The advantage gap in the education sector has been brought into sharp focus over the course of this year, with school closures making it startlingly apparent that there are many children who, as well as relying on free school meals for nourishment, simply do not have the resources at home to have been able to keep up with their learning. For the 136,0000 children living with homelessness in Britain, the situation is even more terrifyingly grim.
A study undertaken by YouGov and housing and homelessness charity Shelter has revealed that 56 per cent of state school teachers in Britain have worked with children who are, or have become, homeless – with devastating effects on their education, health and wellbeing. Some of the sobering insights from these teachers include high levels of absenteeism, hunger, tiredness and poor hygiene: in short, children who do not have a stable home struggle to eat, sleep and wash. Their families are often forced to find accommodation far from school, making attendance problematic. Poor hygiene and nutrition contribute to illness. Lack of sleep contributes to an inability to concentrate and to poor academic performance.
These were pressing problems even before the start of the pandemic; Covid-19, with its attendant job losses, economic instability, mental health issues and rise in incidences of domestic abuse has undoubtedly worsened the situation for many. Teachers report providing pupils with food and emotional support; some, such as Dani Worthington, a head teacher in West Yorkshire, even cites instances of having to wash uniforms at school.
This level of support can, however, only occur when educators are aware of the problem. For Mark Holland, whose daughter Macy started Year 2 when schools reopened in September, a combined sense of pride and shame prevented him from informing the school about his circumstances: having left a toxic relationship almost a year previously, he had been forced to sofa-surf throughout lockdown. When he was eventually given temporary housing, it was more than an hour’s journey from Macy’s school and transport cost him around £100 each week – a steep ask even for those not living on benefits.
“It wasn’t fit for an adult to live in, let alone a child,” he says. “It was a shared house with strangers who smoked indoors; it stank, and the kitchen was a state. Shared facilities also meant that Macy and I didn’t even have our own bathroom.”
Despite his entirely valid reservations about bringing his daughter to live in such unsavoury conditions, Holland, after months of navigating the regulations surrounding homelessness, felt that he had no choice.
“I’d moved out of the house I’d shared with my ex-partner because the situation had the potential to be damaging to Macy,” he explains, “but when I sought assistance from the council, they defined me as ‘intentionally homeless.’ I needed evidence of eviction, or reports from police or Social Services to substantiate my decision to remove my daughter from that domestic situation. Having finally been assigned accommodation, I feared that if I rejected it on the basis of not being fit for my and Macy’s needs, I’d lose access to any other assistance.”
He acknowledges that, in the scheme of things, he was one of the lucky ones. “I had family and friends I could turn to for help – if not with permanent accommodation, then at least with laundry, food and so on,” he says. “Despite having to share a room with me for all those months and having her rest disrupted by other people in the house – plus the need to wake up and leave early each morning – Macy seems to have come through the past year relatively unscathed. Even so, I know there are so many other families out there who are completely on their own, or who will spiral into even deeper problems in response to the stress and lack of support.”
One of the teachers interviewed anonymously by Shelter spoke of a child who “leaves home at 6am every morning to get to school because she has been temporarily rehoused out of area. The family of four are living in one room … her attendance has dropped severely; she has become ill and she is always tired.”
“Who would choose to put themselves on the streets?”
Holland is, understandably, appalled by the hoops through which homeless people need to jump in order to receive help from councils. “Who on earth is ‘intentionally homeless’?” he asks. “Who – especially someone with a young child – would choose to put themselves on the streets? If I hadn’t spoken with Shelter, I would have had no clue about my rights and how to proceed; I have no way of knowing where Macy and I would be now.”
“Homeless children must not be the invisible victims of this crisis,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter. “Without a safe and secure home, a child’s life chances can be deeply disrupted … without action, the extra harm being done to homeless children as a result of the pandemic may never be undone.”
As for Mark and Macy? They are now in permanent accommodation within easy reach of Macy’s school and looking forward to spending Christmas in their new home. “Starting with nothing is not easy,” he says, “but at least we have to a secure home to start from now.”