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Family literacy,language and numeracy: the international experience
Life used to be so much simpler, didn't it? For practitioners and policy-makers alike, solutions to educational problems seemed a bit more straightforward in the old days. Take social mobility.
We used to be pretty sure that education was the key (possibly even the sole key) to overcoming inequality. All we needed were more good teachers and more good schools, and every child would have a fair chance of success.
Simple, wasn't it? Sadly, we know now that things are not so straightforward. The best research evidence indicates that school quality accounts for only about 25% of a child's performance, with the other 75% attributable to other factors, especially parental income, education and involvement. 
This knowledge gets us closer to real solutions, but it doesn't always feel that way - sometimes, the more we know, the more overwhelmed we feel.
If this is a more complex era for those of us working to improve education and reduce inequality, then family literacy, language and numeracy (FLLN) is truly a practice for its time.
It isn't hard to see why: FLLN recognises that to help children, you must help families, and to help families you must work with communities. The evidence on the intergenerational transfer of disadvantage makes clear the need for such a holistic approach - but do we have enough evidence on how best to 'do' FLLN, and how much impact it actually has?
FLLN around the globe
On one hand, the answer to that question is 'yes'. Work done by Professor Greg Brooks and the NRDC  has illustrated the effectiveness of FLLN in England. On the other hand, we can't shout that 'yes' as loud as we might like to, in part because there has not been enough rigorous research of FLLN in England, but also because we have not paid enough attention to the world outside the nation's borders. Our knowledge of FLLN practice around the world is patchy. To begin to remedy this, Professor Brooks, working with CfBT Education Trust and NRDC, has recently led a review of FLLN programmes and practices around the world, including the UK. 
The review was a meta-study, meaning that instead of carrying out new primary research, Brooks and his colleagues reviewed and analysed the international evidence base, to see if clear messages could be found. One clear message, unfortunately, is that there is still not yet enough rigorous research evidence on FLLN, particularly in terms of the quantitative analysis of programmes' impact. Because they limited themselves to programmes that had generated quantitative evidence, Brooks et al. were only able to review 19 studies spread over 14 countries. And because not every study was as rigorous as would be ideal, the amount of evidence is limited further still.
However, where there was evidence on particular outcomes, it was almost always positive. Take the question of whether or not FLLN improves parents' literacy levels. Here, three out of five programmes reported gains in parents' skills, as measured in tests. In numeracy, two out of two studies reported improved parental test scores - as did two out of two language programmes.
One of the key goals of FLLN - and a key concern for policy-makers and practitioners in today's more complex world - is parents' ability to contribute to their children's education. Here, eight of eight studies reported gains, and numerous studies reported wider benefits, including improved childrearing practices, increased parental involvement in their children's schools, greater parental self-confidence and increased employment.
What about improvements in children's skills? Here too the evidence was positive. In literacy, 12 studies reported improvements on test scores; in language, eight studies reported gains, and in numeracy six did so. In each subject, only a small handful of programmes reported no improvement. But did these improvements last? Particularly when looking at outcomes for children, this question needs to be asked.
No one wants to see improvements made at age six wither away by age nine. Unfortunately, researchers rarely have the opportunity to follow up their research several years later. However, of the 19 studies analysed by Professor Brooks and his colleagues, five did gather follow-up data. Of those five studies, four found evidence that the gains from the programmes were sustained - and in the one case where they were not, the losses were only partial.
This suggests that FLLN programmes are capable of delivering both short and long term results. Looking briefly at qualitative evidence gathered by the review, one finding in particular stands out, at least in regard to current UK efforts to increase fathers' involvement in their children's education.
While fathers in family literacy programmes around the globe still seem to be notable more by their absence than by their involvement, a significant exception is in Turkey, where a father-child programme has been running since 1996. In the most recent evaluation of the programme, significant differences were found between fathers who had participated in the programme and those who had not, particularly in terms of open communication.
Disadvantage starts early
All of this matters a great deal - common sense tells us so, but so does the research evidence. When families are cut off from educational opportunities, or do not feel that the available opportunities meet their particular needs, everyone suffers, especially the children. Recent NRDC research has demonstrated statistically significant links between parents' basic skills and their children's test scores, a correlation that holds even when taking the parents' level of education into account.
But education levels have an impact as well: analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study of children born in the year 2000 has found that, in terms of vocabulary performance at the age of three, children of the least educated parents were already up to one year behind their more advantaged peers.
