Learning in a family context can be stimulating for both parent and child, demonstrate how maths is relevant to everyday life and, says Stephanie Northen, be a second chance for parents who struggled at school.

Ikea may seem an unlikely place to help families get to grips with maths, but Alison Warren has found success amid the Billy bookcases and Ektorp sofas of the Swedish home furnishing shop. “It opens up so many opportunities,” she says. “There are numbers and shapes everywhere -some very bizarre shapes too. Curtains and fabrics need measuring and atrip to the cafe brings in money.”

Warren manages the National Family Learning Network, a government-funded body that promotes and supports family learning. She has spent eight years bringing parents and children together to boost their numeracy skills and has a repertoire of activities from cooking, to making tile mosaics, to just taking a walk outside the school (think number plates, door numbers, post boxes). The aim is to create a supportive environment where people can enjoy themselves and not worry about making mistakes.

“Many parents say they don’t understand the methods their children use at school, but usually you find they have struggled at school themselves,”says Warren. “So when they got something wrong, and did not know why they got it wrong, they became frustrated. Once you get through that,you see real achievement.”

Ofsted agrees. Last year inspectors sat in on 36 family learning sessions, selected as examples of good practice. They concluded that they had a considerable impact on adults’ and children’s numeracy and literacy skills. The sessions also improved parents’ relations with their child’s primary school, the venue for most of the sessions. And teachers reported that children settled better in class, got on better with their peers and had more self-confidence.

Inspectors praised the wide variety of activities at one primary school where year 1 children and parents joined together in singing, sorting and craft games to encourage counting and sequencing – as well as decorating biscuits with large numbers and making numbers out of dough. They were also impressed with another provider who had linked up with a local football club to get dads and children working on their numeracy and literacy.

Context and relevance

Such an approach is backed by Campaign for Learning, a charity that champions lifelong learning. Juliette Collier, the campaign’s head of family learning, says: “I can remember being at school and thinking I will never use this maths again in my life. So when you deliver maths in a family learning context it’s got to be relevant and meaningful. Shopping is a good example. Parents have to go shopping with kids and welcome any numeracy activity that stops them kicking off.”

Like Warren, Collier is aware of the barriers that need to be overcome.”**People in this country are too ready to say they are rubbish at maths- and this is often transmitted to their children,” she says. This was proved by a survey the campaign conducted late last year that said that parents who rated their own maths skills highly were more likely to have children who were confident mathematicians.**

Family numeracy aims to stop these feelings of inadequacy passing down the generations, and there are wider benefits from helping parents and children to work together. Research commissioned by the government in 2003 reported that”parental involvement … has a large and positive effect on the outcomes of schooling. This effect is bigger than that of schooling itself’.“

Such findings have pushed family learning up the political agenda. The 2007 Children’s Plan included £30m for programmes targeted at hard-to-reach parents. In the same year the government published Every Parent Matters, a policy document that outlined its commitment to supporting parents with literacy and numeracy needs so they would have the skills to help their children.

Pamela Park,chief executive of Parenting UK, a national membership organisation for those who work with parents, says the document was valuable in raising awareness. “It really made local areas think about what services they were going to provide for parents and how they were going to engage them,” she says. “This was important, given the phenomenal difference parental involvement can make.”

According to Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector of schools, family learning needs to become a coreactivity. Collier agrees. “We need a cultural and organisational change to one of equal partnership with parents,” she says. “Too many schools are still wary of inviting parents in and too many parents are still frightened of going in. But actually the many heads who do this brilliantly are those who recognise it is about delivering their core mission.”

Source: The Guardian – http://tinyurl.com/yerxf7e