The Basic Skills Agency's family literacy programme was praised this week by Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, for showing how the cycle of underachievement could be broken.
She was speaking at a conference in London at the launch of an evaluation report on four three-year demonstration projects in deprived areas of Cardiff, Liverpool, Norfolk and North Tyneside. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that children aged three to six made significant improvements in early language, reading and writing; their parents not only stayed the course but made and maintained gains in literacy, became more involved with their child's school, helped them with reading and writing at home; and the majority went on to improve their education.
The NFER team judged it to be "one of the most effective initiatives they had ever encountered". In the words of Tom Sticht, a pioneer of family literacy in the United States, it gives "a big return on investment (ROI)". He told the conference that the scheme had an impact beyond one child as parents used their experience with the rest of their family and the wider community. "That gives you a big ROI" - a point not lost on Mrs Shephard.
She promised "to reflect carefully on the lessons to be learnt from the successes of the initiative and how we can build on this foundation realistically and effectively". But, she added, "it is too soon to make specific promises".
The programme offered courses lasting 96 hours over 12 weeks with six hours for parents and children separately and two hours in joint sessions. The research covered 361 parents, mostly mothers between the age of 20 and 34 with low literacy levels and few qualifications. The children had low scores in language and literacy and were at risk of failure at school.
Alan Wells, director of the BSA, urged an expansion of the Pounds 3 million programme as family literacy should be part of the Government's action to raise standards. He warned, however, that the family literacy approach was no "quick fix". But it was a successful way of raising achievement for the whole family and reached children who might otherwise fail.
Key findings from the NFER's evaluation are available free from the BSA, Commonwealth House, 1-19 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1NU. The full report, Family Literacy Works, costs Pounds 6.50 plus Pounds 1.25 pp from the same address. Make cheques payable to Basic Skills Agency.