The Foyer Foundation holds its annual conference next week. Harriet Swain looks at how foyers are helping Britain's poorest young people get into college
Government funding of further and higher education depends on the fact that many young people continue to rely on their parents for financial support into their twenties, with the new tuition fee policy dependent on means testing parental income. The average age at which young people leave home is rising and now stands at about 22.
But there is a significant group who, because of family breakdown, poverty or homelessness, cannot turn to their parents either for accommodation or cash.
Between 150,000 and 250,000 young people are estimated to be homeless, ranging from those living on the street to those in hostels or sleeping on friends' floors. About 9,000 leave care every year.
For these groups, continuing study beyond school, with the cost of books and equipment, transport and student loans it entails, is less of an option.
The government announced a new grant of up to Pounds 100 per week earlier this year for students who go to university after leaving care and need help with housing costs in the long vacation. But for many young people in extreme poverty there is little choice other than to try to build up some kind of nest egg and go through college as a mature student.
The recent fall in mature student numbers demonstrates that this is not an easy option either. In the past, it has been tempting for colleges and universities to ignore this group of potential students.
They tend to put more of a strain on welfare support than others and, because of personal and financial pressures, are at more risk of dropping out, costing institutions money.
But recent encouragement to widen participation from government, backed with funding, means the calculation is not as straightforward as it was.
Pressure to supply training and help disadvantaged young people into the jobs market had already begun under the previous government prompted by a growing demand for skills and concern about the cost of the benefit system.
At the forefront of this have been foyers, inspired by a movement with the same name in France and developed in the United Kingdom in 1992.
Since then, the Foyer Federation, which holds its annual conference next week, has built partnerships between government, the private sector, the voluntary sector and housing associations to provide accommodation, training and support for people in need aged between 16 and 25 across the country.
An estimated 15,000 young people have lived in foyers in the past seven years and a further 7,000 have used some of the services they provide.
Over the past year, the federation has also been increasing links with further education colleges and, more recently still, with universities.
In a survey by the Association of Colleges, to form the basis of a good practice guide being published later this year, 56 colleges said they had some kind of relationship with a foyer or were planning one. More than half the 90 foyers in this country now have links with a college.
Nadine Cartner, AoC policy adviser, said: "The large number of people in foyers from fractured families or care and the street homeless need particularly supportive contexts to help them stay on and achieve if they are to continue their involvement in education. Reaching these sorts of people is essential to the government agenda."
Government has told colleges that they must bring 700,000 new learners into education over the next three years as a condition of extra funding announced last November. These will mostly be adults. But some will also be disadvantaged and disaffected young people.
For colleges, involvement with foyers helps them hit their government target numbers from groups that are otherwise difficult to reach and even more difficult to retain.
The individual attention foyer residents receive means that they have constant encouragement to continue with a course and help when they are having difficulties.
Residents meet daily with staff in the first few weeks and regularly after that for the rest of their stay. Most move on to other accommodation within about 18 months.
Aberdeen College, for example, provides the residents of Aberdeen foyer with skills for independent living such as budgeting, cooking and confidence building.
It also takes them on to existing courses, provided either at the college or the foyer, or through the college's Open Learning Centre, depending on the student's level of confidence.
Other young people, not resident in the foyer, are encouraged to use the foyer's services.
If foyer residents drop out of a course, staff will find out what went wrong and identify another way in which they can continue to study. The key is to keep them on track.
Wigan and Leigh College worked with Wigan's Coops Foyer since before it opened, advising on design and the needs of information and learning technology.
It delivers adult basic education, basic skills, computer and short vocational courses at the foyer and, over Christmas and New Year this year, provided computer-aided learning and adult basic education courses for homeless people on foyer premises.
East Berkshire College occupies two rooms in Slough foyer, providing IT and other basic skills and contributes to their cost.
Of those who train at the foyer, between 15 and 20 per cent go on to study at the college, often part-time.
Paul Middlemast, commercial manager at East Berkshire College, says: "We went into it because we believed the sort of partnership being proposed broadened our activities to reach people who traditionally wouldn't come to college."
Talks are also taking place between foyer managers and key players from the University of Industry.
Simon Wood, head of learning at the foyer federation said: "The concept of local learning centres is something we feel foyers have a role in because they are learning centres not only for residents but for the local community. In a way it is a ready-made network of 90 sites across the UK."
Tentative steps are also being taken by universities to build up foyer links. For example Bradford university is planning to provide access and IT courses for residents at the Bradford foyer.
The problem, according to Carolyn Hayman, chief executive of the Foyer Federation, is that young people who find their feet enough to consider full-time higher education hit insurmountable financial barriers.
This will be the basis of federation research to be carried out this summer.
One of the things it wants to explore is the possibility of granting certain groups of young people scholarships until they have finished their first year and are certain they want to continue at university.
