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It started with a cuppa...

A genteel coffee morning on the Isle of Wight lures parents with few qualifications back into learning to the benefit of the whole family. Nic Barnard reports

It starts with coffee but can end up with parents rooting through dustbins, giving the kiss of life, or even in front of a magistrate. Life isn't always predictable on the Isle of Wight. "People say to me: 'You tricked us!'" says Sarah Teague, manager of East Cowes family learning centre.

"They only came in for coffee and ended up dressing up, telling stories and making puppets."

Teague and her colleagues have become masters at enticing parents back into education through an astonishing variety of courses from first aid to adult literacy via samba workshops and IT. Family learning - loosely defined as formal or informal learning that involves or affects more than one generation - has become one of the unsung successes of adult education.

The National Family Learning Network counts at least 5,500 providers across the country, working with five million families in settings ranging from schools and community centres to libraries and museums.

It reaches adults with bad memories of school and few qualifications who may be reluctant to return to learning but want to help their own children.

Courses may see parents and children learn together; or parents learn skills they then pass on to their children at home; or it may involve learning parenting or other skills to support their children's education.

In East Cowes FLC, a converted temporary classroom across the playground from East Cowes primary, five mums are scanning in family photos for the laminated calendars they are creating on the centre's laptops.

They are there to make homemade Christmas presents but it is effectively a 10-week crash course in desktop publishing. Kay Anderson and Jo Childs reel off the other courses they have done as they click and drag their family snaps.

"Sign language stage one," says Jo.

"Soft furnishings," says Kay, "and law and order - what could happen to your children if they get arrested."

"The SHARE course, key stages 1 and 2 - that's working with your children to help them in maths and English," says Jo.

There is an emphasis on the practical. Sign language is useful for finding work in the island's care homes. A face-painting course led to one mum getting a franchise in a local theme park.

"It's like a big extended family," says Jo. "We're doing something for ourselves, but it does help the kids. My second child struggled with reading and writing. I did the SHARE course with him and he's come on leaps and bounds."

"They see us coming in and see we still want to learn and it makes them want to work," says Kay.

Teague says the secret lies in combining an extensive range of well-supported courses with progression routes and exit strategies. Coffee mornings and taster workshops are a start, "but there's no point giving people a taster if you can't offer them the full meal.

"If people haven't been involved (in education), you need a good two or three years of confidence-building, maybe taking several courses at the same level before progressing up," she says. "Then you find people becoming school governors, community workers, or volunteers."

Jo's five-year plan leads to an education degree.

The centre covers the whole island, working with partners including local schools, the council, neighbourhood renewal partnerships and the island's further education college. They pull in funding from any source available; much has come from single regeneration budgets and neighbourhood renewal funds.

Word of mouth plays an important part - one course actually trains parents to be "local champions", telling friends what is on offer. Ownership is also vital: courses are chosen to meet local needs and families are invited to develop their own learning plans.

The law and order course is a case in point. East Cowes, like Newport's Pan estate, is a world away from the island's genteel image of weekend sailors and retirees; parents thought a bit of background information on the legal system could come in handy. Local magistrates help deliver it and the course is now nationally accredited.

Other courses target the workplace: a video-making course for local lifeboat crews and first aid and health and hygiene for local care home staff. Each includes a package for workers to take home and do with their children.

"We found employees coming to courses they wouldn't normally do, because it helped their children," says Kerry Baker, the centre's community development officer.

And what about those dustbins? The centre offers a course on "how to be a history detective". Weekly tasks begin with a trawl through the bins at home to find things that will tell future historians about life today. But, rubber gloves aside, the course is computer-based, with families working through a CD-Rom which includes archive maps, photographs and other records, courtesy of English Heritage.

Computers are one reason for the phenomenal growth of family learning from its origins in Basic Skills Agency programmes to help parents read with their children. "Parents are happy to learn about ICT because their kids use it all the time," says Fred Garnett, policy adviser on community learning at Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency).

"Adults won't necessarily admit to literacy or numeracy problems, but they will admit to not knowing how to use a computer. And they're more motivated to learn if they come in with their kids."

The Office for Standards in Education in 2000 reported that family learning produced pupils who were more confident and successful at school, while more than half the parents involved went on to further training or better jobs.

This helps explain the enthusiasm, both of the Government and the learners, for family learning.

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