International Literacy Day 2016

In Wales, nearly one child in three lives in poverty and levels of adult literacy are lower than those in England. There is strong evidence suggests that the best way to support children is to work with the whole family through family learning. There are some great examples of where this happens in Wales, but overall the picture is very mixed.

An OECD survey in England and Northern Ireland (2013) showed that adults whose parents have low levels of education are eight times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than adults whose parents had higher levels of education. The story in Wales is no different, although data is scarce. Wales did not enter the international survey (PIAAC – the adult skills equivalent of PISA).

Family learning has a crucial role to play in tackling these inequalities. Family learning raises children’s attainment and schools have a major role to play here – all great schools involve parents. 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.

There are also some exemplary projects involving family learning here in Wales. Monkton Priory Community Primary School, on the outskirts of Pembroke, has fully embraced family learning and provides courses for parents and local people at the school. (video here)

The School brings in external tutors from University of Wales Trinity Saint David to provide relevant courses to support parents who are out of work or who have low paid jobs. The work is targeted at families from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the first year of the project over 500 people attended a range of courses and 84 students were studying for degrees. Head teacher, Shelley Morris attributes the raising of children’s attainment levels to this family learning approach. The project has been such a success that the Minister for Skills and Science, Julie James AM has scheduled a visit to see the project for herself in November.

We have seen first-hand how disadvantaged adults can be brought back to learning through their families, improving their confidence to take up learning and employment through improved health and well-being and increased engagement with society and their community. We believe that projects such as this should be looked at by government departments as an effective way of tackling social and economic deprivation.

We know that family learning reduces the cost of supporting vulnerable families. It embeds changes in attitudes, behaviour, understanding and skills in the family. Evidence from the USA shows that for every $1 spent on family learning there is a $12 return – it is unfortunate that there is no similar evidence in Wales.

Family learning is a single intervention, delivered in a range of ways and in a range of settings, which has multiple outcomes for adults and children, for families and communities. It might not sit neatly with one government department or ministerial remit but it could change the lives of a whole generation. We would be foolish to miss such an opportunity.

Our research has consistently shown that family learning works. It not only secures better outcomes for children and their parents, but also has positive impacts on a wide range of economic and social policy agendas. Our work with school governors to demonstrate the value of family learning is beginning to encourage schools to embed a family learning approach.

Estyn has also pointed to the power of family learning but at present family learning is not coordinated effectively from the top. We believe:

  1. Family learning should be integral to school strategies to raise children’s attainment and to narrow the gap between the lowest and highest achievers. This can be achieved by making use of the pupil deprivation grants that schools receive, along with Communities First budgets.
  2. Family learning should be a key element of adult learning and skills strategies to engage those furthest from the labour market and improve employability, especially through family literacy and numeracy provision.
  3. Every child should have the right to be part of a learning family. Many children grow up in families that can support their learning, but some do not. Public bodies should target support to help these families.
  4. Key Welsh Government departments and local government should include family learning in their policies and strategies in order to achieve cross-departmental outcomes. It is an approach that will have a lasting impact on future generations.

Improving the life chances and educational outcomes for children matters to us all. Schools alone cannot achieve the generational change needed. While too many children return to homes where their parents and carers struggle with literacy, numeracy and digital skills, or where learning isn’t valued, too many children will not reap the huge rewards that education can bring. Family learning works and we should all embrace it.