Family Learning – where parents and children learn together – is a very specific branch of adult education. Arguably all adult learning has the potential to be family learning. The ripple effect of parents taking part in community courses is that they often take their enthusiasm in new skills and knowledge home.
Helping their Children Learn
Children, of course, are expected to take part in learning and for most parents their child’s education is an important consideration. Parents who choose to take part in family learning may be doing so with their child’s education in mind; familiarising them with learning settings and instilling an enthusiasm by making learning enjoyable.
That motivation to improve their child’s chances may, for some parents, be the entry point for adults to return to learning. They may not feel sufficiently compelled or feel the need to take the plunge entirely for their own benefit, but if signing up also allows for spending quality time with their children then it may be the tipping point.
Parents Bringing Learning Home
Community adult learning, however, can have a positive effect for parents and children even where they are not learning in the same room. The power of bringing them together to share the experience can be huge. The WEA’s Impact report found that 70% of learners have encouraged their children to learn more while 47% felt their relationship with their children improved as a result of their courses.
Overcoming Barriers Facing Adults to Learn Through Family Learning
We know how few adults across the population take part in adult education. The Learning & Work Institute’s participation survey shows that only a quarter of the adult population are learning currently while well over a half have not studied at all in the last three years. There are many barriers and many things which put adults off returning to learning, especially if they have had a bad experience previously.
But we should never underestimate how many adults lack confidence in their abilities and equally, we should always acknowledge the power of adult learning to give people the space to find their own way and thrive. Learning alongside a child can encourage a parent to step outside themselves and see a wider benefit in taking part in learning – often finding as they go that their own confidence and familiarity with learning settings and outcomes also grows.
Familiar and Accessible Venues
It helps of course that most adult education – especially family learning – takes place in familiar, accessible and welcoming community venues and alongside other supportive parents and high-quality trusted tutors. That level of support is a key strength of community adult learning and family learning could really only be feasible as a model in such a safe and trusted environment.
Family learning also relies on a level of logistical practicality, which is also a characteristic of community learning more generally. Most WEA students travel less than three miles to attend their course and courses can take place at times of the day and week which suit busy lives.
All adult students benefit from this but it’s doubly important to parents taking part in family learning. Fitting the course around parenting duties (perhaps also with other children not taking part in the course), the challenges of travelling with children, accessing other support needs, perhaps also fitting around work – all of these things need to be understood and community learning is better than most at organising in a flexible way to enable access.
Childcare – or lack of it – is one of the most cited barriers to parents’ participation in many activities, sometimes learning included. Better investment in childcare facilities in and around learning settings would increase participation across the board.
Adults would have the option to leave children in childcare facilities while they take courses and family learning courses would also benefit by the additional flexibility to travel with children. Better childcare settings would also, of course, have a considerable benefit to many other areas of life, not least employment, offering parents the additional flexibility to spend time elsewhere knowing their children are being well looked after.
The Education Select Committee has called for a learning centre in every town – and including childcare facilities (perhaps utilising some of the capital funds available through Levelling Up programmes) could be the answer.
Tackling Adult Literacy and Numeracy
Another of the greatest challenges in adult education is the worryingly low levels of adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills. By its very nature, family learning is enjoyable, relatively light touch and accessible. That doesn’t mean it cannot also embed valuable content which supports adults to gain confidence in those essential skills.
Indeed, it is arguably a more effective way of getting adults into those subjects than offering straight-up maths or English classes. Those subjects often come with embarrassment and resistance, so adult learners will often avoid them or find ways of working round. Learning alongside your child, and picking up skills and knowledge without the focus or any pressure being on you is a helpful entry point.
As well as time pressures, financial barriers often hold adult learners back. Promoting where family learning courses are available on a fully funded basis and expanding the offer by supporting providers to put on more of these type of courses would increase participation greatly.
Welfare is already a complicated system and is made more so once children are involved as well. Support for a national system of Information, Advice and Guidance that is agile enough to direct parent learners to the financial support which could be available to them, as well as to the variety of courses, is needed.
Entry into Jobs
Finally, although family learning courses will rarely be employment related, they could lead to an employment destination. Parents seeking to return to work after a break or parents looking to find more secure or stable work to support their family could use family learning as a stepping stone to more employment-focused pathways.
DfE and local authorities should work together to incorporate childcare facilities in and around learning venues, taking advantage of Levelling Up capital programmes to fund this infrastructure.
DfE should invest more in Information, Advice and Guidance to raise the profile of the availability of family learning courses and also the financial support which can be offered to low-income adult learners, especially parents.
Employers and providers should work together to support co-designed family learning courses as an entry point for adult learners looking to gain essential skills and/or get on to employment pathways.
By Katie Easey, Director of Education: Community Learning, WEA
Parents, Children and Adult Learning: Family Learning Policy in the 2020s
Read previous articles here:
- Driving-Up Parental Engagement in Educational Catch-Up, Sam Freedman, Research Fellow, Institute for Government
- Focusing on Parents to Improve Social Mobility, Lee Elliot-Major, Professor of Social Mobility, University of Exeter
- Encouraging Parental Involvement in Children’s Learning Through School Communication, Adrian Burt, Founder, MarvellousMe
- Balancing Parental Support and Independence of 16-18 Year Olds in Further Education, Noni Csogor, Research and Policy Manager, Sixth Form Colleges Association
- Involving Parents and Guardians in Careers Support for 11-18 Year-Olds, Lesley Thain, Head of Career Programmes, Gatsby Foundation
- Enabling Parents to Get What They Need to Support Children to Learn, Kerry-Jane Packman, Executive Director, Parentkind
- Working with Parents in the Early Years to Get More Children School Ready, Louise Bazalgette, Deputy Director, Nesta
- Using Technology to Help Parents Bridge the Gap in Child Learning, Tom Harbour, Chief Executive, Learning with Parents
- Targeting Support at Carers to Improve the Educational Outcomes for Children in Care, Aoife O’Higgins , Director of Research, What Works for Children’s Social Care
- Supporting Parents to Build Children’s Financial Capability, Sarah Porretta, Insights Director, Money and Pensions Service
- Using Libraries to Support Literacy and Personal Development in Children and Young People, Christine Myhill, National Chair, ASCEL