"Young people in foyers are at a stage in their lives when they change their mind about what they want to do," says Ms Hayman. "It is not certain that they will make a success of university and they have the prospect of building up large debts without achieving anything for it."
Foyers are relatively expensive places for young people to live because they provide intensive support. Once residents become full-time students they are no longer eligible for housing benefit and are unlikely to be able to afford foyer rents.
But if they move out and into university halls, they have nowhere to live in the holidays. They also have to rely much more on self-motivation to continue with their studies.
Moira White, seconded from Grampian Careers to Aberdeen foyer, says: "Most of the young people we have come with income support. If they are under 19 they can claim income support, while those over 19 are probably registered to study part-time. The concern would be if they were to go into higher education. Our rents are high and they would find it very difficult to fund them on a student loan."
Other foyer workers say students who move on to higher education are rare. Many of them find keeping up any kind of coursework tough.
At one college, people have dropped out of various kinds of study in the past few months because of health problems, pregnancy, difficulty dealing with a personal issue from their past and struggles because of poor qualifications.
But Mr Middlemast says the aim is to keep open for them a seamless route of learning should they want it.
"There is no clear evidence that people going to our foyer at the moment are taking part in higher education courses," he says. "But it is giving the key back to them, which allows them to enter lifelong learning. Most of them are relatively young and have quite clear aspirations to move on and up."
The Foyer Federation conference takes place on Tuesday at Congress House, London.
THE FOYER RING OF CONFIDENCE
Sarah, (not her real name) left school at 16 and was thrown out of her home soon afterwards. For five years she went from job to job until she was taken on to a New Deal programme. There she decided she wanted more education and started a GNVQ in health and social care at Brighton College of Technology.
About the same time, she split up with her boyfriend and found herself without a home. She went to live at Brighton foyer so that she could continue with her course.
At first, after being out of education for so long, her confidence was at rock bottom and she found her work placement especially difficult. But she began to shine in coursework and wants to return to education. Now 21, she plans to take two A levels next year and go on to university and is in the process of moving to more stable accommodation.
LONG, HARD ROUTE OUT OF A WOMEN'S REFUGE
Dina (not real name), 22, has lived in England for nearly four years but has only really spoken English in the past few months.
She was brought over from Pakistan in 1995 to marry a relative living in this country but after her marriage hardly left the house. In June 1998 her husband took her to Pakistan for a holiday. After three days, she says, he stole everything she had, including her passport, and returned to England. He telephoned her to tell her she could not come back.
Dina contacted the British Embassy and through it obtained a visa to come back to the UK, information about a women's refuge and a place on a New Deal programme.
Now she has a work placement learning office skills at a school in the mornings, studies computer skills in the early afternoon and goes to a home counties college in the afternoon to take an English course.
"My life was really hard and horrible in the past," she says. "My husband treated me like a stupid woman. I was never allowed to go outside and meet people. I had to stay at home for 24 hours. Here they have given me confidence."
She wants to work in an airport or as an air hostess and is investigating the possibility of studying travel and tourism full-time.
"I'm thinking of going to university in the future or other full-time education," she says. "But I have no family or relatives here. I'm really worried about how I can pay for my studies. I really like to study but the problem is finance."
She pays just Pounds 3 for her college, her place at the refuge is paid for and New Deal pays her travel costs. She is hoping to move to her own flat soon, but if she studies full-time she will not be eligible for housing benefit.
TOUGH TIMES AFTER A FAMILY FALL-OUT
David Warriner wants to be an entrepreneur, preferably a rich one. He arrived at Coops Foyer in Wigan 18 months ago, aged just 17, after falling out with his parents and initially had problems learning to live independently on a budget.
When he came,he was studying forA levels in English language, Spanish, psychology and business studies at Winstanley College and working part-time at Hitchins, a local factory.
But he struggledto cope with these commitments as well as look after himself and eventually gave up both.
"I found I couldn't cope on the money," he says. "I had a problem with housing benefit, which was sorted out in the end but meant I was in arrears for a while and I found it too difficult."
Foyer staff were eager for him tocontinue with training and suggested he signed up for a Modern Apprenticeship scheme.
He is now working on the scheme as an office junior and attends Wigan and Leigh College one day a week to take an NVQ level 2 in business administration.
He is also working in a pub and studying for an NVQ in food hygiene and bar work.
His income has just gone up substantially thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage.
"I regret giving upA levels," he says. "I considered myself dedicated to them. It sounds a cop-out, but money was a problem. Other people at the foyer were struggling too."
He says he may try again in the future.
Meanwhile, a secure job meant that six months ago, he felt able to move out of the foyer to share a house with friends.
But he still keeps in close contact.
At the foyerhe helped set up the Young Enterprise company, Insite, which designs websites, becoming its managing director.
Through this, he won a scholarship with Dale Carnegie training. Insite could now be set up as a real business.