Family Skills: improving EAL learner’s literacy through family involvement

Fatima Husain and Sarah Frankenburg of NatCen Social Research were independent evaluators on a recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) trial of the Family Skills programme. Family Skills was designed to support academic progress in young EAL learners with family involvement through schools. While they experienced some challenges in getting parents to attend, those parents who were able to join the programme saw improvements in their children’s literacy attainment. Fatima and Sara tell us about the trial and its findings.

Fatima and Sara

Fatima Husain & Sarah Frankenburg

What does the evaluation of Family Skills tell us about involving EAL parents in their children’s education?

We know that schools in England are always trying to find ways to involve parents in their children’s schooling. This is true especially for parents who may have a poor grasp of English or low levels of literacy. In addition, research points to the importance of the home learning and environment in helping children to do better at school.

About the Family Skills intervention

Family Skills[1] is an intervention focused on parents of children aged 4-5 for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL).  Its ultimate aim is to improve literacy for these children whilst encouraging parents to maintain bilingualism in their child’s home learning environment. The course covers topics such as reading to children, phonics, making the most of bilingualism, learning through play, and understanding primary education in England, as well as including a visit to a local library and a tour of the school. It is delivered over 11 weekly sessions at the child’s school by external family learning tutors. Children attend for part of the sessions to do shared activities with their parents and to help parents apply the skills they had been taught in the earlier parts of the sessions.

The Family Skills evaluation

Our team at NatCen Social Research were appointed as independent evaluator by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), who commissioned the evaluation. We carried out a randomised control trail of Family Skills during the 2016-2017 school year. 115 schools were involved in the trail which aimed to find out whether Family Skills improved literacy for the children whose parents were invited to take part. The trial combined an analysis of impact (the final outcome for children) with an implementation study (to assess intervention delivery).

The schools were randomised into ‘treatment’ schools, where parents were identified by teachers and invited to take part, and ‘control’ schools which did not deliver the intervention and continued with ‘business as usual’. The Family Skills trial took place over one school year.  Before the start of the intervention and at the end of the school year, we measured children’s literacy using the literacy component of the BASE Reception Baseline Assessment. We then compared these outcomes between children in treatment and control schools.

In addition to testing pupils to assess impact, we conducted school surveys and in-depth interviews with school staff, tutors and parents for the implementation study.

Key Findings

Overall, we found that children whose parents were invited to take part in Family Skills did not make additional progress in literacy compared to EAL children in control schools.  However, there were a number of parents who were invited to attend but who did not actually show up to any sessions. When we focused our analysis only on parents who attended at least one Family Skills session, we found that their children, on average, made around one month’s additional progress in literacy compared to children in control schools However due to the low levels of attendance, this finding needs to be treated with caution as discussed in the full evaluation report.


While our findings show that for those parents who attended the sessions there was an associated improvement in their children’s literacy, the fact that many invited parents did not attend was an important finding to explore. Only around a third of eligible parents took part, and one of the main barriers (see figure below) was because of the delivery of sessions during the school day, which made it difficult for parents who were in work to attend.

But we know that parents who attended and even some who dropped out, enjoyed attending sessions with their children and liked learning about strategies for supporting their children’s literacy at home, and the sessions on phonics were particularly valued. They also like the social aspect of attending – talking to other parents, developing new friendships, and sharing ideas.

Chart 1

The main barriers to attending Family Skills sessions

There are a number of lessons for schools that want to deliver similar interventions for EAL parents. The most important is having sufficient time to recruit parents who would benefit most.  This may mean screening parents on their level of literacy and/or familiarity with the education system. Parents who participated in the study included those who spoke English well, were educated here but were bilingual at home.  It may be that this type of parent and those with very low literacy in English are least likely to benefit such interventions.

The majority of schools (91%) delivering Family Skills said they would recommend the intervention to other schools as it provided a good opportunity to improve home-school links and staff felt parents had a better understanding of how their child was being taught in school and what to do at home to support their child’s learning.

The challenge of course is getting parents through the door and getting them to stay the course because we know from the existing evidence that what happens at home has an impact on children’s attainment.

From a research perspective, perhaps what is needed is exploratory research well before intervention delivery to understand what practical steps (timing of sessions, incentives etc.) are needed to improve attendance.

Family Skills and other similar interventions would benefit from further investigation to establish what progress, if any, is made by pupils and whether it is maintained over time, but only after issues related to attendance have been addressed.

Read the EEF’s summary of the project here, and the full EEF report here.


[1] The intervention was developed and delivered by Learning Unlimited working in partnership with Campaign for Learning and UCL Institute for Education. The project was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, the Bell Foundation, and Unbound Philanthropy.

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