Family Learning – Learning Together

Country Profile: Sweden

Population

9,546,000 (2013)

Official language

Swedish

Other officially recognised languages

Finnish, Meänkieli, Sami, Romani and Yiddish

People at risk of poverty or social exclusion

15.6% (Eurostat, 2012)

Total expenditure on education as % of GDP

6.8 (2011)

Access to primary education (last grade) – total net intake rate

Total: 98% (2011)
Male: 98%
Female: 98%

Adult literacy rate (15–65 years)

PIAAC test results – percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy (Level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, Level 5 the highest):

  • Below Level 1 and Level 1: 13.3%
  • Level 2: 29%
  • Level 3: 41.6%
  • Levels 4 and 5: 16.1%
Statistical sources
  • EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2013–14
  • OECD Skills Outlook 2013
  • UNESCO Institute for Statistics
  • World Bank
  • Eurostat

Programme Overview

Programme TitleFamily Learning – Learning Together
Implementing OrganizationMunicipality of Linköping, Sweden
Language of InstructionSwedish, Arabic and Somali (others planned)
Annual Programme CostsSEK 500,000 (US $57,000) (2015). Annual programme cost per learner: SEK 1,500 (US $172) (2015)
Date of Inception2013

Country Context

Sweden is the third-largest country in the European Union by area, but it has a relatively small population of 9.8 million and a low population density of 24 inhabitants per square kilometre (World Bank, 2015). However, in recent years, the population has grown considerably. In 2014 there was population growth of 0.9 per cent, the highest yearly increase for 70 years. Immigration has been the major driving force behind the growth.

In 2014, immigration to Sweden increased by 10 per cent to a record 127,000 (OECD, 2015). Syrian nationals were the largest immigrant group (17 per cent), followed by returning Swedish nationals (16 per cent). Many immigrants arrive in Sweden having fled conflict zones such as Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, resulting in an increase in the number of applications for asylum (OECD, 2015). This trend continues due to ongoing armed conflict. In December 2014, foreign-born residents numbered 1.6 million and comprised of 17 per cent of the Swedish population (OECD, 2015).

Foreign-language immigrants tend to have low levels of literacy and language proficiency in Swedish, and score much lower than native-born and native-language Swedes (OECD, 2015). This might be expected, given that Swedish is not their native language. However, the difference in literacy proficiency between foreign-language immigrants and native-born Swedes is the biggest of the 21 industrialized countries examined by the OECD in 2015. Furthermore, foreign-born adults experience significant difficulties in entering local labour markets, compared to native Swedes. The employment gap between foreign-born and native-born residents, was among the highest in the OECD in 2012 (OECD, 2015).

Linköping, a Swedish municipality with a population of around 150,000 people, is one of the fastest growing cities in Sweden, due in large part to the arrival of increasing numbers of immigrants. Around 16 per cent, or 21,000, of Linköping's inhabitants were born abroad, with by far the largest population groups coming from Iraq (3,736) and Somalia (2,019). Syrians constitute the fastest growing foreign-born community (Linköping, 2015). Linköping has become a multicultural city with heterogeneous districts. However, pupils attending schools in Linköping's multicultural areas tend, on average, to perform worse than students attending schools in more homogeneous areas. There are a number of reasons for this. On the one hand, newly-arrived children usually lack adequate language skills in Swedish. On the other, parents with foreign backgrounds are sometimes unable or unwilling to become actively involved in their children’s schooling. Language barriers and cultural differences have led to a lack of cooperation between school and home and limited participation among foreign-born parents in parent-teacher meetings or other school activities.

Reflecting on the relatively wide literacy and employment gaps between immigrant and native adults in Sweden (including Linköping), the 2012 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey emphasizes the need to develop stronger and better-targeted measures to improve immigrants' employability. One measure, already enshrined in Swedish school law, is to ensure that children who use a mother tongue other than Swedish at home have the opportunity to develop both Swedish and their mother tongue. Mother tongue education is voluntary and mainly takes place outside of school hours. Swedish schools increasingly employ teachers fluent in one or more of the languages spoken by foreign-born children/parents. The objective is to make use of pupils' proficiency in their mother tongue to facilitate their acquisition of Swedish. In Linköping, about eighty school and pre-school teachers are employed specifically to support this work.

Programme Overview

Between 2010 and 2013, the Public Health Agency of Sweden (Folkhälsomyndigheten) initiated a project to deliver universal parenting support within cities, regions and universities. The municipality of Linköping, its Department of Education and the University of Linköping were included in the project, which led, among other things to the development of Learning Together.

