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

News
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
News
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
people
Voices
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
art
News
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
people
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
News
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
News
i100(More than you think)
Sport
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
News
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
News
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Sport
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
FOOTBALL
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
News
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Guru Careers: Clinical Sales Exec / Medical Sales Exec / Field Sales

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a Clinical Sales Exec / Medica...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game