Family learning: Where next for the ‘hidden jewel’ of adult education?

Long read

Family learning programmes have had to fight for survival in a competitive funding environment that demands quantifiable outcomes for learners.

But the provision, which involves adults and children learning together, now seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival, with over 20 per cent more people taking up family learning courses in 2022-23 than the previous year.

Schools and local authorities speak passionately about the impact of this hidden part of the adult education system, which can simultaneously improve English and maths for adults and children, and help to close skills gaps.

Advocates insist that family learning holds the key to engaging hard-to-reach, economically inactive families. They claim the long-term benefits extend to improved mental health and community wellbeing, as well as helping unemployed people find work.

Earlier this year the Campaign for Learning, part of NCFE, established the National Centre for Family Learning as a focal point for the fragmented sector of practitioners, who work for local authority services, specialist adult learning institutes and charities among others.

The centre already has over 1,000 members who it estimates are working with 240,000 families a year.

Campaign for Learning’s national director Juliette Collier believes these families include people who “would never have gone into college, and who wouldn’t even have the confidence to look at you when they start these programmes.

“If you found school irrelevant and humiliating, and you associate it with failure, why would you go back into education? Well, you might do if you wanted the best for your children.”

family learning materials

Family (learning) history

During the Blair-Brown years, cash flowed into family learning programmes, often taking place in children’s centres (many of which have since shut down) and schools, and in some cases funded through the European Social Fund. In the years since much of that funding dried up or was restricted to delivering programmes in deprived areas.

In the 10 years up to 2021/22, the number of adult learners on community learning programmes (which includes family learning) fell by 55 per cent.

It looked like the death knell was sounding for family learning last year when the Department for Education consulted on proposals to end the funding of non-qualification provision that is not directly linked to employment outcomes, from 2024-25 onwards. It took an outcry from the sector, for family learning, health and wellbeing and community integration to be reinstated as acceptable outcomes.

The number of community learning students climbed last year by 8 per cent to 328,690. And those involved in family learning jumped 21 per cent to 49,490, making up 15 per cent of the total.

However, there were still fewer community learning participants last year than in the years leading up to the pandemic. Over half a million students a year took community learning courses prior to 2018/19.

DfE data on family learning

Family learning recipients

Last year more than a fifth of working-age adults were economically inactive, including one in four women. It is these people that family learning programmes generally seek to target.

They consist of two streams. Wider family learning programmes, which Collier describes as the “gentle first steps” getting reluctant learners in the door, made up 10 per cent of overall community learning participants in 2022/23.

And 5 per cent took family literacy, language or numeracy programmes, normally “explicit” courses which lead to practical qualifications. 

In her previous life as a community outreach worker for Warwickshire Council, Collier met Becky, a mum who had missed much of her own schooling due to illness and lacked the skills to read to her two children.

Becky was too anxious to dive straight into a literacy class, so Collier persuaded her to do a cracker-making session in the run-up to Christmas. That built up Becky’s confidence and, from there, she went on to courses in literacy, computing and numeracy.

She could then read to her children, aged 3 and 11, and got her first job aged 31.

On one occasion, Collier visited Becky in her high-rise flat, where “nappies and rubbish” lined the hallway. But Becky’s family learning certificates took pride of place sellotaped to the living-room wall. “That’s how much it meant to her,” she says.

Similarly, the parenting course that Henriett Toth took in 2019 at her local children’s centre run by Learning Unlimited, which provided a creche for her small children, was a “lifeline.”

She says: “It was also good to learn that others were experiencing parenting challenges in similar ways to mine, that we all fail from time to time.”

She has since done family learning courses in maths and supporting SEND children, and is now a teaching assistant.

Henriett Toth

Hidden benefits

Toth’s progression onto work in a school is a common route: a 2004 study by Horne and Haggard, which tracked families up to four years after they had completed family learning programmes, found that a third went on to further learning or training, one in five volunteered at their child’s school or wider community and one in seven became paid classroom assistants.

Most parents said their “next step” activities would not have happened had they not participated in family learning.

Schools are currently struggling to recruit and retain support staff, with almost 10,000 school teaching assistant roles currently posted on the jobs site Indeed.

But, despite family learning courses offering schools an opportunity to train up the next pipeline of support staff, schools are not always happy to host them.

Sue Pember, policy director for adult education body Holex, says “a lot of” family learning happened in schools before Covid. But since the pandemic, some heads are “reluctant” to reopen outside normal hours.

