Different class

Between birth and 16 years, children spend less than 15 per cent of their waking time in school. So parents are responsible for the remaining 85 per cent of a child’s time. If one needed convincing of the contribution that parents can make to their children’s education and behaviour, then this statistic underlines that potential.

A study carried out for the Department for Education and Skills in 2003 emphasised the link between good “at-home” parenting and children’s achievement and behaviour at school.(1) Since then, ministers from the prime minister down have increasingly emphasised the importance of good parental support and encouragement in tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour.

Family learning is one initiative through which these and other social policy aims can increasingly be realised. Funded throughout England by the Learning and Skills Council, through its responsibility for adult education, family learning is supported in west London by the London West Learning Partnership which includes the six local authorities in the area plus a range of other organisations concerned with families.

In its recently published report, Championing Family Learning, London West LSC looked at the initiatives being undertaken in the boroughs and set out priorities for ensuring greater co-ordination and quality in family learning provision.(2)

Family learning has two distinct strands: family literacy, languages and numeracy (FLLN) where parents come into school to better understand what their children are being taught, as well as being provided with an opportunity to further their own education. On some programmes parents work side by side with their children some of the time, while on others they concentrate more on improving their own skills.

Then there are wider family learning programmes (WFL) programmes that cover a broad range of subjects, with more emphasis on parents and children learning a new skill together.

Programmes range from parenting skills to yoga, crafts and ICT and activities that are aimed at encouraging parental participation in school life, through multi-cultural programmes.

FLLN classes are often seen as a means of helping parents from ethnic minorities improve their grasp of English but in the reassuring environment of their own children’s school.

Although community centres and libraries are used as venues, schools are most often chosen, particularly for FLLN classes. Increasingly, schools are being encouraged to appoint their own family learning co-ordinators so as to develop more programmes.

In its 2003 report, the DfES pointed out that rigorous, large-scale evaluation of the effect of family learning on children’s attainment was still lacking although there was increasing evidence to show that such schemes were beneficial. Research had shown programmes led to “statistically significant advances in achievement in reading and writing for both parents and children”, and that the gains were sustained when tested many months later.

What is beyond doubt is that family learning has proved successful in engaging mothers of young children in training. This is borne out in London West LSC’s recent research.(3)

“Most adults, if they have children, want to support their children’s learning so it’s good for hooking people,” notes the report, quoting one adult education department. Furthermore, learning in the setting of their children’s school was “a useful method of challenging negative perceptions and experiences of learning; it shows women that they can acquire skills and knowledge while being with their children”.

Women taking part in focus groups for the LSC research underlined the value they found in the social contact that family learning provided by improving their confidence in speaking to professionals such as teachers. Such contact was found to be important among many women who came from a culture that did not encourage them to be involved in education.

Women still greatly outnumber men when it comes to learning with their children – an issue which several boroughs are keen to tackle by developing events targeted specifically at fathers and sons. Within the West London area only two of the six boroughs have had their adult and community education services independently examined. In both Harrow (2004) and Hounslow (2005) the Adult Learning Inspectorate rated the family learning component of each service at grade two or “good”.

In the case of Hounslow, learners had achieved very good standards and adults and children were said to “collaborate effectively and work well together to develop their creative and problem-solving skills”. Parents were said to develop greater patience and learned to listen to and value their children’s views. The inspectorate is now calling for more opportunities for learners to achieve nationally recognised accreditation.

With councils and the LSC pushing to increase the numbers of those involved, the best advocates for the concept are the students themselves. St Paul’s Primary School in Hammersmith runs two FLLN sessions a week. Aldina Gomes has been attending a family learning class at the school for one and a half years. With two children at St Paul’s – nine-year-old Alex and Eugenio, seven, she first got to hear of the class through a teacher.

“I needed to learn English and be able to help my kids with homework,” she says. “Some of the work we do is the same as they are learning in class so we can all work on the same thing when they come home.” Gomes, who lives on an estate close to the school, is a regular and enthusiastic class member. Her attendance is helped by the fact that she is able to bring her two-year-old daughter, Alicia, and baby son with her as well.

“What they teach you here is very important. We speak Portuguese at home but here I am learning English so I can now make appointments by phone and that sort of thing,” she says.

Another student mother is Choi Fung who lives in Hammersmith and whose daughter, Ellamae, seven, attends the school. “We do literacy and maths and are always learning new things. The children now learn things a different way from how we were taught so we need to know how they are taught so we can help them,” she says.

For some of the activities the children also form part of the class and really enjoy the experience of learning alongside their parent, says Fung.

Louise Foley, also from Hammersmith, first came into the school four years ago when her son, Daniel, now 10, needed additional help with his maths. She has been attending the classes ever since. “Without this I would have no idea how to help him with his long division,” she says. She wouldn’t hesitate to advise any other parent find a class and sign up.

“It’s good for the children and its good for you. The kids think ‘my mum’s doing something for me,'” she says.

Phillip Cooper is media officer for the London West Learning and Skills Council.

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The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at the effect that family learning in west London has on both parents and their children. Not only does it help both improve their reading and writing, but it is particularly successful in engaging mothers of young children in training.

(1) The Impact of Parental Involvement, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievement and Adjustment: A Literature Review; DfES report no. 433, 2003.
(2) Championing Family Learning; A Strategy for Family Learning in the London West Area, London West Learning and Skills Council, 2005.
(3) The Training Needs of Women with Children Under Five, London West Learning and Skills Council, 2004.

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