Opinion: new research on education and homelessness calls for initiatives to support vulnerable students and homeless people

A new study of the educational experiences of young homeless men has found widespread need for reforms and additional supports for vulnerable young people in the education system. Educational Gaps and Future Solutions reveals a range of preventable system failures in the Irish education system that are still ongoing today. These failures increase the risk of exclusion from the system and participation in society with knock-on impacts that heighten the risks of homelessness. 

The report outlines what needs to change at a policy level to ensure that these men can be reintegrated into society and be supported to fulfil their potential. It also sets out seven key recommendations to improve young people’s educational experiences and reduce risks of homelessness in the future.

While there has been significant research on the experiences of homeless children and families, there is a lack of information available about the experiences of this cohort of young men. That is in spite of this age group and gender making up the single largest cohort of homelessness in Ireland. This demographic also reflects the main group accessing Peter McVerry Trust’s homeless services in Dublin, which is why this research was commissioned in 2018.

A sample of 51 men between 18-38 years of age took part in the research through a questionnaire and follow up interviews, representing just under 30% of all eligible participants living in Peter McVerry Trust services in Dublin who had been educated in Ireland. 

The key findings in the report are:

- There was a significant deterioration in interviewees’ experiences of education following their transition from primary to secondary school. The majority reported enjoying primary school and learning in general and that their experiences of education had been less positive in secondary school due to difficult relationships with teachers and other issues

- Rates of suspension and expulsion from school were significantly higher than the national average, with 55% of participants having experienced reduced access to education via suspension, rolling suspension or expulsion

- 68% of participants had experienced traumatic childhood events

- Emotional counselling and therapeutic supports in and around schools were found to be inadequate or non-existent

- 14% of participants had been in residential or foster care and spoke of significant adverse experiences which had negatively impacted on their education and capacity for learning and concentration

- Over 79% of participants interested in further education or training and spoke of the challenges and barriers to completing education and maintaining employment when accessing emergency homeless accommodation.

The high number of participants who were suspended or expelled from school supports a call in the report for a national target of no student to be suspended or expelled from school, but to instead be given adequate multidisciplinary team supports at both primary and post-primary levels. As one interviewee Conor explains, "I was a straight A student till like fourth year. For fourth year, I was on an in-house suspension for half the year. It’s an in-school suspension, you write lines, you write thousands of words". 

Furthermore, the high levels of those who have experienced trauma and with little or limited emotional counselling or therapeutic supports in and around their school is a glaring gap in supports to prevent trauma impacting on wider parts of a young person's life. In the words of another interviewee Peter, "my early childhood was good. My brother died in an accident when I was 12…I enjoyed primary school…just once my brother died I gave up on life. I didn't push myself at all. I would have been in the top percentage of all the classes in primary school."

Among the recommendations of the research is a call for the Department of Education and Skills to make a new funding stream available for mental health supports for young people. This should include specialised emotional counselling and therapeutic services to address emotional issues and trauma experienced by vulnerable and at risk young students. 

The report recommends a national strategy to look at the educational needs of children and young people in care, as well as the establishment of a distinct funding strand to develop Community Lifelong Learning Centres, to meet the diverse holistic educational needs of vulnerable young people, which builds on European good practice. The report also calls for the Department of Education and Skills, together with the Teaching Council, to provide and lead a strategic commitment to enhance focus on conflict resolution skills for secondary school teachers through initial teacher education and professional development programmes.

This study provides a first step to listening to these perspectives and aspirations with a view to instigating the change required, at both individual and systemic levels, to bring these men back into education and ensure that future young people can be better and more holistically supported.

Educational Gaps and Future Solutions: A Study of the holistic educational needs and experiences of a sample of homeless men in Dublin aged 18-38 Years was commissioned by Peter McVerry Trust and authored by Sarah Murphy, Gráinne McKenna and Paul Downes of the Educational Disadvantage Centre in DCU's Institute of Education.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