Learning profits when it's a family business

17th October 2014 at 01:00
Siblings often lock horns at school, but as adults they offer each other valuable support and encouragement, this teacher has found

I am still haunted by something that happened to me in my first year of primary school. I had been sent on an errand to Mr Collins' class and it took a lot of guts for a seven-year-old to interrupt him - he had a giant's physique and a deep booming voice. As I was leaving, he said: "Let's see if you're as clever as your sister. How many legs does a spider have?" I said six. The older children erupted with laughter.

In hindsight, I know he would have been mortified. He asked a question he thought I'd get right and I got it wrong. Unfortunately, I never seemed to claw it back from that moment. My sister is three years older than me and breezed through school with the highest grades. I was never quite as good as her and was in her shadow until we went to separate universities.

Attending school with a sibling can be tricky. Rivalries can spring up between children. Teachers shouldn't compare, but some do. Twins are often split up for fear that they will become too reliant on each other.

It's different in adult education. When I hear that one of my students has a brother or sister interested in learning, I cross my fingers and hope that they sign up to my class too. Why? Because once an adult has made the momentous decision to return to the classroom, it can be a struggle to keep them there. Jobs, childcare and general exhaustion can hinder regular attendance and this is when the presence of a sibling can help.

Studying together as a family is not new to the post-compulsory sector. Training providers across the country hold "family learning" classes which parents and carers attend alongside their children. These help the adults to understand what their children are being taught, at the same time as reintroducing them to the concept of learning.

A 2009 report on family learning by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) said the "intergenerational combination of encouragement and involvement in each other's learning activities raises aspirations and creates long-term change". Although the report focuses on children learning with adults, I believe the finding that "both positive and negative effects flow from family relationships" also applies to siblings (even though Niace says it has no research on the subject and is not familiar with any from elsewhere).

Relative values

In the absence of concrete data, I can only offer my own anecdotal evidence. Last year I taught level 1 English to a brother and sister. She was older and started a week before her sibling, who was finishing his prison sentence as the course began. They were loud, lively and very able. The brother had bucket-loads of bravado (an essential self-preservation tool for prison, I imagine) but lacked confidence. At the age of 23, he was already an absent father to a handful of children and his conviction meant the future was uncertain. Adult education was one of the few opportunities available to him.

His sister, who had also become a parent at a young age, kept him in check. Her first job was to ensure that he came to class regularly. I never underestimated her influence - on the odd occasion that she couldn't make it, he didn't come either. She also encouraged her brother to stay in class until the end. A stern look from her or a threat to "tell Mum" was often enough to get him back on track. Crucially, she also spoke to me about some personal issues that he had not disclosed, which helped me to understand why he flared up in class.

Two other siblings I taught were almost a decade apart in age. The teenager was only a year or two out of school but her sister was in her late twenties and had children of her own. She told me that she was embarrassed to be back in the classroom and credited her younger sister with persuading her to attend. They'd decided to do it together - safety in numbers.

The younger sister was more able and supported her sibling when she found the work challenging. In turn, the older sister was the driving force behind their good attendance and punctuality. They were the perfect study-buddies.

Both sets of siblings worked hard and passed their exams. The brother and sister are both in paid work now - their first ever jobs. The two sisters have moved on to study at a higher level. I can't say for sure that the outcome would have been different if they had studied with me individually but I do think the family support helped.

The classroom can be a daunting place for adults. You're not the same age as everyone else and you may not have much common ground. Unlike schoolchildren, you don't all share the same goals. Not everyone is working towards a GCSE or a paid job. Some learners are simply there to improve their English.

Many students lack self-confidence and this is when sibling support comes into play. Learners are less likely to feel alone if they have a member of their family with them. And, of course, they can complete homework together and persuade each other to come to lessons on dark, cold winter evenings when the sofa seems much more appealing.

I may not have any research to back it up but, in my humble opinion, siblings that study together flourish together.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London


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