Linköping's Department of Education is responsible for organizing pre-school and primary and secondary school provision. Its resource and support section provides schools with specialist support and training, to support pupils with special needs, for example. Parenting courses were set up in 2000 and, by 2010, Linköping had developed a structure of support for parents with children aged up to 18. Most of the courses were delivered in Swedish, however, which meant that parents with limited Swedish language skills were not able to participate. As the number of immigrants arriving in Linköping increased, the need for parenting support and adult learning for people with limited Swedish skills became more apparent. The project in Linköping began to adapt its parenting programme to the needs of foreign-born parents and their children.

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Learning Together

Since September 2015, Linköping has been cooperating with the Swedish agency for family and parenting support (Myndigheten för familjerätt och föräldraskapsstöd). By the end of that year, the municipality of Linköping was organising three different kinds of courses to target families of foreign origin from multicultural areas. These offer, respectively:

The education course comprises the Learning Together programme, which draws on insights from family learning to create intergenerational learning processes. The course is organised by the Linköping Department of Education’s resource and support section. The programme is fully financed by the municipality, as are the other two. This case study concentrates on Learning Together.

Learning Together aims to increase literacy skills in general, and Swedish language skills, in particular, as well as the numeracy skills of parents and their children. The first courses started in 2013. Their use of family learning principles to promote literacy and language skills is a novel approach in Linköping. It was developed in response to a need identified by headmasters and teachers in schools and pre-schools: many pupils born abroad/with foreign-born parents had difficulty achieving their educational goals. Furthermore, their parents often had limited Swedish language and/or literacy skills and lacked information about civic society, especially with regard to education.

To address this, Learning Together targets parents and their children (aged between 3 and 10 years) and aims to promote understanding among parents, who are, after all, their children’s most important teachers. Through this, the programme aims to enable parents to significantly support their children's cognitive and emotional development. To establish a programme that would provide families from different cultural backgrounds with training and help them become more active citizens, insights from previous parenting courses in Linköping were used. These courses found that the best and most reliable way to reach foreign-born families with limited literacy and language skills was to involve compatriots who had lived in Sweden for at least five years and were well established in Swedish society. They are able to function as role models and teachers, as they have once been in the same challenging situation as the target group. The Municipality of Linköping began to provide training for tutors from different cultural backgrounds with language skills in Somali and Arabic to act as ‘bridge builders’ for the Learning Together programme. Their involvement as tutors helped ensure that courses taking place in the multicultural areas of Linköping raised plenty of interest from the target group.

Since the programme’s inception, thirty courses have been delivered: nine in 2014 and twenty-one in 2015, with approximately 175 parents and 210 children participating. Roughly 80 per cent of the children were between 4 and 6 years old. Courses usually include learners from one district and take place in child health centres, schools or pre-schools in the same neighbourhood. So far, Somali- and Arabic-speaking families from three multicultural areas in Linköping have taken part. Each course is mentored by two tutors, at least one of whom has the respective foreign language skills. These link people have proven indispensable in reaching the target group, as they, as well as functioning as language tutors, can authentically inform and motivate participants.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Together aims to:

Programme Implementation

Approaches and Methodologies

Courses can start at any time of the year, as determined by the course coordinator in cooperation with school or pre-school staff, who normally suggest the families to participate. A course consists of between five and ten sessions and takes place once a week for two hours. Five or six families of the same language background – between ten and fifteen people in total – usually take part. Where children with particular individual needs are participating, groups might consist of only two or three families. The course is always led by two tutors, one of whom speaks the mother tongue of the participating families.

Among other things, the course aims to improve the Swedish language and literacy skills of parents and children. Children and adults often have similar Swedish language proficiency levels and can work on the same exercises together. Learning exercises that promote literacy and language skills include joint book reading, role play (e.g. going shopping), playing board games and using newspapers/advertisements in arts and crafts. The sessions are generally given in Swedish, but the link person’s mission is to ensure the content is understood by every participant.

The teaching and learning is, to a great extent, based on ‘family learning’, an approach which assumes that learning processes can be improved through the involvement of the whole family in educational settings, as family members can support and encourage each other. Children attending school or pre-school will quickly learn their first Swedish words and sentences. The parents, on the other hand, are often occupied at home or at work and have fewer opportunities to acquire Swedish language skills. Thus, Learning Together wants to create opportunities for both parents and their children to improve language and literacy skills through cooperative learning.

