Family literacy sessions could boost learning, but supporting parents to attend is hard

4 May 2018

Offering parents ‘family learning’ sessions that aim to give them the tools they need to aid their child’s learning at home might improve literacy, but supporting them to turn up regularly can be difficult. This is according to new research from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that adds to the growing evidence of how to engage parents effectively.

115 primary schools in England took part in a randomised controlled trial of Family Skills, a programme delivered by a partnership led by Learning Unlimited that aimed to improve the literacy and language of children learning English as an Additional Language (EAL).

The trial was funded by the EEF with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, as part of a funding round focused on raising the attainment of EAL pupils. Earlier research from Oxford University, commissioned by these organisations, found that the attainment of EAL pupils varies widely and that average attainment figures mask a huge range of outcomes for different groups of EAL pupils. The research also found there is a lack of high-quality evidence of what really boosts attainment for these disparate groups.

Over the course of one term, parents of four and five year olds were offered weekly sessions with family learning tutors. The two and a half hour sessions focused on topics like reading to children, phonics, making the most of bilingualism, learning through play, and understanding primary education in England. Families were encouraged to do learning activities at home with their children, and were also given opportunities to visit a local library and take a tour of their child’s school.

The independent evaluation conducted by the National Centre for Social Research found that, overall, children of parents who were offered the Family Skills intervention did not make any more progress in literacy than children of parents who were not offered it.

However, the evaluation also suggests that children whose parents actually attended Family Skills sessions made greater progress in literacy than children whose parents did not. While the evaluators are cautious about this figure (noting the impact might have been between 0 and +2 months’ additional progress), this may indicate some potential if ways can be found to ensure more parents attend.

The key challenge the evaluation highlighted is that some schools struggled to get parents to turn up – only around one-third of eligible parents attended at least one session.

Today’s new findings add to a growing body of research that highlights the difficulties of recruiting and retaining parents to face-to-face programmes. During previous projects, EEF studies have identified many reasons for this. These include not being able to find the time between their busy work schedules and childcare commitments, or reluctance to attend because their own experiences of school were not positive.

The vast majority of schools taking part in the trial of Family Skills said that they would recommend it to other schools, highlighting that it provided a good opportunity to build home–school links and engage parents in their children’s learning. They also reported that regular reminders and personalised recruitment helped to boost attendance, and tutors reported that more time to engage parents before the programme started would have been beneficial.

The EEF have also published three more evaluation reports on their website:

  • A pilot of RETAIN, a one-year professional development programme for early career teachers (ECTs) who are teaching key stage 1 (KS1) pupils in schools in disadvantaged areas. The project was led by the Cornwall College Group and evaluated by a team from Sheffield Hallam University.
  • A pilot of Positive Action, a school-wide programme led by Lady Joanna Thornhill Primary School and evaluated by a team from Queens University Belfast, that aims to develop positive attitudes and behaviour, and improve peer relationships and engagement in learning.
  • A trial of GraphoGame Rime, a computer game designed to teach pupils to read by developing their phonological awareness and phonic skills. The game is delivered in small groups supervised by a teacher or teaching assistant, with pupils working on individual devices, as the game is designed to constantly adjust the difficulty to challenge the learner at an appropriate level. The project, delivered by the University of Cambridge and evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), was funded as part of joint initiative with Wellcome to explore how insights from neuroscience can be used to improve education.


Posted on 4 May 2018
Posted in: Evidence