On July 8th this year, professionals from a range of organisations met at City Lit Adult Education College in London for the inaugural Literacy100 forum. Represented were adult, further and higher education, homelessness organisations, local and national government departments, literacy charities, publishing, and research bodies.
They came together to explore a problem that continues to be inadequately addressed: the estimated 50% of people affected by homelessness whose reading and writing skills are insufficient for their daily needs. For these men and women, many of whom have complex psychological, social and practical challenges, access to literacy services can be problematic. Literacy100 recognises a significant but often hidden demand for accessible learning environments in which the needs of individuals will be met.
Alex Stevenson of the Learning and Work Institute opened the morning by highlighting the social, economic and health returns provided by a population with good basic skills.
Nonetheless, government funding for adult education was halved between 2011-12 and 2019-20, and participation in English courses fell by 63%. Participation also dropped across every mayoral combined authority. These reductions are alarming, not least in a context of nine million adults in England with low basic skills in literacy or numeracy, including five million in both.
Learners come to education with varying degrees of resilience. For some individuals, the bar to participation remains particularly high. Kat Goodacre, doctoral researcher at the Open University, explored the reasons for this. The premise of her research is that psychologically informed environments (PIEs) are an essential component of literacy provision for adult learners experiencing homelessness and/or compound trauma. During her work as a dyslexia specialist at a national charity, Kat has encountered frequently re-occurring stories of negative early learning experiences, negative learner identities, and undiagnosed learning difficulties. She cited research suggesting that engagement and learning will be persistent challenges if deep emotional and safety needs are not addressed. Trauma-informed, PIE practices can help to diminish the impact of traumatic memories, reshape learners’ self-perceptions, and help them to achieve positive outcomes.
PROVISION OF SERVICES
Teachers and managers from some of the currently available literacy provision gave an overview of their services.
Adult education colleges are well-established and welcome students from diverse backgrounds. They offer a comprehensive range of courses, and have the facilities to assist people with additional learning needs. However, as described in Kat Goodacre’s lecture, those with a complexity of issues typically need a particularly large helping hand to return to education. They are likely to require comprehensive support to maintain motivation, and are amongst those most likely to drop out. Some colleges have addressed this by setting up outreach projects based in homelessness centres, thus creating more accessible environments for vulnerable or cautious learners.
Similarly, there are examples of council-funded, community-based literacy classes. Simon Fuller described one such embedded service in Islington, North London, which responds flexibly to the needs of local people.
Two models of in-house provision within the homelessness sector have been run for several years by St Mungo’s and Thames Reach. Gavin Benn explained their shared aim to bridge the gap between homelessness services and mainstream education. In a strategy to encourage wider uptake of learning opportunities, St Mungo’s Recovery College programmes are run both in-person and online.
Each of these services is delivered by qualified teachers, but at Thames Reach these are committed volunteers. This 1:1 provision does not offer formal accreditation, giving tutors the freedom to work flexibly with learners who often have complex background needs.
Pertinent to all educators is the important issue of resources for teaching and learning. Ian Wollington of City Lit compared the good availability of published ESOL programmes with the relative paucity of well-developed materials for adult literacy across all skill levels. Nonetheless, the range of quality resources has improved over the last ten years, particularly for early-stage learners. For example, the ‘Turning Pages’ programme, initially developed by the Shannon Trust for use in prisons, is now used extensively in the wider community, including by the charity Read Easy.
Two service users of homelessness charities contributed their voices to the Literacy100 forum to create compelling images of life without literacy. Many aspects of their stories will be familiar to professionals working in the field.
Confusion, fear and shame were dominant memories of childhood. Forty or more years ago schools were ill-equipped to work with dyslexic pupils. It was not uncommon for the children themselves to be blamed and even punished if they failed to flourish.
Daily struggles meant that “school was very frightening …. a place where I felt lost”, and “reading aloud was my worst nightmare.” They led to exclusion from wider learning, from cultural opportunities, and from the internal rewards associated with personal development. Teachers became the enemy, while parents and the community, unable to understand, were ashamed and unforgiving.
As adults, our speakers’ employment choices were restricted. Despite developing considerable hands-on skills, illiteracy was a persistent barrier to opportunities for promotion. Younger, less-experienced colleagues quickly overtook them in the hierarchy of responsibility and seniority.
A life-time’s pattern of difficulty and humiliation was compounded by one unresolved question: Why? Why, unlike everyone around them, couldn’t these adults get to grips with reading and writing? Unable to find an answer, the eventual consequence for both was a devastating downward spiral into poor mental health, drugs and drink.
“I felt left out - I couldn’t explain why I was so unhappy.”
How were these two individuals helped to move away from a path that had become so unproductive and injurious to their well-being? The answer is two-fold. First, it lies in a multi-pronged, wrap-around approach, involving housing, health, and education. Second, the power of professionals who were committed to ongoing, adaptive and psychologically informed support cannot be underestimated.
Literacy learning opportunities for each speaker were provided by the homelessness charities that were supporting them. Dyslexia-trained tutors tailored lessons to their specific learning strengths and difficulties, and took account of their histories, underlying fears and trauma. This approach was governed not by a prescriptive syllabus or testing regime, but by the needs of the individual. In both cases, it was transformational:
“She made everything easy for me - it just got better and better”
“I’m 52 now, and I’ve just read my first book!”
“I’ve gone to college and gained Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications in engineering.”
“I feel like that little kid I once was, who can do anything and climb any mountain.”
RECOMMENDATIONS and THE WAY FORWARD
Learners should lie at the heart of educational planning and delivery. Their backgrounds and experiences are not uniform, and consequently a ‘one size fits all’ package cannot be universally effective. A range of proposals for the development of adult literacy provision, particularly for people associated with homelessness, emerged from the forum.
Alex Stevenson outlined proposals advocated by the Learning and Work Institute to engage hard-to-reach learners in basic skills provision.
Accessible course information tailored to a diverse range of learning motivations
Supportive enrolment processes
Initial screening for additional needs, and enhanced access to learning through a range of partnerships
Responsive, adaptable teaching
Well-supported and flexible learning opportunities in the workplace.
Kat Goodacre emphasised the role played by high quality adult education in ending homelessness. To achieve this:
Teachers should be qualified. They should receive additional, funded training in:
trauma/psychologically informed approaches
the neuroscience of adult learning
learning differences such as dyslexia.
Specialist teachers should be employed to support dyslexic learners.
Technology should be an integral part of literacy programmes, both as a learning aid and to support independence away from the classroom.
Literacy provision should be person-centred and take a PIE approach: reflecting what it means to be human.
Conference delegates identified additional key issues and areas for change or development.
Funding models for adult literacy provision should be reviewed.
Fine-grained research is needed to quantify the extent of literacy need within the homelessness sector, and to identify ‘what works’ in terms of teaching interventions.
Creative partnerships between agencies are likely to be productive in providing holistic packages of support, to encompass rough sleeping, housing, skills and employment.
Systemic processes for the early identification of literacy needs should be standard in all homelessness organisations. This goes hand-in-hand with training for all professionals in the sector, including at senior management and board levels.
Directories of local learning opportunities would allow staff to refer their clients to appropriate provision.
The number of literacy services available in community or sector-based settings should be increased.
The development of a wider range of adult literacy resources is overdue.
Next steps will be to build on these initial proposals in collaboration with the Literacy100 network of colleagues. Using the rich experience and expertise available to us, our aim will be to encapsulate key principles within a Charter of Good Practice. We look forward to continuing our work together to achieve high quality, accessible services for everyone affected by low literacy and homelessness.
Chair and Co-founder Literacy100