Breaking the cycle: The case for investing in family learning

The draft Labour party manifesto, leaked last week, included some good ideas on education, such as the setting up of a national education service, which may turn out to be the one really big idea of Labour’s campaign. The draft manifesto also indicated that, if elected, Labour would do more than previous governments to reduce poverty and promote social mobility, introducing measures to redistribute wealth and using taxation to improve education and health services. Nobody would argue that these improvements depend on money alone – it has to be spent intelligently and in a well-evidenced, joined-up way – but equally there is no denying that by international standards we have invested too little and reformed too much in these areas.

There is welcome attention for lifelong learning and the role of continuous training in improving productivity in the leaked document, reflecting not only a growing recognition among policymakers that this has been neglected, but also the hard work of the likes of Gordon Marsden and David Lammy in forcing the issue up the agenda, nationally and within their own party. What I would have liked to have seen – and hope still to see – is some appreciation of the critical role of the family in bridging the gap between education and poverty reduction and, in particular, a commitment to supporting family learning as part of a coherent set of measures to ensure the effectiveness of educational interventions in addressing social issues such as poverty.

Family learning has been long neglected and, unlike lifelong learning, it is still to emerge from the shadowy margins of education policy thinking. But it feels to me, in many ways, an idea whose time has come. It has been shown to have a significant impact on the attainment of the children who take part in it, and an equally significant impact on their parents – whose desire to better support their children at school can be the hook that gets them back into education. A few years ago, I met a group of mums from Ely, one of the poorest districts in Wales, who got involved in family learning at their children’s school and went on to set up their own community projects, including a neighbourhood newspaper. Whereas at the start of their engagement, some had been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, they had become formidable advocates for their kids and for the community in which they lived. This is a very significant achievement but it is far from unusual. There are projects like this around the country, run by passionate educators, which demonstrate the huge difference family learning can make to the confidence, aspiration and achievement of the hardest-to-reach adults and children.

Just as importantly, family learning strengthens the bonds between the generations, encourages mutual respect and creates a more supportive, cooperative home environment. It allows adults to support their children and set them a positive, inspiring example. It shows children that their parents care about learning and about their learning, and it puts education at the heart of family life. It fosters the habit of learning, and a range of associated skills such as persistence, attentiveness and communication, and it bridges the gap between the classroom and the home, ensuring education does not end at the school gate. Research shows that children stand a better chance in life in their parents participate in learning. And, often, family learning is the key motivator for those the greatest distance from educational engagement. As educational interventions go, it is also inexpensive. And certainly it is much less expensive than dealing with the fall-out of blighted lives and frustrated opportunities in communities in which disadvantage is passed on from generation to generation and hope is in vanishingly short supply.

Family learning should be part of a coherent national approach to work, education and disadvantage that includes better support for further education and lifelong learning and steps to improve access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds, including adults. Labour’s draft manifesto includes some laudable commitments on this score which should be part of a wider national conversation about how we pay for public services, including education, and whether we should look to increase our spending on areas such as education and health where we lag behind comparable countries. One thing that struck me about Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France was the new French President’s willingness to put such questions in a sensible and straightforward way and his appreciation of the importance of establishing broad appeal. Yes, of course, you can have more of x, but more of x will be costly and will mean more taxation for some in the population – and that is a decision for us all to take together. If only we would capture some of that tone in UK debate about public services. The UK’s strongly pro-austerity, pro-government media acts like an attack dog at the merest suggestion of an increase in spending, slavering dementedly about ‘fantasy economics’ and ‘magic money trees’. Though it masquerades as serious journalism, this is a major impediment to the kind of debate we desperately need to have.

We need a serious national conversation about whether education, wealth and power should be more evenly distributed in our society. We need to ask whether we want the circumstances of a child’s birth to be the primary determinant of their life chances. To ask such questions isn’t Marxism – it is what politics should be about: priorities and how to pay for them. There has been a concerted effort, over many years, to prevent such a conversation taking place. Perhaps now, with an undeniably real (though for many not especially palatable) choice placed before the UK electorate, we can begin to have one. My fear though is that the divisive, tribal nature of British politics (and the entrenched and very powerful interests that like it that way) will prevent it. Long-term, successful change is impossible without a high degree of consensus, and consensus can only be built through open, inclusive democratic dialogue.

