Developing family learning programmes with mobile families

We learned lots of new words together on our trip to the Botanics.

We were learning to cook and speak at the time time!

We taught each other recipes to try at English and Slovak!

I learned how to help the wee ones to learn when we were doing the activities.

Amelia showed us how to learn from all the signs we could see from an open-top bus.

Counting the fish, describing the fish, and naming the fish!

We didn't realise how much we were learning to read while we were doing the activities.

STEP’s research into mobile family literacy showed that many adults from mobile communities have poor literacy and their children are known to have some of the lowest levels of literacy and educational attainment in the country.  The main reasons are due to mobility causing interruptions to education – for example – some families are recently arrived in the country, while others have no tradition of schooling.  Where English is an additional language, adults can be left behind while children absorb the new languages more successfully. Families may be unable to communicate with schools and other services, resulting in social isolation. When parents are unable to provide support at home, children’s learning and engagement with formal education can be affected. Studies have shown that shared family literacy activity can impact positively on literacy levels for both parents and children.  However, given the private nature of many mobile communities’ lives, it can be difficult to gain understanding of how families might engage with programmes to support their literacy.  STEP collaborated with families to discover what prevents engagement and what can be done to improve learning partnerships.

STEP co-ordinated three pilot programmes in different locations across Scotland with families from mobile cultures. The aim was to identify ways to engage families in sustainable learning programmes with a particular emphasis on literacy. Participants included Slovakian mothers in a primary school in Glasgow, three Gypsy/Traveller families with non-attending children living on a Travellers’ site, and a group of  five Gypsy/Traveller mothers and their pre-school children living on a local authority site.  The programme sought to use approaches to programme delivery that would be relevant and meaningful to each specific community.  For this reason, the structure and content of each pilot programme was designed in collaboration with participating families.  Early consultation was achieved through a range of methods such as informal social gatherings and practical activity sessions.

Families described a range of factors which  affected their participation in school life, their ability to support their children’s learning and engage in the wider community.  We found that different groups and individuals identified very different obstacles. However, our research showed that the greatest barrier faced by the majority of families was language.  By addressing any barriers well in advance, measures can be taken to ensure equity of opportunity for all participants.



Parents, for whom English was not their native language, faced frequent obstacles to engaging or accessing services due to language barriers and inability to communicate their concerns.  Women, in particular, are highly vulnerable to exclusion due to their low education and English language levels.  Where, children and husbands have reasonable exposure to the wider community, women described their opportunities as limited through maternal responsibilities and low literacy – resulting in social isolation. Women also felt apprehensive about seeking language learning courses because of their low language levels which made researching and approaching services intimidating without the presence of a translator.  Their confidence was low due to language proficiency and therefore did not approach school staff with concerns, and did not participate in school life including school trips, events and parents evenings.


Many parents were concerned about their reading and writing ability even when sessions were designed to address literacy issues. They felt embarrassment in front of other parents, teachers and particularly their children – if they were involved.  Poor literacy also prevented them finding out about other literacy support services in the area meaning that many of the women relied on ‘word of mouth’ communication.  Some also felt apprehensive about taking first steps to join groups as they were worried about registration processes due to limited literacy.


Following periods of travel, families said they often felt like ‘outsiders’ as their constant mobility didn’t allow them to become part of a school community.  Some also felt that the school community didn’t understand or share their enthusiasm for a mobile cultural lifestyle.


Families felt that practical factors were not considered and often stood in the way of engagement. Session times often conflicted with childcare, family or work commitments. Sometimes venues felt unfamiliar or intimidating, particularly if they were outwith the immediate community.


Factors relating to families’ culture and traditions can affect engagement.  Sometimes participation outwith the home or culture is disapproved of by others.  Programmes which lack cultural references or traditions may be viewed as having little relevance to the families’ everyday lives.

Previous negative experiences

Some participants said that negative experiences of education in the past put them off getting involved in family programmes.

Lack of awareness

Many families, especially those from Slovakia, said it was difficult to find out about education services that are available to them. Many were unable to read local notices or access the information via the internet. There was also no expectation as they were unused to such services in their country of origin.

The family pilot programmes produced useful knowledge which has informed templates for future work.

