Learning brokers reach out to vulnerable people in society to ease them back into education. Simon Midgley reports
Robert Smith (not his real name), whose West Midlands family broke up when he was 12, spent his teenage years sleeping rough, drinking and taking drugs.
Today, aged 27, he is successfully making the transition back to a more stable and sustainable way of life after six years of help from the Big Issue, the magazine that raises awareness of the plight of the homeless.
Thanks to its education centre in Birmingham, Robert has just completed a year of study at the city's Fircroft college. He is now hoping to go on to study political science at university this autumn.
According to Steve Manton, the Big Issue's Jet (jobs, education and training) worker in Birmingham, Robert's story is typical of many young people who find themselves homeless and living rough.
He says one way of drawing such people back into the mainstream is to find out what they are interested in doing and helping them to achieve those goals.
The Big Issue drop-in education centre offers vendors of the magazine the opportunity to work with computers, learn IT skills, try out art-based recreational activities and take creative writing and music technology courses.
Access to the internet also gives sellers the opportunity to find out about many different areas of life that may interest them and capture their imagination.
Mr Manton's centre is informally easing the homeless back into education and training and giving them the chance of changing their lives for the better.
"When people come into the centre to play a game of cards or an online game or send emails, we try to encourage them to take part in other activities as well.
"It gives them a safe space in which to operate because going back into education - entering through those doors into a college - can be a nerve-wracking and intimidating thing.
"If you feel you don't have anything to offer then you will not take that step. But because we have this little education centre here, they can make that first step really easily."
In inner-city Birmingham Mr Manton is acting as a learning broker, someone who kindles an interest in learning and training and then negotiates a relationship between providers - his drop-in centre courses and Fircroft college, for example - and the would-be student.
Two years ago, the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) staged an international research conference looking at what stimulated adults to get involved in learning and started to become interested in the idea of learning brokers.
Sue Taylor, the LSDA's research manager, says that such intermediaries can take many forms, ranging from the Connexions Service and trade union learning representatives in the workplace to individuals acting alone in the community.
Often someone not formally involved with education, such as a community development worker, can play a hugely influential role in motivating people to get back to learning. Usually they work in the least-recognised or well-paid roles on the periphery of formal learning structures, yet they can sometimes reach those people that colleges and other providers cannot.
The LSDA commissioned a team of researchers from Staffordshire university's institute for access studies to spend two years examining whether it could be a way of attracting more adults into learning.
The Government is keen to increase the numbers of adults qualified to NVQ level 2, the equivalent of five GCSEs at grades A*-C. At the moment, 11 per cent of the workforce still has no formal qualifications and more than 30 per cent of those in employment are qualified below NVQ level 2.
The LSDA has just published the team's first report, Learning brokerage: building bridges between learners and providers. This analyses the nature of the concept and gives examples of how they it operates in the community and the workplace. A final report, examining individual learning brokers in more detail, should be published soon.
Mrs Taylor says learning brokerage is not just about helping a college to recruit more learners or getting an employee on a course.
"It is about influencing the way the learning provider works or the nature of the course. It is a mediation process that influences both ends of the spectrum," she says.
One key strategic objective appears to be emerging as a consequence of this work. A bid is being developed to gather evidence to support a case for persuading the Learning and Skills Council that the activities of learning brokers should be eligible for funding.
Should this strategy prove successful, there just might be fewer Robert Smiths living rough in our inner cities in the future.