Access to education and experiences of multiple disadvantage

Stephanie Otuoacheampong, Innovation Partner, Fulfilling Lives – Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham (FLLSL).

Our goal is to make it easier for people experiencing multiple disadvantages to access support services. To make this happen we need a better understanding of how and why some people find themselves dealing with a difficult combination of issues, such as homelessness, mental ill health, drug use and domestic violence.

We recognised through practitioners and people we support, that there has been a running theme of negative experiences of education. From this recognition, we decided to explore and understand the barriers that people who experience multiple disadvantage face when accessing education. In order to define education, we used the dictionary definition which is – “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university” and “an enlightening experience.” We explored formal education between the ages of 0 – 16 such as primary and secondary school. As well as further education (ages 16 – 65) which include A-Levels, Vocational courses, Diploma’s, Foundation courses, NVQ’s and Degrees.

As of 2020, research has revealed that 1 in 6 (16.4% / 7.1 million people) adults in England have very poor literacy skills (National Literacy Trust, 2021). Individuals who have experienced multiple disadvantages have spoken about the barriers they have experienced whilst accessing services for example, mental health services or homeless shelters. Further research has revealed that low literacy is a recognized barrier to efficient and effective health care, and, in mental health care, it may have additional detrimental effects. Chronic mental illness may lead to deterioration in literacy by limiting opportunities for reading and writing, as well as with opportunities for formal education and vocational training (Sentell and Skumway (2003). Over the course of 8 years and supporting 146 people, our statistics support pre-existing data on the topic as our data revealed that 48% of women (19) and 53% of men (21) accessing support at FLLSL identified with having literacy and numeracy issues.

We were interested in finding out more about barriers people experience. In order to find out more, we held semi structure interviews with people who had experienced barriers in their education journey. The barriers identified through this research include:

  • Shame -Some people may, or have experienced shame explaining their crisis/ or current situation as reason for having to leave an institute, or lack of attendance. In most institutes, the option to discuss personal issues is available to individuals as most institutions provide a wellbeing service. However, due to stigma and fear of judgement, some people may choose not to discuss their issue. In turn, they “drop out” for reasons unaccounted for.
  • Age – age was revealed as a potential barrier. Some individuals may feel that because they were unable to complete a course at a specific time in their life, they feel as though they are “too old” to return to studying and completing a course.
  • Finances – finances was discussed as a focal point and barrier. Although many courses are free in local colleges and some universities and some people apply and receive student loans. The barrier presents itself when an individual meets the threshold of receiving support. For example, if someone is on a 4-year university course and is forced to stop studying because of a life experience, they make take longer to complete the course but will no longer have access to funding.

The case study below is a real example of a person we once supported’ education experience, their name has been changed to keep anonymity.

Case study of Rosemary –

Rosemary completed secondary school with 9  GCSE’s. Rosemary went on to start her A – Levels but at that stage in her life she was also introduced to taking narcotics and she did not complete her A – Levels by the time she was 18, as a result of substance use.

 After a few years, Rosemary started a Beauty Therapy course in her early 20’s. Rosemary went on to work in Beauty Therapy for a total of 6/7 years. Whilst working in Beauty Therapy, Rosemary completed an A level in Psychology. During the time Rosemary worked and studied for her A-Level, she explained that that her main struggle at the time derived from being a single parent and managing child-care.

Rosemary explained that during her journey of education, there were moments where her mental health or substance use were not an issue because she felt she was receiving the support she needed in that area of her life. During the times she was experiencing mental health issues and addiction, Rosemary was unable to balance a routine and actively attend college or university.

Eventually, Rosemary decided to attend Open university to study for a Psychology degree. Rosemary was able to enrol onto the Psychology degree course through the process of clearing. Rosemary received a student loan for her degree however, during her final year she had to halt her studies because she was experiencing mental health issues. In this case, Rosemary informed her university on what was happening in her private life, and proceeded to attend recovery rehab. After completing rehab, Rosemary studied an NVQ in Health and Social Care. After completing this course, Rosemary went on to study for a Law degree.

Upon reflection of her journey through education, Rosemary has advised that her biggest barrier has been her student finance, due to not completing a degree previously, she has met the loan threshold. Rosemary went on to explain that she believes that substance use does not need to be known by any institution unless that is information you are willing to share.

Rosemary summarised our conversation by saying: “There are services available in educational institutes that can support you through whatever you may be experiencing. It’s just that my drug/alcohol use was pretty much the reason I dropped out of my A levels and my first degree but as we discussed the university probably has it as mental health/personal reasons, I always think of the two being so interconnected anyway and as an addict there’s always the crippling shame which is why I’ve never told any institution I’ve studied at about my substance misuse apart from Brixton College because I did my Health and Social Care Diploma specialising in substance misuse issues and half my class were from NA meetings!”

To conclude, although we all are on different journeys, there is indeed power in us supporting each other – regardless of what that looks like. Here at Fulfilling Lives LSL, we have assisted people through their journeys of education by supporting with course applications, sourcing courses for specific skills including numeracy and literacy, and providing encouragement when the people we support need it the most. In our quest of system change, we seek to remove systems barriers that are in place for people experiencing multiple disadvantages. With every barrier experience by the people we support, it is important we acknowledge our position and how to apply our efforts in making the system more inclusive.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” – Nelson Mandela.