A framework for programme delivery

By working with a range of different participants, it became clear that there were four necessary stages to engaging mobile families in learning programmes. The stages were identified as: Engage, Consult, Co-produce and Sustain. This led to STEP’s ‘Framework for effective family learning programmes’, which is described in more detail below.

Considerations on content

Continuous evaluation revealed that programme content was effective when it met the following criteria:

  • Sessions were informal, flexible and family-led
  • Discussion and planning processes were culturally and contextually relevant
  • Activities were designed to include active participation and creative processes
  • Sessions resulted in tangible, useful resources, such as a bilingual cookbook
  • Families could see the value in what they learned i.e. transferable skills and children’s activities that could be extended and replicated in the home

As a result of this research, STEP developed the ‘six dimensions for learning’ for Making learning relevant for mobile communities.  The model aims to support practitioners design relevant and engaging learning opportunities for mobile young people and their families.

Programme benefits for schools and families

The programme outcomes proved the benefits of the approaches for both families and educators. The programme demonstrated that:

  • Families were willing to engage with family education programmes, particularly when initial barriers were shared and accepted.
  • Parents took great pride in being able to get involved in their children’s education and express their interest and concerns.  Often they needed initial support to do this.
  • On the whole parents were willing to share the challenges of their own literacy development, if done in a secure and trusting environment.  This was particularly successful when the opportunity arose as part of another initiative, such as a craft workshop.
  • Adults were particularly keen to learn strategies to allow them to support their children’s learning at home. Digital media was embraced as useful for intergenerational learning.
  • New and positive relationships developed between school staff and parents as a consequence of the programme. Although families were initially reluctant to engage with other services (e.g. nursery, library, language courses), as the programmes developed, and they became more familiar with staff, they felt confident to pursue other routes.

The framework for effective programmes with families

1 Engage

Reach out, draw on other community initiatives for initial contact.

Visit sites and use Traveller educators (TENET) to broker relations.

Do research and show awareness of Travellers’ cultural values and traditions.

Address practical barriers to initial engagement such as transport, childcare or translators.

Build trust – be transparent with information, demonstrate democratic relationships and discuss long term commitment.

2 Consult

Provide opportunities for families to share motivations, prior experiences, knowledge and skills and discuss how to build on them.

If trust has been established, draw on the expertise of other professionals, such as health, early years, local businesses.

Use accessible and creative forms of communication, eg. oral and visual methods can build rapport.

Demonstrate that all views are taken on board.

3 Co-produce

Use participant-led approaches – invite people to take different roles.

Adopt needs-based design – families should decide what is relevant and how it should be delivered.

Consider both cultural and personal input that is engaging, useful and transferable.

Work with familiar facilitators, particularly those known to communities.

Adopt a responsive programme structure – welcome new families, and adapt content as confidence and skills develop.

4 Sustain

Empower participants – embed leadership roles at early stages.

Focus on transferable skills that will also be useful in the home learning environment.

Produce useful and tangible resources that can be shared.

Ensure transparency so that families can see the benefit for themselves and other family members.

Broker relationships and form networks with wider community to sustain projects and offer new learning pathways.

How the framework was applied

1 Engage

One school created personalised invitations to a family session. The invitations were translated into families’ native languages. They were also sent by post as the school was mindful that families may not have access to the internet.

Another programme was held in a Gypsy/Traveller site portacabin for convenience. The Education Officer visited the caravans individually and told families about the sessions.

2 Consult

All of the sessions began with creative and familiar activities such as cake decorating. This allowed natural conversation to flow, provided opportunities for parents to share views on learning needs, and enabled facilitators to consult with participants about their interests and expectations.

To feel most at ease when sharing views and experiences, two of the groups decided they only wanted mums to attend.

3 Co-produce

Families planned programmes that would have both cultural and personal relevance. For instance, some mothers were keen to learn English – solving many day-to-day challenges.  They were keen that words and phrases taught met their own routines such as liaising with schools and using public transport.

Parents wanted some sessions to be split into two, providing opportunities to learn on their own before being joined by children.

4 Sustain

Participants created things that they could share with their families at home such as a recipe book, craft objects and e-stories. Participants’ confidence grew throughout the project, as skills developed and opinions were valued.

They took ownership of programmes – running groups, organising cultural trips, and seeking new learning opportunities in school and in the local community.