Literacy for homeless learners: Relevance and motivation are key

Last month the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee published a report on its inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy. One of the report’s key findings was that “the motivation of adults is crucial” if they are to take up and benefit from opportunities to develop their literacy skills.

So what motivates adults to improve their literacy? In our recent research into the maths and English skills of clients of the homeless charity St Mungo’s Broadway, we found that clients were motivated to improve their literacy skills when they could see that doing so was relevant to their everyday lives and personal goals.

Interviews with homeless learners showed that individual goals and motivations vary. For some, accessing work was the main motivation for improving their skills. For others, being able to read a tenancy agreement would help them to sustain a tenancy and recover from homelessness. For one interviewee, improving their literacy skills was important for their self-esteem, “I was 32 and felt like I write like a six year old… I wasn’t happy with my handwriting and wanted to improve.” These motivations evolve in response to changing circumstances and life aims, and participating in learning was also found to spark motivation for further learning.

In contrast, our interviewees also provided examples of attending lessons or courses when they had not been motivated to learn, for example when at school, in prison, or through the job centre. On these occasions most felt that they had learned very little. In addition, feelings of boredom, frustration or shame generated by these experiences made some reluctant to participate in learning in future.

These are important lessons for policymakers who are considering greater skills conditionality, i.e. making benefit claimants attend skills courses in order to maintain their benefit claims. Forcing people to attend courses that they feel are irrelevant to their personal goals, or that are pitched at the wrong level, not only risks wasting learners’ and tutors’ time, it can also put people off leaning for life.

Our research and the BIS select committee report make clear that there are major challenges to offering the specialist, client-centred approach needed for literacy support to be relevant to the lives of homeless learners. The majority of skills funding continues to be predicated on learners achieving qualifications and completing courses. But these formal, linear courses simply don’t fit with the motivations or everyday lives of many people who are homeless. Proposals to broaden Further Education measures of success to include destinations, earnings and progression are likely to mean that skills providers will still struggle to fund learning for the most disadvantaged, including many people who have experienced homelessness.

More positively, the Government has started to fund STRIVE, a small St Mungo’s Broadway and Crisis pilot project, which offers the opportunity to develop a new model of support that works for people who have experienced homelessness who want to develop English, maths and other skills. STRIVE tutors work to identify learners’ personal goals and then support them to reach these.

Let’s hope that the emerging results and evaluation of STRIVE motivate the Government to do much more to support people who are homeless to improve their literacy skills.

By Daniel Dumoulin Senior Policy and Research Officer at St Mungo’s Broadway and Katy Jones, Researcher at The Work Foundation and PhD candidate in Educational Research at Lancaster University

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