The mummy returns (to the classroom)

17th April 2015 at 01:00
Adult education is full of women who want to expand their horizons after having families. Their dedication is inspiring

Like most teachers, I know a lot of mums. But they're not in my classroom to discuss the progress of their children - they're here to learn.

I teach English to adults. The majority are women, and most are mothers. I've taught young mothers with babies, frazzled mothers of teenagers and grandmothers whose adult children have long flown the nest. Regardless of age or circumstance, they are all united by the desire to study and improve.

I've been astounded by how much effort these women put into their studies. One student was eight months pregnant when she started her English GCSE; she took just two weeks off after the birth. Another is forced to miss the first few minutes of every class because she has to hand her baby and toddler over to her husband when he comes home from work. She wants a third child, but would prefer to complete her GCSE first. Both women catch up on their homework when their children are asleep.

Not all mothers are striving for qualifications. Many are studying to improve their English so they can read bedtime stories to their children or help with homework. This is especially common among women who speak English as a second language. Their children are growing up in Britain and often have a better grasp of the language.

Teaching parents (usually mothers) alongside their children is not new; the benefits are well-known. Adult education body Niace launched an inquiry into family learning and found that the better educated a mother is, the greater the positive influence on her children. The chair of the inquiry, Baroness Valerie Howarth, says: "Evidence shows that family learning could increase the overall level of children's development by as much as 15 percentage points for those from disadvantaged groups."

And its effect is not just on children. "Adults whose parents have low levels of education are eight times more likely to have poor proficiency in literacy than adults whose parents have higher levels of education," she adds.

And raising parents' aspirations often raises those of their children - young people are inspired to do better than their mothers and fathers. I'm currently poring over Romeo and Juliet with an English GCSE student in her 40s; she has a 15-year-old son who will be sitting the same exam on the same day. "It's caused a little rivalry in our house as my son doesn't want me to get a higher grade than him," she tells me. She has seen an upturn in his effort and devotion to revision - I'm sure it hasn't gone unnoticed by his school.

Juggling act

Family life can put obstacles in the way of mothers, preventing them from enrolling on courses, attending regularly and completing their studies. Among the reasons I have been given for students dropping out, family commitments crop up the most. First there is the issue of childcare. Many are single mothers relying on their own parents to look after their children. If their child is unwell, these women can do little but drop everything to take care of them. Then there is the guilt they feel spending time on their studies, which can conflict with their role as carer.

One of my students frequently receives phone calls from her teenage son when he forgets his key and locks himself out. He's heading home from school just as she's starting class. "I've told him this is my time," she tells me, after making arrangements for his welfare over the phone. "He doesn't listen. He thinks it's weird that I'm at college. He doesn't take it seriously."

For many women, education is a chance to focus on themselves after years of prioritising others. I teach a woman of 64 who waited until she had retired and her children had families of their own before she returned to learning.

This is no surprise to Fiona Aldridge, Niace's assistant director of development and research. "We know from the learner stories that we collect as part of Adult Learners' Week that mums also take part in learning to get some `me time', pursuing their own interests and developing skills," she says. However, if their studying is being interrupted by their children's demands, some women will pack in the course altogether. Timing is everything to the mother in the classroom.

They also study to boost their employability. Mothers are among the lowest down in the labour market. Many leave employment to start a family, and if they do work, it's often in low-paid, part-time jobs that fit in with childcare.

Maybe they need to brush up their literacy skills in order to complete application forms for jobs, improve their digital literacy skills so they're up to date with technological demands or achieve better qualifications to improve their career prospects. I meet plenty of women (many of whom have degrees from other countries) who want to become teachers or nurses or go to university but need to secure the coveted A*-C grades in their English and maths GCSEs first.

Some are also learning vocational skills such as upholstery or bookkeeping, or are training to become teaching assistants so they have up-to-date qualifications and can compete with others in the employment market.

My classes are full of mothers. Whether they want to improve bedtime story-reading for their little ones, get themselves into university or kick-start their careers, I'm bowled over by their dedication and hard work. My lessons wouldn't be the same without them.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London

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