Today is the UN’s Day of Families, a day focused, this year, on the role of families and family-related policies in promoting the education and overall wellbeing of their members. We must ask whether we want to be the sort of society that neglects those families who can’t afford to stump up large sums of money for their children’s education – or the sort of society that values all its people and helps them learn to value themselves. Education must be at the heart of such an enterprise, with the role of family learning in bringing generations together and supporting the growth of more resilient and prosperous communities finally, and fully, recognized. The kind of society I dream of belonging to puts people first, no matter what their background, and invests to help them realize their full potential. That means putting families and how they learn and grow at the heart of our thinking. We should see the wellbeing of families and the opportunities they have to learn as inextricably linked.

Family learning and educational inequality

The Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party committee of MPs, this month raised serious concerns about the quality and consistency of support for disadvantaged school children in England. Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, called for a ‘step change’ in efforts to close the ‘attainment gap’ and prevent pupils from less advantaged backgrounds performing poorly at school, thus perpetuating disadvantage across generations.

The MPs’ report followed hard on the heels of the publication of some of the key messages emerging from a 10-year study of how background influences Scottish children’s development. Growing up in Scotland, a longitudinal research programme tracking the lives of 10,000 children and their families from the early years onwards, found that socio-economic inequalities have a clear and substantial impact on children’s development and that these differences are apparent from an early age. By age five, it found, children whose parents have no qualifications are about 12 months behind the average child on vocabulary and 10 months behind on problem-solving abilities. These differences – important indicators of subsequent educational success and employment and life chances – are apparent in children as young as three, the study found.

With social inequality seemingly a major concern of government, these findings should set alarm bells ringing. They show that, as a society, we are failing to do anything like enough to prevent the hardening of social differences and ensure that the circumstances of a child’s birth do not, to a very large extent, determine their subsequent life trajectory. And while the Public Accounts Committee observed that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had narrowed slightly since the introduction of the pupil premium (which aims to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children), it also noted that the results were uneven, and that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds risked losing out if its success was not spread more widely. The roll-out of universal credit would ‘make it harder to identify children eligible to benefit from the pupil premium,’ Ms Hillier said.

It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of a society such as ours to devise an education system which, rather than calcifying patterns of disadvantage across generations, challenges them, giving children the opportunity to achieve their full potential, whatever their background. The strength and seeming permanence of the relationship between parental background and children’s educational attainment is a serious indictment of education policy in the UK over the past few decades. It suggests, sadly, a society which is prepared to tolerate the writing-off of large numbers of its citizens, almost from birth, and permit the life chances and potential of so many working-class children to be brutally stunted. The end result of this is not only entrenched poverty, but a less prosperous, resilient, democratic and cohesive society.

The government’s ideological obsession with free schools and academies, and its efforts to introduce a market into other areas of education, are making matters worse. The idea that grammar schools constitute a part of the answer to this problem reflects not only a bankruptcy of ideas but an impressive imperviousness to evidence. Grammar schools, like other forms of selection, benefit the middle classes, those who understand the system and can bring in private help to get their kids through the entrance exam, and further disadvantage poorer children. As the son of two bright secondary-modern kids, both conscious of being dubbed failures at the age of 11, I know very well the damage the 11-plus system could cause, dividing not just communities but families (my Dad’s older brother was the only one of four kids to pass). I fear we are again seeing the development of a two-tier education system, in which parents with the double advantage of money and an education get a double benefit from a system rigged to suit those who know how to work it and have the resources to pay for it. Increasingly, the benefits of a rounded, liberal education are, like the universities that offer them, largely the preserve of the better-off. The best the rest of us can hope for is the basic education and training we need to do a job. I don’t mean to disparage vocational training, which is of critical importance, but an education system which prepares people only to be employees is, frankly, not an education system worthy of the name.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even within the narrow envelope of possibilities envisaged by our austerian leaders, change is possible. It should begin with evidence and not ideology. The Growing up in Scotland report makes a number of straightforward recommendations that could make a difference to educational outcomes and help ‘build resilience in the face of disadvantage’, including the encouragement of ‘rich home learning environments’ (even simple home learning activities such as reading a book at bedtime can have a significant impact on cognitive development and reduce some of the effects of socio-economic disadvantage, the report says) and increased investment in good early learning and childcare, which can reduce inequality by the start of primary school (by which point most kids from poorer backgrounds are already playing catch-up).

