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Homeless and adrift in the school system

The effects of homelessness are more than upheaval, insecurity and loneliness. For children it crucially means a blighted education, reports Karen Shead

Dean is 10 and has changed schools five times in the past two years. Each time he has moved he hasn't had the chance to say goodbye to his friends and when he arrives at his new school his teachers know little or nothing about him.

The notes they eventually receive do not state that Dean, his mother and younger sister have been homeless for two years and had a period of moving from permanent to temporary accommodation. Nor do they show that with each move he has lost friends, belongings and his sense of security.

And the teachers are not aware of what Dean has - and has not - been taught in his previous schools.

"I was telling the teacher I had done the sums before but she didn't believe me. She thought I was using the calculator," he says. "I wished I could sit at a table on my own without a calculator and show her that I wasn't cheating."

This kind of misunderstanding led to Dean being labelled a difficult child.

With schools teaching the curriculum in different ways, Dean found himself repeating some subjects while trying to catch up in others. He was often given extra work in addition to his homework to help him catch up, but he didn't understand why. He became confused and frustrated, thinking he had to relearn subjects because he was not good enough, which wasn't the case.

While people understand that homelessness has an impact on children, they do not always think about the effect it has on their education. Shelter, the UK campaigning charity for homeless and badly housed people, says homeless children miss out on a quarter of their schooling.

Those placed in temporary accommodation in the same council area as their school often do not get any financial help to travel to their old school, which can lead to poor attendance or even mean having to move schools, which disrupts their education. A lack of space or privacy can mean that children have nowhere to do their homework and so fall behind. Children miss their old friends and worry about making new ones; they can feel unable to settle and lack confidence; and a fear of bullying and not fitting in can mean they often skip school.

Dean, who is now in permanent accommodation and settling at school, was not alone. Shelter estimates the number of children in Scotland who are in danger of losing out on their education because they live in the very worst housing conditions at 100,000, enough to fill 4,000 classrooms. The latest figures show that in 2002-3 almost 47,000 households - including almost 25,000 children - applied as homeless to their local council. A snapshot survey shows that on March 31 last year there were 1,620 households with 3,029 dependent children in temporary accommodation across Scotland; 186 of these were in bed and breakfast hotels and 121 in hostels.

Teachers and education welfare officers are often not trained to recognise the signs or understand the needs of children in bad housing, so Shelter has created a new role to raise awareness of the impact homelessness has on a child's education and to minimise that impact. The post of education support worker at Shelter Scotland's Edinburgh Families Project (which helps homeless families to resettle from temporary accommodation to permanent homes) is believed to be the only one of its kind in Scotland.

Bryan Gregg took up the post, funded by Edinburgh City Council, in July last year. "The actual remit of the job is to monitor the impact of homelessness on children," he says, "and that means a number of different things.

"It means going into schools to give homework support after hours, organising transport to and from school (bus passes or taxi fares) and looking at attendance.

"The other side is the policy part," he says. This involves liaising with the council to develop policies that minimise the impact on homeless families. "I work with various departments - social work, education, housing, transport - to try to make things easier for a family.

"Each family has different needs. Some might be escaping from domestic violence; others might be homeless due to missing mortgage payments. So what we provide in terms of child support is different for each family.

"Each family is allocated an adult support worker and a child support worker who support the whole family. An initial assessment is carried out and the support workers tell me if I need to go in and work with a child."

Mr Gregg works with 10 children at one time for about six months. "That is the usual amount of time but it is flexible and depends on the case," he says. "I started working with Dean in November and stopped after the Easter break."

He encourages teachers to take an active role too. He tries to get them to acknowledge and appreciate the effects of moving around, helping them to recognise a child's needs and offering tips. "It's about minimising the impact.

"In Dean's case there was a breakdown of information so he was repeating work he had done previously," Mr Gregg explains. "He is very good at maths and answered the questions they gave him in two minutes. But when he was trying to tell the teacher he had already done the work, it was seen that he was chatting back at the teacher. He was getting resentful of the fact that teachers didn't believe him.

"Dean is in his fifth school now and the impact of this is huge."

Changing schools is unsettling for children in a number of ways. Their routine changes and the rules in one school do not necessarily apply in another.

"Not knowing how long you are going to be at a school is really hard and unsettling," he continues, "and losing friends has a huge impact.

Friendships are particularly important at primary age."

Dean emphasises this point when he talks about moving schools. "I lost my best friends. I lost my best friend ever," he says on more than one occasion.

Mr Gregg used to be a primary teacher and admits he didn't appreciate then the issues homeless children face.

"It doesn't affect every school and more often it will affect schools in the poorer areas. But unless parents tell the school about their situation - and they don't have to - there isn't any reason why a teacher should know.

"You might find kids are falling asleep in the classrooms. But if they are staying in a bed and breakfast, they are lucky if they get a kettle, so kids are eating cup-a-soups and Pot Noodle. It's no wonder they are tired.

"If schools are aware of the situation, they can do things like running breakfast clubs for kids. If they know, they can cut the kids some slack."

Mr Gregg points out: "(Other) children do move schools but when they do information is passed on and parents normally go and meet the teachers, so teachers know about the pupil. But this is not the case with children living in temporary accommodation. They just turn up."

After he spent time with Dean at school, it was agreed that more support should be found for him within school time. He now has a learning assistant to help two or three times a week with handwriting and language skills, some of the basics which he has missed out on. He was also given a computer to use over the Easter break so he was able to write stories "like Harry Potter", he says.

Dean has been at his current school since August and says things are getting better. People know his name and he has made some new pals.

"When Bryan started coming in to school it was better. I started doing my homework with him and he used to help me with handwriting.

"I was getting put down in different groups for reading and writing, but after he talked to the teacher they put me back up on my groups.

"As many people as possible should have Bryan," he says. "When new people start at school, Bryan can help them understand. That's what he did for me."

The Edinburgh Shelter Families Project welcomes the opportunity to meet teaching staff

tel 0131 553 4999


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