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

16 June 2014


Homeless people are being failed as children and adults when it comes to reading and writing, shocking new research has revealed.

The charity St Mungo's Broadway has conducted the largest ever recorded survey of homeless people's literacy and numeracy skills by direct assessment.

Literacy infographic AW 2014 207x154They 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 (FE) 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 that work for people who are homeless.

Howard Sinclair, St Mungo's Broadway Chief Executive, along with the charity's clients, are presenting the report, Reading Counts: Why English and maths skills matter in tackling homelessness, to MPs today along with a petition signed by close to 3,000 people urging Skills Minister Matthew Hancock to ensure that basic skills training is well funded, suitable and accessible to all homeless people.

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."

St Mungo's Broadway assessed 139 people and held 30 in-depth interviews with clients. They found that:

  • One in two lack the basic English skills needed for everyday life
  • 55 per cent were found to 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 six per cent 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 1990s 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 12 week course somewhere else and miss units and fall behind, then I'm in trouble. And it would have been another failed attempt."

AW 2014 smallDavid Hughes, Chief Executive of NIACE, wrote the foreword for the report. He 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."

NIACE (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education) assisted with the report and provided guidance on the lifelong learning sector.

The Reading Counts report make 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.

Link to the full report is: http://www.mungosbroadway.org.uk/documents/5078/5078.pdf



  • Contact Gemma Hollingshead, media coordinator, on 020 8762 5570 / 07979 018 734 or email gemma.hollingshead@mungosbroadway.org.uk
  • St Mungo's Broadway provides a bed and support to more than 2,500 people a night who are either homeless or at risk, and works to prevent homelessness, helping about 25,000 people a year. We support men and women through more than 250 projects including emergency, hostel and supportive housing projects, advice services, specialist physical health, mental health and skills and work services
  • Formed in April 2014 by the merger of two long established charities, St Mungo's and Broadway, we currently work across London and the south of England including in Bristol, Reading, Milton Keynes, Oxfordshire and Sussex, as well as managing projects including StreetLink and the Combined Homeless and Information Network (CHAIN).
  • NIACE is the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the national voice for lifelong learning. We are a large, an internationally respected development organisation and think-tank, working on issues central to the economic renewal of the UK, particularly in the political economy, education and learning, public policy and regeneration fields.
  • STRIVE (Skills, Training, Innovation and Employment) is funded by DCLG and BIS and is run in partnership with Crisis. This pre employment programme is initially helping 100 single homeless people in London over two years. The scheme will address key barriers to employment, providing people with the right skills and opportunities to have an independent future, without the need to rely upon local services and benefits.

The Reading Counts report makes six recommendations:

1. Government should make a long term commitment to fund English and maths programmes, which are designed for people who are homeless.

2. Government should commit to work with homelessness agencies to expand the STRIVE pre employment support pilot.

3. Government should scope the size of need and potential demand for basic English and maths skills provision for people who are homeless across England.

4. If people who are homeless are required to attend training in order to receive benefits, the Government must ensure this training is compatible with their learning and wider support needs.

5. Government should encourage local authorities to better coordinate Community Learning and supported accommodation services.

6. The Behavioural Insights Research Centre for Maths and English should explore effective models of learning and ways to motivate people who are homeless.

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