheffield, UK) and social inclusion. However, there is often no collective understanding of this evidence even within schools. The link between this evidence, often delivered by external agencies visiting schools, and a school’s strategic improvement priorities tends to be missing. Therefore, in most cases Family Learning is not seen by school staff as core business but as an ‘added luxury’ that other pressures perhaps make them feel they cannot afford to invest in.

The responsibility of Family Learning needs to become more of a consistent partnership between involved stakeholders. This brings both challenges and opportunities for schools to reduce costs through reducing the need for expensive interventions and for school leaders to model innovative and inclusive approaches. To begin with schools should find out what is already available or where solutions can be created through dialogue and sharing best practice with other countries, rather than to ask for extra resources. Schools now have an unprecedented opportunity to use digital communications solutions for revolutionising home-school communications and flipped classroom approaches as a vehicle for transforming school education with better approaches to Family Learning.

1. Parental engagement is cited as a category on The Sutton Trust’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Susannah Chambers is Education Strategist for PrimarySite. She has worked in education for over 14 years. Prior to joining PrimarySite Susannah worked as Head of Family-, Intergenerational- and Community Learning in a policy and advocacy role for NIACE in England and Wales. She also led on NIACE’s work for Excluded Groups within its work as UK Coordinator for the European Agenda for Adult Learning. Prior to that Susannah worked as Family Learning Manager in local government for nine years.

Twitter: @SusannahChambs