There are no silver bullets, of course, but one important but often neglected intervention – family learning – has the potential to make a huge difference here, if adequately resourced and offered on a sufficiently wide and even basis across the country. Research suggests that children stand a much better chance of doing well at school, and in life more generally, if their parents are learners themselves. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation study found that parental involvement in a child’s education has a direct causal influence on the child’s school readiness and subsequent attainment. As the Growing up in Scotland study suggests, home learning activities make a huge difference. Yet very many children still grow up in homes without books, and, as any teacher will tell you, there is only so much a school can do. A child learns best when learning is a process in which the whole family is involved and interested.

Family learning is also hugely effective hook for parents who had a poor experience of compulsory education themselves, appealing to their desire to support their children to do better than they did at school and encouraging them to overcome their own practical and dispositional barriers to learning. Many parents want to do more to support their children in school but often lack the time, resources or wherewithal to do so. Just as important, they frequently lack the confidence too, and family learning is a powerful way of building up an adult’s learning confidence and aptitude in a safe and non-threatening environment, while at the same time also improving children’s confidence, self-belief and attainment. A 2012 analysis of foundation-stage pupil data by Sheffield City Council found that the overall level of development among children who had taken part in family learning programmes could be as much as 15 percentage points higher than for those who had not.

When I drafted the 2013 NIACE Inquiry into Family Learning report, Family Learning Works, I emphasised not only the remarkable impact family learning programmes have on children and their families, but also their huge potential in addressing a range of other agendas and in achieving key cross-departmental outcomes. As well as being relatively low-cost, family learning interventions make vulnerable families more resilient, and encourage parents to become more involved in their communities, whether as citizens, volunteers or employees. One school-based project I visited in Ely, the most deprived area of Cardiff and one of the most deprived in the UK, in 2012 brought this home to me. The group of mums I met there, some of whom had previously been afraid even to speak to their children’s teachers in the playground, were now organising regular adult education classes, campaigning on local issues and even publishing their own newspaper, the Grand Avenue Times (named after the main road on which the school is located). What got them engaged, they told me, was, first, their desire to help their kids do better at school, and, second, the fact that the learning environment was ‘nothing like school’. In some cases, their engagement in learning had completely transformed their children’s attitude to education too.

Most adult educators won’t need convincing of the huge positive impact learning can have on adults and their families. But with participation in family learning declining, it is obvious that this understanding is not widely enough shared. As the Inquiry into Family Learning argued, family learning should be ‘integral to school strategies to raise children’s attainment’ and ‘narrow the gap between the lowest and highest achievers’, and ought to form a key element of adult learning and skills strategies ‘to engage those further from the labour market and improve employability’. National family learning policies should be part of an integrated approach to addressing educational inequality and social inequality more widely.

A government serious about reducing social inequality would be investing more in family learning (alongside other initiatives to promote learning within families) as part of a rounded, strategic approach that would see further education spending increase, alongside UK education spending overall, which continues to lag behind the levels of other developed countries. If the post-16 area review process, which includes only FE and sixth-form colleges, is anything to go by, we are as far as ever from a genuinely coherent, holistic approach to education policy and the challenges of social and educational inequality. We need a government fired up to address these real and deeply entrenched problems head on, and that means thinking about education not through the limiting lens of ideology but in an evidence-based and seriously joined-up way.

Thanks to John Field for sharing the link to a Scotsman report on the Growing up in Scotland findings and making the link with family learning