Policy perspectives on family literacy interventions - interview with Dr. Ulrike Hanemann
Dr. Ulrike Hanemann coordinated the literacy work at the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) until May 2017. She has worked in research and capacity development in the field of literacy and non-formal and adult education within a perspective of lifelong learning in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Arab States. Before joining UNESCO in 2001, she worked for ten years as a lecturer and advisor at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in pre-service teacher formation and postgraduate programmes. She has also carried out consultancy work in Latin America and the Caribbean in the field of basic education. Currently, she works as an international professional in the field of education and development and is active as an Associate Academic of the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.
EBSN: What would be the benefits of robust family literacy policies to diverse EU governments?
Dr. Ulrike Hanemann: In 2011, the European Commission established a high-level expert group to analyse the literacy challenge in Europe. The expert group made a particular case for ‘family literacy’ and recommended: To develop visions and strategies for literacy development with wide ownership across all ages by adopting literacy strategies with a lifelong timespan, stretching from early childhood to adulthood.
Research indicates a strong association between parents’ education levels and their children’s level of literacy acquisition. Different studies therefore stress the importance of intergenerational approaches to literacy learning. Very often, the desire to help their children with school readiness and schoolwork motivates parents to (re)engage in learning themselves.
Family literacy policies and programmes work particularly well for disadvantaged families such as those with a migrant background or from minority linguistic and ethnic groups.
Research on the results of family literacy programmes reveals immediate benefits as well as a longer-term impact on children and adults alike. Such programmes can have long-term benefits lasting well into adulthood. Family literacy programmes provide parents with the strongest possible motivation for participation: improving their children’s chances in life. These programmes often attract adults who would not otherwise take part in education. They are also a cost-effective way of creating richer literate environments.
The benefits are not confined to educational outcomes, however. High-quality programmes prepare caregivers to succeed as parents and employees, enhance bonds between parents and children, strengthen connections between families, schools and other institutions, and revitalize neighbourhood networks, leading to stronger communities. Children of families who participate in literacy programmes improve their reading skills and are less likely to fail in school or to early leave school.
The benefits for adults are also evident: parents who engage in family literacy programmes are more likely to complete their programme than those who enrol in adult-only education programmes and therefore have a greater chance to make improvements to their family and personal circumstances by acquiring or improving academic and job-related skills. The benefits of family learning are actually multiplied by simultaneously reaching members of different generations leading in this way to a more effective use of resource.
EBSN: What are the pillars on which policy around family literacy should be constructed?
Dr. Hanemann: Family literacy policies are usually built on partnerships and cooperation among the institutions or organizations that strengthen connections between families, schools and communities. Related programmes typically operate from local preschools and primary schools, community and neighbourhood organisations, and adult education providers. The main three pillars on which family literacy policy should be constructed include early childhood and primary education, adult literacy and education, and community-based family support services for disadvantaged families (e.g. health and counselling services, social assistance, language courses, etc.).
EBSN: Does family literacy always lead to greater freedom or might it be used to 'domesticate' people?
Dr. Hanemann: Paulo Freire described education as a tool that can be used for liberation or domestication. Therefore, family literacy has the potential to be used for both providing families with more autonomy („empowerment”) or domesticating them. According to Freire the starting point in ‘education for liberation’ is dialogue, as opposed to the ‘top-down’ hierarchal ‘banking education’. This means that instead of using a ’deficit’ approach and ’talking down’ to vulenarble families, programme activities have to built on families’ strengths: namely literacy practices and resources that are already present in families. Only with an approach, that respects the ways how families learn and what they value, family literacy can unfold its empowering potential.
EBSN: To which wider EU goals/targets does family literacy contribute? How might interdisciplinarity/interagency approaches to family literacy best be encouraged/developed at policy level?
Dr. Hanemann: Family literacy contributes to goals reflected in the Recommendation on high quality early childhood education and care systems, the Resolution adopted by the Council on a renewed European Agenda for Adult Learning, and the Recommendation on Upskilling Pathways.
More specifically, it contributes to the achievement of the following targets (benchmarks) at European level by 2020:
- At least 95% of children should participate in early childhood education
- fewer than 15% of 15-year-olds should be under-skilled in reading, mathematics and science
- the rate of early leavers from education and training aged 18-24 should be below 10%
- at least 15% of adults should participate in learning
Literacy policies and strategies should use a ‘whole family’ approach to address all stages of life and involve a range of relevant individuals and organizations. They should not just focus on children’s development, nor should they deal exclusively with adult education. Collaboration between different sub-sectors (i.e. pre-school, primary school and adult education), institutions and stakeholders is necessary to support successful family literacy policies and programmes. In such well-coordinated family literacy partnerships and cooperation initiatives, one institution should be in charge of the family literacy policy. Interdisciplinary and interagency approaches work best if there are clear mandates and responsibilities. Co-funding schemes need to consider the different ways of operating of the involved parties. More flexible funding streams and reporting approaches could help overcome possible hurdles to inter-institutional cooperation and encourage sustainable partnerships.
EBSN: How can the interagency gains from family literacy best be captured when data are often gathered by single departments (siloes)?
Dr. Hanemann: Cooperation between different governmental departments, ministries or providers (’agencies’) should also be based on an agreement of who (which department) will be the main responsible for coordinating the collection of data and reporting on results achieved by the joint programme. The reports should, of course, acknowledge the contributions of all involved parties.
EBSN: How can family literacy programmes contribute to a more sustainable and socially just EU?
Dr. Hanemann: Ongoing educational reforms in many countries are seeking to design more integrated strategies with a lifelong learning perspective to particularly address the huge challenges of disadvantage, inequality and exclusion. It is unrealistic to rely on schools as the only solution to address the needs of disadvanatged populations and decrease social vulnerabilities and disparitities: families and communities need to become integrated elements of a more holistic strategy. In order to make a family literacy and intergenerational approach successful, it is necessary to provide sustained teacher training, develop a culture of collaboration among institutions, teachers and parents, and secure sustainable funding through longer-term policy support and by making it part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development architecture in EU member states. Family literacy does not only contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal 4 (to ’ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’), but also to SDGs addressing issues of poverty, nutrition, health and well-being, gender equality, water and sanitation, decent work and sustainable communities. In short, family literacy programmes contribute in multiple ways to a more sustainable and socially just EU, through the promotion of a culture of lifelong learning in disadvantaged families and communities.