Hope for the homeless

March 16, 2001

When it comes to education, the homeless need all the help they can get, writes Carolyn Hayman.

If entry to higher education took the form of a race, we would see students from private sector schools taking the conventional A-level route starting well out in front. Ranged behind would be students from state schools taking the same route, with students from low-income families trailing them. At the very back would be young homeless people, handicapped equally by missed educational opportunities and by the additional financial costs of studying without family support.

It is clear that for homeless young people, the gap between educational achievement at 16 and potential can be enormous. Nearly 50 per cent of homeless young people, whether in foyer accommodation or hostels, have no educational qualifications. In most cases, this has little to do with ability -it is just that when other young people were concentrating on handing in coursework, they were wondering where they would be spending the night. Some 17 per cent had given up attending school altogether by the age of 14.

Rigid, age-related structures serve them ill when they try to make up these deficits. Studying is strongly encouraged through educational maintenance allowances and other means -up to the age of 18. But many young homeless people are preoccupied with urgent practical and lifestyle problems. By the time they have the stability and confidence to return to study it is often too late. The over-19 rule and the workings of the New Deal make full-time study almost impossible. In a recent survey of nearly 300 young people aged 19-plus in foyers, 40 per cent were deemed likely to benefit from the opportunity to study full time.

Unconventional routes may help some of them catch up. Eddie, now 20 years old, came to a foyer from council care at the age of 18. He had never switched on a computer and took a long time to get into a foyer training programme. Through using the information communications technology learning centre at the foyer, he found a natural aptitude for computers. Because of his ability to share this enthusiasm he was offered a post at a local community college teaching adults computer studies. They gave him an award and he now wants, with the encouragement of the college, to become a lecturer.

Against the odds, by conventional and unconventional routes, a proportion of young homeless people get to the point where they are qualified to enter higher education. They then face a range of issues that they need to consider much more carefully than even students from low-income families - principally much higher costs. This can lead to gruelling timetables.

A young woman in a North London foyer was thrilled to be accepted onto an IT degree course at the local university. She proudly described how she was going to study during the day and spend six hours each evening working in a debt collection agency, setting aside only Sunday afternoon for relaxation. It is a long way from student life as understood even ten years ago.

To try to encourage them to aim high, but to make the most prudent decisions, young homeless people need advice on the kind of decisions that most affect the level of financial risk they are taking on.

For example, is the extra year of a three-year honours degree going to give an additional return over and above a two-year foundation degree? Is the degree one that employers value? Does the university have a good record on student retention in relation to the type of students it caters for?

The Foyer Federation is publishing a guide to help them with these questions and is also in dialogue with the Department for Education and Employment and others to try to increase the range of financial support on offer to homeless young people. In this way, we hope to start to close the other gap -between the less than 5 per cent of foyer residents who make it to university and the 30 per cent or so of the population as a whole.

Carolyn Hayman is chief executive of the Foyer Federation. Clearing the Final Hurdle , supported by the Nuffield Foundation, is available from the Foyer Federation, priced £7.50 (telephone 0207 833-8616).

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