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Why we are calling for a Pupil Premium for family learning

Carol Taylor is director of development and research at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning
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Anyone who doubts the significance of what we’re calling for in our recommendations as part of today’s publication of the final report of NIACE’s Inquiry into Family Learning, should bear in mind that although we have been working on the Inquiry for 18 months, it is no surprise that the recommendations resonate with a number of very recent events.

The first was the speech made last week by the remarkable and inspirational Malala Yousafzai. She talked about how astounded she is that children in this country take access to learning for granted because of how precious it is to so many children across the world. So precious indeed that many face death in their fight for it.

This begs the question, how can we engender a culture of learning in children in the UK?

The second event was last Tuesday with the publication of the OECD International Survey of Adult Skills, also known as PIAAC, on the literacy, numeracy and digital skills of adults across 24 countries. England and Northern Ireland were ranked 15th out of 24 in literacy and 17th for numeracy. It seems outrageous that the 6th largest economy in the world still has around 5 million adults with poor and inadequate literacy and maybe 8 million with poor numeracy. Perhaps most telling was the link the OECD pointed out, in case we weren’t aware, between the poor skills of our country and social class.

This begs another question, how can we encourage those with the poorest skills to think about doing something to improve them?

The third event was a Commons debate last Thursday on adult skills, instigated by the MP for Gosport, Caroline Dineage, who has shown a long and considered interest in this issue. An important debate and great for it to take place so soon after PIAAC, but only 15 MPs were present. There were some excellent speeches and interventions, including many focusing on the role of the family and particularly about the partnership that must be struck up between families and schools.

But how can we persuade policy makers that while we do need rigour, qualifications and testing, we also need creative approaches to engage and support people leading to achievement, pleasure and enjoyment? We need to consider the 85% of time a child doesn’t spend in school.

Family learning works. We know this from our own research at NIACE and from the extensive search for research, supported particularly by the Institute of Education. We know from testimonies of teachers, early year’s staff, librarians and park rangers. And we know it most powerfully from learners, parents and carers, and sometimes children, who we have spoken to, who have contacted us, whose voices I hope will come out following today’s report. We know that family learning works.

It’s an intervention, with myriad forms and with multiple outcomes. It supports adults’ skills development, children’s language and learning development and aptitude, and, through the magic of the third strand of family learning, it supports the development of a learning family. Not a family where learning is seen as special, but where it’s seen as normal. As one mum said to us, ‘When my son sees me doing my homework he just sees homework as something normal’.

At NIACE, and as a group of Commissioners, we think it’s an outrage that young people leave school with no qualifications; that a Health Visitor can tell how well a child will do from seeing how many books there are in their house; that an adult is too scared to talk to a teacher, to join a library and ‘cowers’ at the thought of homework because of their poor skills and lack of confidence.

Family learning works. It’s cheap to deliver – and certainly cheaper than the option of not doing anything. It appeals to the instinct of most parents who undoubtedly want the best for their child, a better life than they’ve had. It puts learning in places where adults feel comfortable and will grow confident and develop aspirations and ambitions of their own. And most importantly it gently, carefully, with respect for the learners, and in partnership, develops the attitudes, confidence, skills and enjoyment of whole families.

If we are serious about enabling all our children to grow up with confidence in themselves and their abilities, learning as a family must be a central part of any strategy, not only for children, young people and families but for adult learning and skills.

I started with Malala; I’d like to end with a woman from Mozambique, who said, ‘When people don’t know reading and writing they are always afraid’. Let’s create a comprehensive strategy for implementing family learning across the country and help take that fear away.

The NIACE Family Learning Inquiry is making the following six recommendations:

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.

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 English and maths 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 government departments should include family learning in their policies and strategies in order to achieve cross-departmental outcomes.

5. The governments of England and Wales should regularly review the funding for and supply of family learning against potential demand.

6. There should be a joint national forum for family learning in England and Wales to support high quality, innovative practice, appropriate policy and advocacy, research and development.

Carol Taylor is director of development and research at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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