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The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Deeply depressed and chronically ill, Ruth Womak was considering taking her own life - but then salvation came from a most unexpected quarter. Ian Nash reports on the new social climbers

For Ruth Womak, life was bleak – and there seemed only one way out. The 62-year-old from Sheffield suffered from two debilitating illnesses and had spent years caring for her ailing mother. The death of her mother was followed by another crippling blow when her former steel worker husband died of a heart attack in 2010.

"I was seriously considering suicide," she admits. But then salvation came from a most unexpected quarter. A free training course in basic computing skills proved to be a lifeline in her battle against long-term illness and deep depression. Ruth, who suffers from osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia, says: "Now, my life has changed completely and I am more able to cope with the challenges I face every day."

Surprisingly, the offer of the course came from the South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA), which tenants had previously seen more as a rent collector than as an education and welfare benefactor. But, as with a growing number of social landlords, the association was concerned about the growing debt crises that tenants faced – a crisis that has escalated under the government's welfare reforms.

Initial debt counselling in partnership with the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has helped to alleviate immediate problems for many – not least because the £320-a-head referral system saves up to £6,000 in eviction costs. For others, however, a more thorough re-education was needed, according to Simon Young, SYHA's housing services manager.

Basic courses in financial literacy were started three years ago but these only exposed a deeper problem: a lack of computer skills – and of the online access required to manage finances and cut costs. "The link between digital and financial exclusion is very close," says Simon. IT skills were necessary for everything from accessing cheap energy tariffs from utility companies to job searches needed to avoid DWP benefits sanctions. "So we widened the course to include digital training programmes."

What he has witnessed as a result in many tenants was the unleashing of new drive and energy and a confidence to keep learning.

The neighbourhood-based lifelong learning programme, which is growing in partnership with charities, training providers and even banks and credit unions, goes to the heart of a new parliamentary inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy – the first for 13 years. The Business, Innovation and Skills education select committee, chaired by Adrian Bailey MP, reports later this spring, and the association is watching its progress closely.

Ruth Womak is a typical success story of the South Yorkshire initiative. Like many, she lived "in dread fear" of computers. Her web-savvy children had left home, and her life was fairly isolated, beyond caring for elderly neighbours. Once on the digital inclusion course, however, she was persuaded to sign-up for a more advanced BTEC course and found new confidence to fulfil old ambitions.

"I always wanted to be a teacher or librarian but I married and had my children early, then spent years nursing a sick mother," she says. The focus on education helped her through her bereavements, and now she teaches English voluntarily, one-to-one, to the most excluded and isolated people in Sheffield, and is studying to teach professionally.

The daily struggles, physical and mental, are immense, as she battles crippling pain. But Ruth refuses to give in. Even the two-day-a-week BTEC takes its toll. "Getting to work and walking the dog twice a day is hard because of my osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. By the finish of my course on Tuesday I'm in bed by 6 o'clock."

She occasionally feels guilty over being freed from the life of a carer. "It sounds awful but I'm enjoying it. For so long I have been a mother and carer, and for 20 years saw only doctors and nurses. If the housing association can afford to do it and is prepared to contact their tenants and find out what they would like to do, I know it would help." Simon agrees. His joint referrals to the CAB have led to further education offerings and he wants to take the whole partnership principle a lot further. Recent small-scale pilot work on digital inclusion has led to big educational improvements across whole families.

Evidence of such benefits was found in the 2012 Centre for Financial Inclusion report, Does Debt Advice Pay? A Business Case for Social Landlords. It revealed that vulnerable families in social housing were being squeezed by welfare reforms and lost out in every way.

First, they were most likely to be trapped in a downward debt spiral, with the knock-on effect of rent arrears and eviction. Secondly, their children tended to under-achieve in education – as the parents could not afford "luxuries" such as the internet.

SYHA has 3,800 general tenants and 2,000 needing care and support. "The welfare reforms had a big impact: 65 per cent claim housing benefit or in-work support," says Simon. "However, I am not convinced by the reforms. They don't focus on the right needs, nor are they achieving their aims." He points out that Ruth was told by the DHSS on the death of her husband that she must downsize to a flat without her beloved dog (they would put it down for her) or pay £17.50 a week in bedroom tax.

An equally fraught issue is how to sustain the learning programme. Escalating debt costs are draining already depleted budgets of both the association and CAB. Steve Wilcox, director of the CAB debt support unit, said: "Every pound spent referring people for debt counselling or assisting them to move because of the bedroom tax is a pound less for education programmes."

Under a recent digital-inclusion pilot scheme, 10 families were given access to laptops and free broadband. "It clearly made a difference," says Simon. "Parents gained confidence and were more able to cope with debt, and the children were soon doing much better at school."

Angela Vaughan, a mother of three, says: "I have found job-searching easier and can do it on a daily basis. The children have a lot more techno knowledge than me, and the course has enabled them to do more."

Like Ruth, Angela is pressing SYHA to enlarge its training schemes, which presents Simon with a big headache. "It will be difficult to scale up – 700-800 tenants are not online – and we cannot go the whole hog. Even getting people on the course is a big challenge as many are totally lacking in confidence. We had to approach more than 80 people to get eight to 10 on the pilot."

Steve Wilcox raises another issue – motivation. "Advising people with just £5 a week for living expenses is hard; you look at the figures and there is no way they can live without additional support... Education is going to be the last thing on their minds."

Simon identifies three recommendations he would like to see at the heart of the select committe's inquiry next month: subsidised broadband, more support to help sustain voluntary sector schemes, and more emphasis around budget management education in schools.

What is happening in Sheffield mirrors the wider national picture, says David Hughes, chief executive of Niace, the national organisation for adult education, which recently concluded its own major inquiry. "The Government spends £210m a year to support community learning. But it's not just about money. We need more joined-up thinking across government departments so we can spend it on education and not waste it on welfare costs."