Demos Daily: Family Learning


For many parents up and down the country, this is the first time they’ll be taking their children’s’ education into their own hands. It’s a difficult ask: many will be juggling their newfound responsibilities with a full workload, and the added stress of children stuck indoors and away from their friends. Yet many are succeeding: and it’s not impossible that post-crisis there may be a surge in a desire for learning at home. In 1997 we argued for a set of policies to improve and escalate the amount of learning that takes place in and around families in our pamphlet, Family Learning.

You can read Family Learning here, and the introduction below.

Introduction: why family learning matters

Education is the government’s number one priority. The Labour manifesto also commits it to strengthening families. David Blunkett speaks passionately about family learning. All this is encouraging, but the government has not yet shown that it understands the central importance of families as places of learning.

Once families are recognised as the foundation of learning, a far-reaching transformation of institutions that work with children and parents will begin. Parents will be treated as the lead agents in the care and education of children, with training and support like every other agency working with children. Schools will see their role as extending and enhancing family learning, strengthening and supporting the foundation of learning at home. All agencies concerned with families will see their priority as supporting parents as children’s first and most enduring educators.

Family learning refers to the vast amount of learning that takes place in and around families, from the first smile, word and step to the complex transitions of adolescence, becoming a parent, looking after elderly relatives or coping with bereavement. A more detailed definition is laid out in Riches Beyond Price: Making the most of family learning.

‘Family learning is as varied as families themselves. For the purposes of this paper it is worth identifying five distinct aspects of family learning:

  • informal learning within the family
  • family members learning together
  • learning about roles, relationships and responsibilities in relation to the stages of family life, including parenting education
  • learning how to understand, take responsibility and make decisions in relation to wider society, in which the family is a foundation for citizenship
  • learning how to deal with agencies that serve families, such as schools, social services, voluntary organisations and the criminal justice system.

The common feature of these five aspects is that they involve intergenerational learning based on kinship, however defined. This definition is not determined by function but by the complex continuity of relationships that is the essence of human life.’

Active encouragement and support at home has a significant impact on educational attainment at school. Unless parental support increases, the government’s ambitions to improve education will also fall short. To avoid failure, the priority for education policy must be to support families as the foundation for learning.

Family learning also connects many other strands of government policy that are usually tackled separately, if at all. Personal happiness and mental health are closely linked to family experiences. Family breakdown imposes considerable personal and public costs. There is evidence for links between criminal behaviour and parenting. Economic prosperity and employment increasingly depend on knowledge, skills and flexibility, which in turn depend on educational achievement that is rooted in family learning. All of these issues are closely connected with poverty, social cohesion, social justice and social exclusion.

Education and inequality

Education is essential to improving the life chances for the most disadvantaged. Inequality between home backgrounds is still the greatest source of inequality in educational attainment. The question is, what will do most to raise achievement among those who currently achieve least? This question is not new. Over a century ago, similar concerns about global competition and social exclusion led to the extension of primary education and to university reform. Secondary education was extended in 1944 for similar reasons. Thirty years ago, the Robbins Report advocated the expansion of higher education to strengthen the economy while the Plowden Report proposed Education Priority Areas to tackle deprivation. In the past decade, an avalanche of reforms has tried to raise education standards. Yet our educational and economic performance still lags behind many European and Asian countries. The reason why a century of reforms have not met the dual challenges of social deprivation and global competition is that the importance of families for learning has not been fully addressed. Support for families as places of learning provides a powerful way of tackling a number of central problems facing British society.