Expert says families learning together is the best way forward

The Northern Echo: Family learning expert Dr Lynn McKenna pictured at Sunderland FC's Stadium of Light during her research. Family learning expert Dr Lynn McKenna pictured at Sunderland FC's Stadium of Light during her research.

Dr Lynne McKenna, director of Initial Teacher Education at Northumbria University and an expert in parental participation in learning, argues that we need to heed research which shows the benefits of families learning together.

After working as an early years teacher, a family learning practitioner, and a university academic, I have had more than twenty five years' experience of seeing the wider benefits which occur when families are encouraged to learn together.

I would say that everybody gains when the family learns together. In the 2009 Ofsted report into Family Learning, three key factors were identified: better confidence, communication, improved parenting and interpersonal skills for parents; improvement in literacy and numeracy skills for parents and children; and thirdly the development of a positive attitude to learning for the children involved.

Ofsted reported that this is demonstrated in turn by improved concentration, attainment and improved classroom behaviour for children.

However, despite the virtues of family learning being extolled at governmental level and seen in practice in schools and communities, it appears to have lost ground in policy, research and development.

Government agendas around raising school standards, 'troubled families', 'early intervention', 'disadvantaged communities', a perceived lack of parenting skills, and recent welfare reforms do not appear to include family learning as a solution to the supposed 'problems'. This is such a missed opportunity. My research into the benefits of family learning began in 1997 when I wrote a pilot family numeracy programme.

This pilot programme, which ran throughout South Tyneside was designed to boost children's numeracy, to enhance parents' ability to support their children's numeracy learning and to develop the numeracy skills of the parents involved.

The pilot provided a bridge between the real-life mathematics which occurs in the home and the mathematical learning which occurs in school.

An unexpected but nevertheless welcomed, side effect was the extent to which being involved in an early intervention project resulted in the children being better prepared for maths learning. It equipped them with skills that were transferable to other aspects of school learning.

Further research into the ways in which fathers engage with their children, again in South Tyneside, revealed changing notions of fatherhood in the twenty first century.

The study revealed that fathers' involvement in their children's lives was concerned with three main issues; developing their confidence in being fathers; challenging traditional views of fathers which was very often based on their own experiences of being fathered; and on becoming fathers and an acknowledgement of their own need to 'be there' for their children.

The potential of family learning to support this evolving change in the way fathers develop as parents should not be under estimated. For example, we now know that fathers' involvement in the lives of their children is an important factor in the future success of children in terms of their social and educational development.

Recent research has shown that fathers who devote even as little as five minutes each day to their sons, are giving them a far greater chance to grow as confident adults. Positive father involvement in children's learning is also associated with better educational, social and emotional outcomes for children.

We know that children's educational outcomes are strongly influenced by parental involvement in their learning; and parents are often motivated to learn as a result of being involved in family learning activities.

Indeed, research has shown parental involvement in a child's learning has more of an impact on a child's educational outcomes than any other demographic measure.

It has a powerful effect on a child's academic performance and can help parents understand how to support their children's education, improving the prospects of parents to progress on to further education or employment.

There is also research to show that where such programmes work with children and their parents, this has the potential to break the recurring intergenerational cycle of low attainment.

Two forthcoming national events will help to raise the profile of the benefits of family learning. On Friday 18 October 2013, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) launch the Report of the Inquiry into Family Learning. This report was commissioned over a year ago and includes the recent findings of a study conducted by myself and my team at Northumbria.

The study evaluated the wider family learning programmes run by Sunderland Football Club's Foundation of Light. We evaluated the impact of involvement in wider family learning on parents, children and their communities.

Forty-five parents and twelve children from four early years settings and schools in Sunderland participating in the programmes were involved in the research.

My research team found that those taking part in the programmes and activities not only learnt new skills; parents who were engaged in a family learning programme often reported reduced social isolation, increased levels of confidence and self-esteem.

This very often resulted in improvements in health and mental well- being for parents, which in turn led to better parent-child relationships and improved relationships with other families, schools and the wider community.

During the same week as the launch of the NIACE report, the Campaign for Learning hosts its annual Family Learning Festival.

The festival, which takes place from October 19 to November 3, promotes and supports family learning events to schools, local community groups and family learning groups across the country. The festival aims to draw attention to the importance of families and friends in forming attitudes towards learning, and encouraging and supporting us to learn through life.

It is clear in the busy world in which we live in that opportunities for families to spend more time together is to be welcomed. Both the Family Learning Festival and the publication of the Report of the Inquiry into Family Learning will highlight the benefits of family learning and bring it to the attention of both the public and the policy makers.

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