Such huge disadvantages start worryingly early, and we know from recent NRDC research that they tend to accumulate over time. It is precisely this sort of entrenched intergenerational transfer of disadvantage that FLLN can help to fight.
Advice and guidance
With the stakes so high, we all want to get family literacy, language and numeracy right. As part of the CfBT/NRDC project that led to the research review discussed above, a new FLLN practitioners' handbook has been published.
Aimed at encouraging innovative and inclusive learning and teaching, this case-study-based handbook provides practical guidance and tips across a range of topics, including partnership working, recruitment, teaching environments and strategies, utilising home practices, and assessment and accreditation.
By its very nature, FLLN straddles a number of boundaries, both through bringing adults' and children's learning together and through the range of policy concerns it addresses. This makes partnership working between organisations particularly important, but such boundary crossing can also be a challenge.
The same is true of recruitment. Head teachers report that the 'personal touch' is the most important aspect of the FLLN recruitment process: success in reaching learners is often largely attributable to the skills, confidence and cultural awareness of recruiters. One example of successful recruitment is the Parents as Learners (PALs) programme, in which former learners serve as learning champions, going out to speak to parents/carers and telling their own stories about coming onto courses.
Supportive teachers and learning environments are important in all areas of education, but are particularly essential in FLLN. As one teacher observes: 'Parents/carers and tutors often know that FLLN courses are memorable for the positive, welcoming, supportive, friendly, nonthreatening atmosphere which is of particular importance to parents who had negative experiences while in school themselves.'
Assessment and accreditation have important roles to play in FLLN, but some learners are uncomfortable initially with the idea of being assessed, particularly if they have had previous negative experiences of learning. Assessment requires sensitive handling by staff, as it may be a barrier to recruitment and retention. However, the evidence shows that FLLN courses lead to increased confidence, which for some learners sparks an interest in quantifying progress and/or gaining a qualification, whether to improve employment prospects, confirm their new abilities, or some combination of the two.
Here again we see the multifaceted impacts and outcomes of FLLN. Whether through qualifications, confidence or improved skills, children, parents and families see benefits, highlighting why FLLN can and should be central to future policy developments across a range of issues.
JD Carpentieri is Research and Development Policy Liaison Officer at NRDC
 Sparkes, J. and Glennerster, H. (2002) 'Preventing social exclusion: education's
contribution'.' In J. Hills, J. Le Grand and D. Piachaud (eds) Understanding Social
Exclusion. Oxford University Press, pp. 178-201.
 Heathcote, V. and Brooks, G. (2005) Evaluating Skills for Families - especially the role of local Skills for Families consultants. Basic Skills Agency.
 Brooks, G., Pahl, K., Pollard, A. and Rees, F. (2008) Effective and inclusive practices in family literacy, language and numeracy: a review of programmes and practice in the UK and
internationally. CfBT Education Trust.
 de Coulon, A., Meschi, E. and Vignoles, A. (2008) Parents' basic skills and their children's test scores. NRDC.
 George, A., Hansen, K. and Schoon, I. (2007) Cognitive Development. Millennium Cohort Study Briefing 1, June 2007. Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
 Bynner, J. and Parsons, S. (2008) Illuminating Disadvantage. NRDC.
 Mallows, D. (2008). Effective and inclusive practices in family literacy, language and numeracy. Family literacy, language and numeracy: a practitioner handbook. CfBT Education Trust.
See also: Carpentieri, J. (2008) Research briefing: Family literacy, language and numeracy (FLLN). NRDC.
New evaluations: family literacy, plus FLLN for teen parents and grandparents
NRDC has recently completed a QIA commissioned evaluation of FLLN programmes for teenage parents and grandparents. The aim of the research was to support the ongoing development of such programmes and to ensure that they meet the requirements for inclusion in the LSC FLLN menu.
Among the key findings were that grandparents' main motivations were to help their grandchildren and to keep up with modern teaching methods; these things were more important to them than improving their own skills.
To engage teenage parents, publicity and recruitment take time, involve personal contact with learners and rely on effective partnerships between organisations.
QIA has also commissioned NRDC (working with The Alliance) to provide an up-to-date assessment of the impact and effectiveness of the Family Literacy Programme.
This evaluation will inform decisions about further investment in the programme to be made in 2009 and Whether the programme is expanded. The research's aim is to establish what impact both short (30-49 hours) and intensive (72-96 hours) family literacy courses have on parents and their three to six-year-old children.