College can be a turning point for the young homeless but the odds are against them, says Kay Smith
ONE student who can be particularly proud of joining the thousands of other recruits to full-time further education this autumn is an 18-year-old Edinburgh girl who became homeless two years ago after falling out with her parents.
Susan (not her real name) left school before she was 16. But against all odds she has been able to convince a college that she can hold down a place on an HND course in media production.
How did she do it? Self-determination and intelligence helped. She also took seven Standard grades before she left school. But most important, she found a lifeline through the Bridges Project, a voluntary agency in the capital which works with homeless and "at risk" 16 to 22-year-olds.
The project helped Susan with the emotional aftermath of the bust-up with her parents, steered her through bed and breakfast and hostel accommodation before securing her a place in a housing association flat, and encouraged her to join the project's education and training programme.
Young people usually start on the programme, which has just had a three-year pound;600,000 Lottery grant, through informal group activities such as football, art, music and drama which foster personal expression and team building skills. Drama worker Lynne Killin tries to offset the frequent negative experiences of school. "I give the young people a chance to express themselves without getting told off," she says. "My job is to tell them they are a part of society, regardless of their living conditions."
Youngsters can go on to tackle a "portfolio" class which encourages them to hone, and prepare evidence about, their basic learning and communication skills. They may go on to a National Certificate communications module.
A 40-day part-time "pre-vocational" course requires commitment, as it continues to work on communications skills, as well as introducing outdoor activities to build confidence and team spirit. Its major component on vocational guidance focuses on job-seeking skills and offers two and three-day work placements.
Fiona Langskaill, education and training manager of the project, says:
"They find out, for example, how hard it is to stand on your feet all day as a hairdresser."
Susan was helped to gain a place at Edinburgh Media and Arts Training Trust as well as a six-month paid contract on Pathfinder, a vocational programme for the young homeless run by Standard Life. She looks set to benefit from further education but if she were less able or work-wise she might find herself heading for a setback.
Fiona Philipson, Bridges project director, says: "They often only have experience of failure. Even after successfully progressing through the Bridges programme they may, under pressure, slip back into familiar patterns, which means they just won't cope."
Some colleges, particularly those away from the main cities, offer a place in a hall of residence, and Susan will take advantage of that. Others have host families. There are also student support and counselling services.
But to get help the homeless have to ask for it. Many prefer not to. "I just want to be treated the same as all the other students," says Susan.
This preference for anonymity is common, according to Edinburgh University researchers for a study funded by Scottish Homes. George Thomson, research leader and professor of special education, says that young homeless people should not be left to go it alone. In a college they should at least be made aware of the services available to them. "We are talking about a group of people whose degree of self-reliance is variable."
They can win through but there needs to be "a stable domestic situation, supportive peers and a supportive environment in college", Professor Thomson says.