Guest blog: The case for investing in family learning

15th June 2017

Paul Stanistreet, Learning &Work Associate, blogs at https://thelearningage.wordpress.com/, where an earlier version of this post appeared.

As the repercussions of last week’s general election emerge and an embattled Prime Minister reviews her manifesto promises in the light of a hastily agreed deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, many in the education sector will be wondering which elements of the Tories’ plans on lifelong learning will survive, and how radical Theresa May’s damaged government will be prepared to be.

All three of the main parties considered lifelong learning and further education in their manifestos, and all acknowledged, to some extent, the need to invest intelligently in people’s skills and education in order to promote social mobility and improve the UK’s historically low productivity. This renewed concern is, of course, shaped very largely by Brexit, which will inevitably make an economy which has depended heavily on a supply of workers from Europe more dependent on homegrown talent. But it also reflects lifelong learning’s growing prominence in recent debates about how to improve the UK’s economic performance and give people a route out of poverty.

While all the manifestos were largely positive on the subject of lifelong learning, what was missing was any acknowledgement of the critical role of family learning in breaking the inter-generational cycle of poverty or, indeed, any 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.

This is disappointing but though not especially surprising. 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. As Stephen Evans argued in the run-up to the election, the Conservative manifesto, while reaffirming the party’s commitment to further education and lifelong learning, had little to say about the funding context or about the adult education budget, which has been subject to deep and destabilizing cuts since 2010. Nor was there much acknowledgement of the need to promote lifelong learning more widely.

These considerations should be at the heart of a serious, inclusive and transparent national conversation about how educational opportunities are distributed in our society and how we fund them.

As we move forward, and lobby for a wider, more coherent and better-funded approach to lifelong learning, as well as a wider acknowledgement of its role in responding to the economic and educational challenges we face, family learning and its critical role in breaking the cycle of disadvantage must be at the heart of our thinking.