Half of homeless people lack reading and writing skills, new study shows

13 June 2014

Homeless people are being failed as children and adults when it comes to reading and writing, found new research by St Mungo’s Broadway, which was supported by NIACE.

Reading Counts: Why English and maths skills matter in tackling homelessness is the largest ever recorded survey of homeless people’s literacy and numeracy skills by direct assessment. It found that 51% wouldn’t achieve GCSE grade D-G and lack the basic literacy skills needed for everyday life. This figure compares with one in six (15%) of the general population who struggle to read.

The report also reveals challenges for further education colleges. College principals who were interviewed recognised the barriers to learning faced by homeless people, but as funding is reliant on attendance and qualifications, they are unable to take the financial risk and offer the kind of flexible courses which work for people who are homeless.

Howard Sinclair, St Mungo’s Broadway Chief Executive, along with the charity’s clients, are presenting the report to MPs today, along with a petition signed by almost 3,000 people urging Skills Minister Matthew Hancock to ensure that basic skills training is well funded, suitable and accessible to all homeless people.

St Mungo’s Broadway assessed 139 people and held 30 in-depth interviews with clients, finding that:

  • Half lack the basic English skills needed for everyday life.
  • 55% lack basic maths skills.
  • Many had a poor experience of school, often connected to unstable or traumatic childhoods
  • Clients who lack basic English and maths skills make less progress in addressing physical and mental health issues.

A 2013 survey of 1,595 St Mungo’s clients found that only 6% were in paid work. Poor English and maths skills partly explain this extremely low rate of employment.

Mainstream FE courses also generally have rigid attendance requirements, are delivered at a set pace and have relatively large class sizes. These features often make it hard for people with unstable housing and health issues to complete these courses.

One client who was interviewed for the report is Tracy who has experienced homelessness on and off for 13 years. Tracy, who was fostered as a child, always felt like she was falling behind in school.

“I was told I was stupid and chaotic which I then believed. I didn’t spend much time in school so didn’t improve my literacy. I had no self esteem or confidence and am only starting to build on this now.”

Poor literacy led to Tracy losing her home in the 90s because she failed to fill in her housing benefit form.

“I didn’t know what it was so I put it in a drawer. I didn’t know whether there was support or where to find support to help me.”

Another client interviewed added:

“If I do miss dates [on a St Mungo’s Broadway skills course] we can go back over it. But if I’m on a twelve week course somewhere else and miss units and fall behind then I’m in trouble. And it would have been another failed attempt.”

Howard Sinclair said:

“From not learning how to read and write at school to being held back by the adult learning system, many people who are homeless face terrible hurdles when it comes to basic skills.

“Poor literacy and numeracy impacts across work, health, keeping a home and positive relationships. Our clients need a second, sometimes a third chance to build their future. That’s why we, and our supporters, are asking the Government to deliver on their promise to prioritise training opportunities for homeless people.”

David Hughes, NIACE Chief Executive, who wrote the foreword for the report, said:

“English and maths skills are fundamental for people to be active citizens in our society. They are the bedrock upon which we are all able to find and sustain work, learn new skills, participate in our democracy, support our families and feel part of the community we live in.

“NIACE has been working with St Mungo’s Broadway to develop new ways to encourage homeless adults into informal learning using hooks such as financial capability and online banking but we need greater flexibility in funding mechanisms for FE providers to support those with the greatest needs.”

The Reading Counts report makes six recommendations including that the Government makes a long term commitment to fund English and maths programmes which are designed for people who are homeless, commits to work with homelessness agencies to expand the pilot STRIVE pre-employment support programme, and encourages local authorities to better coordinate community learning and supported accommodation services.