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Content and Teaching Material

Teaching material for the Learning Together programme has been developed by the Department of Education. In part, the material was either translated or fundamentally inspired by programmes run by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (now the Learning and Work Institute) in the UK and the Clare Family Learning Programme that promotes adult literacy in Ennis, Ireland. Linköping has entered into cooperation with Clare Family Learning, borrowing ideas and adapting their materials to the Swedish context.

Before a course begins, tutors are provided with vast amounts of material, including suggestions about themes and the structure of lessons. This helps ensure the focus remains on literacy, language and numeracy skills development for both parents and their children. Material is developed by tutors as well. Generally, the aim is to assemble groups with relatively homogeneous literacy and language skills in Swedish, in so that participants can work on the same exercises.

The courses organised in the programme have the same broad structure, though they may vary in theme and content. Depending on the needs and interests of the group, their current level of literacy and language skills and the age of the children, teaching material for the following thematic areas and activities are used: useful everyday language and words, prepositions, images and words, joint book reading, playful maths, different strategies of learning, Swedish holidays and the Swedish school system. The learning focus is always on improving literacy, language and numeracy skills. However, certain themes are used to simultaneously provide information about Swedish society.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

Usually, tutors are recruited from among the staff of the Department of Education. Requirements include pedagogical experience and good knowledge of Swedish society and language. The link people work part-time on the programme, and are usually also employed elsewhere as mother-tongue teachers. They tend to be immigrants who have lived in Sweden for at least ten years and have worked for several years in the municipality. They are familiar with the Swedish school system and speak Swedish, as well as at least one language spoken by the participating families.

To maintain quality and further develop the methodology of Learning Together, qualified, trained staff organize regular training sessions for the tutors. They are invited twice a year to exchange experiences and ideas. The first training session, involving 21 facilitators, was conducted in 2014 by Mary Flanagan, coordinator and course manager at Clare Family Learning. In addition, two professionals from Linköping municipality went on an EU-funded study trip to Ireland in October 2014, where they participated in a training course on family learning. The two now train other facilitators. In October 2014 and June 2015, further training was delivered, including 45 professionals from Linköping municipality, among them pre-school teachers, pre-school managers, and tutors with foreign language skills.

Enrolment of Learners

The programme targets children aged between 3 and 10 years and their parents. They can be families who have recently arrived in Sweden or those who have been in Sweden for some time but have not yet developed adequate Swedish language skills.

Teachers are often the best judge of their students' literacy, language and numeracy skills, and usually stay in close contact with the parents. They are able to identify students and families with specific needs and recommend them for the Learning Together programme. Families also choose to participate on their own initiative after finding out about the programme, for example through meeting former participants in family centres.

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Assessment of Learning Outcomes

After attending the course, participating parents and, where possible, children fill in short questionnaires to evaluate their progress. They are asked to describe their learning achievements and the usefulness of their newly acquired knowledge in everyday life. The facilitators do not evaluate the outcomes in a structured way – the focus, rather, is on how parents can help improve their children’s language and literacy skills. However, at the end of the course, the participants receive a diploma. This is often very much appreciated, as, for some participants, it is the first ‘official’ document they have received in Sweden and can be included in their CV and in job applications.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Impact and Challenges

Impact

Overall, internal evaluations indicate the positive experience of parents, children and professionals. After a period of testing, it was concluded that Learning Together is a successful method through which to develop the literacy, language and numeracy skills of the target group. As well as enabling the acquisition of those skills, Learning Together is about building confidence, sharing ideas and promoting the enjoyment of learning in a way that suits the specific needs of the group.

A researcher from the University of Linköping recently finished an evaluation of Learning Together. The study involved twenty children and their mothers and its aim was to examine whether family learning had a positive impact on the children’s learning and social relationships, child-parent interaction and the relationship between home and school. The results show that family learning has a significant positive effect on knowledge development, social skills and home-school interaction involving foreign-born parents and their children.

The literacy and Swedish language skills of participating parents and children have improved. However, the most valuable achievement of Learning Together is an increased awareness among participating parents of the importance of actively supporting their children’s development. Previous experience in Linköping had shown that many parents in the target families had not been involved in their children’s school or pre-school activities. Furthermore, teachers had mentioned that some parents often felt insecure at school meetings. Limited Swedish language skills and low awareness and understanding of opportunities for involvement at their children’s school have been identified as the main barriers by teachers and link persons. It has been reported that through Learning Together, parents’ willingness to interact with school and pre-school staff has increased. Furthermore, Learning Together has led to greater interaction within families: parents and children report that they increasingly engage in activities together, doing homework, playing games or baking at home, for example. Through participation in the courses, families widened their networks and met new friends.

