A place to create

Volunteer teachers, or 'learning brokers', are helping to rebuild the lives of London's homeless, says Gareth Rubin

In a cave-like room hidden in the network of cellars below the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, Mark Stuart-Smith sits at a Formica table, his face thrown into sharp relief by the neon-strip lights above his head. The surroundings are The Connection at St Martin's, a day centre for the homeless, just metres from the chapel of a church world-famous as a concert venue and centre for baroque choral work.

In a cave-like room hidden in the network of cellars below the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, Mark Stuart-Smith sits at a Formica table, his face thrown into sharp relief by the neon-strip lights above his head. The surroundings are The Connection at St Martin's, a day centre for the homeless, just metres from the chapel of a church world-famous as a concert venue and centre for baroque choral work.

Today the centre is Mark's classroom. Mark, a further education teacher employed by Westminster LEA, teaches a few days a week at The Connection. This morning, he is teaching a creative writing class. "It started off as a method of teaching basic skills," says Mark as he waits to see how many of London's thousands of rough sleepers will turn up for the weekly three-hour class. "But now it has a second aim: by giving these people a chance to express themselves through stories and poetry it boosts their self-esteem, and can be a step towards solving any other problems they have."

The class publishes an annual anthology of work by the centre's "clients". And rather than being downbeat work about homelessness and its related problems, much of it is comic or celebratory. The class also stages occasional poetry performances in the piazza in Covent Garden.

"It's a very interesting class to do - very, very absorbing," Mark says. "The creative writing aspect draws people in, but that then serves as a vehicle for basic skills provision. Some people come in with no basic skills at all, and over the space of four or five years have gone from being unable to read or write, to producing highly accomplished poetry. But other clients come in already highly literate. It's a great motivating factor, it gives them a chance to reflect on life issues while understanding how to structure paragraphs, and so on."

The class has not been short of high-profile support. "We've had John Hegley, Adrian Mitchell and even Tony Harrison come here to read from their work and do some work with the clients," says Mark.

Although the centre has teachers who volunteer for a few hours a week, Mark is one of the centre's professionals. He is one example of how LEAs are reaching people who would not normally seek out education. It is a field led by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), which encourages LEAs to send "learning brokers" into the community. Sue Taylor, a research manager at the LSDA, recently oversaw research into education projects for the homeless. She says: "These projects are about making people feel respected and that there are things they can do which they have never done before, rediscovering latent talents. They can be a springboard to a more stable future."

One of Mark's students arrives. It is Antonio, who, despite his name (the legacy of a Portuguese father), is Chinese. His spoken English is often difficult to understand, but when he writes, he is eloquent and thoughtful:

I travel among unknown men.

A ranger, in this land beyond the sea.

England! My oldest dream.

"I've been in Britain for three years and I've been coming here for 15 months," he says. "When I first arrived, I worked in Chinatown, but it was very difficult to get work." He ended up homeless and now lives in a shelter. "This class has given me a way to tell people how I feel. If I see a flower I can write about it, I can tell people that London is a beautiful city."

Annie O'Brien, one of the centre's managers, says many of the clients have had a disrupted education: "Many attempted to go to school or college and weren't able to pursue it. It's very important that those who come to us are kept up-to-date with their peers. Most won't have had the chance or the confidence to access the internet, for example, so we provide classes in that. Without these basic skills, getting secure accommodation can be difficult - even relatively simple things like paying bills or budgeting can be very difficult."

Mark also teaches art at the centre. One of his students is Cathy O'Connor, who has gained a place for a foundation course in art and design at the Central St Martins College of Art and Design. "I was a jazz musician for years, playing on the streets of Paris with my family band, The Lost and Wandering Jazz and Blues band, but I ended up as a junkie," she says. "So I came back to England, went into rehab, then came to this place. I started doing Mark's course and he told me what I would need to put into a portfolio, so I put one together, and Central St Martins gave me a place."

Also looking forward to more formal education is Joseph Pritchett, a regular on the creative writing course. "I went to a grammar school, but I felt like I was chained to the desk," he says. He dropped out of education and wound up sleeping rough for a few months. "I went to college but got kicked out for drugs," he adds. "I've been clean for years now and I've got into a housing scheme. I'll move into a new place by the end of the year and want to do an Open University course, maybe English literature.

"I love the class here. Best of all is the way it's such an easy-going invitation - you can go at your own pace, and you get so much encouragement from the staff and the other guys in the class. It gives you confidence."

education@independent.co.uk

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