Just no place like home

12th May 2006 at 01:00
Children who have nowhere to live need particular stability and understanding at school, writes Susannah Kirkman

The legacy of bad housing stretches way beyond childhood, condemning an individual to a life of disadvantage. These are the stark words of Adam Sampson, director of housing charity Shelter.

"Local schools and services must work together to bridge this educational divide, which is widening fast," he says.

A Shelter survey of more than 400 homeless families found children had missed an average of 55 school days through moves into and between temporary accommodation. It estimates 127,000 children are currently homeless.

In theory, housing and education authorities should be working closely together to support homeless children, since the Children Act recommends that all children's services should be co-operating.

But there is no statutory duty for housing departments to meet the five aims of the 2004 Act - being healthy, staying safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic well-being.

The first joint children's services inspections show that provision in some areas leaves much to be desired.

In Herefordshire, for instance, inspectors criticised the shortage of affordable housing for young people and families.

"Too many young families with children are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Ties with family and other local support networks are put at risk and continuing access to education, training or employment is made very difficult," the inspectors said.

Herefordshire's housing has been transferred to a housing association, limiting its room for manoeuvre. Shelter would like to see substantial national investment in social rented housing.

Sheffield is one council which is trying to protect the education of homeless children. It understands housing officials need to work more closely with children's professionals.

The Homeless Families Group is a multi-agency team where social services, education, housing officials and associations and health visitors meet to plan effective support. Provision includes a learning mentor, who liaises with schools and families, and a school nurse and health visitor who work specifically with homeless children.

The learning mentor often acts as an advocate for families, explaining their difficulties and needs to school staff and guiding them through the process if a child has to change schools.

But Shaklil Zaman, the manager of the Missing in Education Team, says the priority is to help pupils stay in the same school. "The most important thing for these children is consistency. They've already lost their homes so they don't want to lose their friends as well."

Howard Keighley, the head of Netherthorpe primary, finds his school often becomes the most stable part of homeless children's lives, and parents make sacrifices to keep them there.

These may involve sleeping on friends' and relatives' floors until a permanent home comes up near the school or, if they are moved, a tram journey across the city.

"I have had to write letters to the housing department asking them not to move families because they are stable for the first time in their lives," he says.

Other children may be reluctant to come to school because they have witnessed domestic violence or drug misuse at home, and they are anxious about their parents' safety.

Netherthorpe, which has two refuges for homeless families within its catchment area, runs a successful free breakfast club to encourage attendance. It also has its own learning mentor, Amanda Bonnington, whose job is to break down pupils' barriers to learning. For homeless children, these are usually broken families and social and emotional difficulties.

As soon as a new family moves into a refuge, Ms Bonnington visits to identify their specific needs.

"I spend a lot of time on the parents' home ground, getting to know them and making them feel welcome in school," Ms Bonnington says.

"We run classes in English and sewing, mainly for asylum-seeker parents, and in computers."

Some parents get very involved in Netherthorpe and become volunteers, running after-school clubs. Meanwhile, their children will have a Netherthorpe "buddy" to keep an eye on them.

Ms Bonnington spends time with them one-to-one and in small groups. "They may not want to talk but just to sit peacefully for a while," she says.

She also liaises closely with child and adolescent mental health services and social workers, although there can be a long wait for psychological help and a rapid turnover of staff.

"We have worked with one family for eight years, and in that time they have had five different social workers," said Mr Keighley.

Netherthorpe's impressive commitment to homeless families is rewarded by a low ranking in the league tables, although the school has one of the highest value-added scores in the city.

"The five outcomes in Every Child Matters show that learning is not just about academic attainment," Mr Keighley says.

Sheffield has also been working hard to prevent families becoming homeless.

Using money from the Homelessness Innovation Fund, the authority intervenes as soon as eviction is threatened, negotiating with landlords and offering private rented housing where possible. This avoids families going into temporary accommodation and having to apply for council housing.

Yet the housing department admits schooling is a secondary consideration when it allocates permanent homes.

"We can offer only what's available and we can't allow families to spend too long in temporary accommodation," a spokeswoman says. "In any case, children in temporary accommodation have already had their education disrupted."

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