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Achievements through Learning Together:

Children:

Parents:

Facilitators:

Community:

These testimonies from interviews with participating mothers demonstrate the positive impact of Learning Together:

It was very good to be together with others. He [her son] was happy, he felt he could show me ... what he could do and what he’d learned.
My daughter told me, ‘I’ve learnt by doing this, why don’t we do this every day?’

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Challenges

Up to now, most participants in the programme have been mothers, with fathers and extended family members, such as grandparents, less involved. The participation of elderly people has, however, been increasing, while the participation of fathers remains low, perhaps due to evening working hours.

Occasionally, difficulties with the participants' punctuality have arisen. For some parents it is hard to find time for the courses, in addition to their regular duties, studies or work obligations. Normally, tutors and families decide on the session times together. However, as the courses of Learning Together are supplementary to regular school lessons, it can be an effort for children to attend courses after school. It has been a challenge to find a time of day that suits all participants. In future, fewer obstacles should be put in the way of participating families, especially with regard to transportation and course schedules.

Feedback from parents indicates that they would prefer courses to be held during the summer holidays, something that is planned to happen in 2016. This will avoid giving children a double workload while providing meaningful activities at a time when other activities can be rare.

Some participants reported that they would have liked more time with some exercises. Tutors also mentioned difficulties related to the limited time available to plan sessions, as they normally organize the courses in addition to their regular full-time teaching roles. Some tutors raised concerns that certain board games used on the courses do not sufficiently support the acquisition of literacy and language skills. The material used in the courses needs to be evaluated regularly to assess its effectiveness for learning.

Lessons Learned

Learning Together has highlighted one of the biggest advantages of family learning: that the method can be adapted to different participants and groups. An appropriate curriculum can be created according to the age and requirements of the parents and their children.

The wide dissemination of the method, the interest in working as an instructor, the enthusiasm of the professionals, and parents' and children’s positive reactions to the courses all indicate that Learning Together works well for the target group. It has proven particularly effective in identifying families who might benefit from the programme, through the suggestions of school teachers.

One of the key success factors of the programme is the employment of link people who share common language skills and cultural backgrounds with their respective group. The link people have proven to be indispensable in supporting foreign-born parents and their children, and are an integral part of Learning Together. They function both as role models and language tutors, help avoid misunderstandings through their common language skills, and can inform as well as motivate participants.

Feedback from children shows that they appreciated the small-scale learning groups of between five and eight children, which meant they received more attention from tutors and parents. The approach of Learning Together means that more attention can be given to children who have difficulties in regular classrooms. The use of a family learning approach, including both parents and children in education classes, has contributed to the success of Learning Together.

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Sustainability

It is expected that the influx of foreign-born families to Linköping will continue, at least for the near future. Learning Together, therefore, remains an important programme for the municipality. As the same development is taking place in many regions of Sweden, the positive experiences of Learning Together can be further disseminated around the country. Link people with skills in the languages of the target families are continuously being trained in Linköping to ensure the future success of the programme. To widen its scope in the future, and to include foreign-born families with different language backgrounds, mother-tongue teachers with languages other than Somali and Arabic are being trained.

The municipality organizes and funds the coordination, development and delivery of the programme in Linköping. The programme’s current budget of around 500,000 SEK (2015) is expected to increase in the future, as Learning Together is currently expanding. Working with foreign-born families and their children – especially to improve literacy and language skills – is increasingly required in Sweden. Thus, a continuation and expansion of the programme is expected.

The Department of Education in Linköping is currently working to spread the approach of Learning Together to other Swedish cities and regions. Unfortunately, Linköping has so far been the only city in Sweden to use the approach. However, the cooperation with Clare Family Learning, which has been valuable in the implementation phase of Learning Together, shows that by building on previous projects, other successful programmes might follow. Thus, the lessons learned from Learning Together might be a useful resource for future projects, in Sweden and beyond.

Sources

Contact

Mr Mats Mikiver
Coordinator Section for Resource and Support
Department of Education
Klostergatan 24
581 81 Linköping, Sweden
Telephone: +4613206318
mats.mikiver@linkoping.se
www.linkoping.se

Last update: 25 January 2016