Collier recalls one primary head who was hesitant to provide space for family learning, who told her that he “only sees parents when they come in to eyeball him”.

But, after 29 women were trained as teaching assistants through her programme, his attitude shifted. “We gave the certificates out to parents in the school assembly,” she says.

Sue Pember of Holex

On location

At Realise Future’s working together class at Trimley Primary in Suffolk, participants are learning about the developmental milestones that children should be hitting at different ages. 

The course, which consists of a two-hour session each week over 12 weeks, is not what most people think of as family learning. There are no children present. But the learning that these parents gain helps them not only to understand their children better but acts as a stepping stone onto a school support role.

The course includes a mandatory classroom placement, for which participants write diaries to note observations about pupil behaviour.

The tutor, Bernadette White, an experienced primary teacher herself, finds it “much harder” to get parents interested in family learning courses since the pandemic.

Whereas pre-Covid she had a waiting list for the course, today’s class only has four learners, all mums with children at the school.

She blames a “communication breakdown” between schools and parents, as “parents weren’t encouraged to come back into” schools after Covid. “It’s a shame because it’s so important that parents feel they can come in to air their grievances and anxieties.”

White splits them into two groups, each exploring what the national curriculum says about developmental goals for five and seven-year-olds. They draw and label stickmen accordingly.

The goal of “tying shoelaces” sparks hot debate, because shoes with laces are apparently no longer fashionable.

White says parents often express “genuine surprise” when they discover on the course “just how much children are learning at school”.

Carrie, a mum of three, is hoping the course will help get her “foot in the door” to become a teaching assistant. The course has taught her that “primary school is hard” for children.

“I said to my husband, imagine if you had to be at work all day with people of all different levels, and have lunch with them all. Yet we expect it not to be ridiculously stressful for these kids.”

Susannah Chambers

Family learning courses

Family learning practitioners often have scope to be creative with their curriculums.

Susannah Chambers, a former family learning manager for Nottinghamshire council, recalls writing a “Family Bloodhound” course using materials about the world land speed record-holding car, which incorporated engineering and maths. Another course, about Doctor Who, aimed to teach science and technology.

In Suffolk, Realise Futures delivers 91 per cent of family learning.

The company’s initial engagement activities include cookery workshops, sessions on e-safety and Snappy Stories, a workshop White runs in which parents and reception-age children do creative storytelling together.

Last week’s stories involved “lots of fairies, and an evil pea!”.

Realise Learning’s more in-depth programmes include film-making and investigations in science, which are underpinned by the primary curriculum. Students progress onto courses in mental health, working in the childcare sector or CV writing and interview skills.

Family learning can also be a godsend for migrant families wanting to learn English and feel part of their local community.

In London, the Welcome Project, run by Learning Unlimited, delivers weekly sessions in children’s centres for newly-arrived families living in hotel accommodation, which involve arts and crafts and play activities. The sessions give families respite from cramped hotel rooms, and mums can ask questions of the professionals there to support them.

The Welcome Project

Uncertain future

The family learning uptick has been partly driven by numeracy-related courses provided as part of the government’s £559 million Multiply programme, which includes sessions in family budgeting and homework clubs.

But Multiply is set to end in 2025 and the long-term prospects for family learning are uncertain.

The Skills for Jobs white paper pledged to “prioritise the courses and qualifications that enable people to get great jobs” to “support our economy”.

It led to the drawing up this year of 38 Local Skills Improvement Plans, of which only one – Herefordshire’s – gives a passing reference to family learning provision.

The Campaign for Learning has been engaging with shadow skills minister Seema Malhotra, in the hope of persuading Labour to secure a stable future for the sector if the party wins the election.

In Scotland, family learning provision is mandatory in early years settings, and the Campaign for Learning is calling for it to become a universal entitlement in England too as part of the upcoming expansion of free childcare provision.

Collier believes such a move could help to address the current shortage of early years workers.

But Chambers sees family learning as being about much more than recruiting more childcare workers. She calls it the “jewel in the crown of adult learning” in how it “engages people and keeps them on a progression route”.

“Family learning saves the government money on health and crime outcomes, because it is helping children communicate better with their parents.

“Over the years, it has been absolutely heart-breaking that it has not had the profile it deserves.”

When Collier bumped into Becky recently, she had just read the eulogy at her nan’s funeral – something she never thought possible four years ago.

“That was incredibly moving to hear,” said Collier. “Family learning really is the foundation of creating lifelong learning.”

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