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Living rough but still in class

Simon Midgley reports on a new project to attract homeless people into education. Graduates of the scheme tell their stories

THREE Big Issue vendors have been beaten up on their pitches in Birmingham in the past fortnight. Over the past year six others have frozen to death or died from their drug addictions. At least two of those have been murdered.

Life on the streets for the homeless in contemporary Britain is as hard as it has ever been.

But a pioneering initiative by the Further Education Development Agency, the Big Issue Foundation and City College Birmingham (among other city FE colleges) is now offering homeless people over the age of 25 a chance to find their way back into education and employment.

The idea is that teachers from local colleges will take classes in subjects ranging from information technology to environmental health and hygiene to the homeless at the Big Issue's drop-in centre in Birmingham.

For the past 15 months up to 30 homeless people have taken part in courses.

Recently, the Rt Rev John Austin, the bishop of Aston, presented certificates of achievement to some of the 17 people who successfully completed courses.

The awards, which are the first of theirkind, ranged from open college network certificates for IT to City and Guilds certificates in health and hygiene. Steve Manton, the job education and training worker at the centre, said that, given the students' circumstances, their achievement was "incredible".

"It is very difficult for someone who is poorly dressed and who has a poor self-image to cross the threshold of a college and say, 'I want to do a course'," he said. "People training in the drop-in centre don't have to worry about what they look like.

"The priority is to re-integrate people into the normal further education system by giving them confidence. Education is about empowering people. People are homeless because they have lost the support of their families and their friends.

"It is very hard for such people to lift themselves up by their own efforts. It is not an easy job to help people who have no regard for themselves, particularly if society has no regard for them either."

The Accessing the Homeless into Learning initiative, which began in January 1999, is paid for by a National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education learning fund. Other education access programmes are also being run in Norwich and Brighton.

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