There is so much for adult educators to welcome in Graham Allen’s review, Early intervention: The Next Steps. His thoughtfulness and rigorous analysis is significant, as is his desire to take stock and not rush to new policies, new interventions or new legislation or to seek immediate additional public expenditure. A rare opportunity has been given for some thoughtful and informed feedback from practitioners, policy makers and most importantly families themselves, and to recognise that there is excellent practice which brings results. The role for those of us who work in adult learning, and in particular – family learning – is to think about what works more carefully.
It is important to remember what Graham Allen said, when it was announced that he would lead this review,
“We are calling on all parties to unite around the radical new social policy on Early Intervention. We are convinced it is cheaper and more sensible to tackle social problems before they begin, rather than spend ever-greater sums on ineffective remedial policies, whether they take the form of more prisons, police, drug rehabilitation or supporting larger and more costly lifetimes on benefits. The philosophy of Early Intervention goes much further than prevention. It is about breaking the intergenerational cycle of underachievement.”
For many years now NIACE, and the Basic Skills Agency, before the two merged, has consistently advocated for the development of policies which focus on the families with the greatest needs in our society, and for those policies which put learning firmly at the heart of communities and families. Learning changes lives – and a family with learning at its core is one which can actively seek support, ensure children have a good start in life and help to reduce truancy, anti-social behaviour, crime, health problems and a host of undesirable outcomes. Moreover, intervening early in children’s lives will increase the likelihood of them being more effective parents in the future.
Learning as a family is well researched and the benefits are proven; family literacy, for example, working with young children and their parents to address reading and writing issues, was found to be ‘one of the most successful interventions ever seen’ by the NFER in its 1996 evaluation of the programme. These programmes run in early year’s settings and primary schools and enable parents to learn how to best support their children, while giving them the basic skills we all need. Learning as a family can take place anywhere – the park, the mosque, at home and virtually. Rather than acting as a short term intervention it enables skills, attitudes and confidence to be developed over many years to ensure families are robust and able to cope with the demands put on them.
It’s important to stress that early interventions are about much more than ‘parenting programmes’ and we are pleased to see that this report recognises this, as well as the role of a whole range of organisations both statutory and voluntary. Reaching those adults with the poorest skills often takes time and patience, and working through community focused organisations is often the best way, we have to enable these organisations to take the best of early intervention practice and use them in ways that work in local settings.
Learning as a family supports efforts to raise children’s achievement levels, raises expectations and aspirations of both children and adults, promotes active citizenship and, as the family group is the microcosm of the community, is community capacity building at its best. The Big Society will rely on capable and confident citizens, so let’s make sure we develop them from birth.
Carol Taylor is director of operations at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning