Life beyond the bastions of stability

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Harvey McGavin looks at the difficulties homeless families experience sending their children to school

The twin pillars of childhood stability - home and school - are temporary fixtures in the life of Azanda. The 14-year-old has lost count of the number of places she has lived in ("it's more than 10 and fewer than 20") and has attended four secondary schools.

At the moment she lives with her mother, Heather, and five younger brothers and sisters in a bed and breakfast hostel in Hackney.

It is a vast, overheated rabbit warren of sparsely-furnished rooms linked by dirty linoleum-clad corridors.

The family lives in three rooms. Azanda, the eldest, helps to look after the 20-month-old baby. She wants to be a lawyer or a nursery nurse, but studying is difficult in their cramped accommodation and she does her homework in the communal lounge.

"I don't like it here. I'd like to live in a house," she says.

Her itinerant upbringing has been marked by a succession of moves as her mother escaped violent partners.

"It's very hard living here," says Heather. "I just want to get the kids settled. They need a home. It's noisy, with people arguing, doors banging and music going on. There's no discipline and they have got nowhere to do their homework. It's important that they get a good education but they lose their self-respect living here and they don't want to go to school. The school said they can understand what they are going through."

Heather grew up in a violent home, her mother died when she was 16 and she left home soon afterwards to sleep rough on London's streets, drifting through a series of unhappy and abusive relationships. She doesn't want her history to repeat itself.

"It gets me down a lot living here but I've got to keep myself up for the kids' sake. In the past I blamed myself but I think I did the right thing taking them away. I don't want my daughters to go through what I've gone through and I don't want my sons to do what my partners have done. I fear for the kids but hopefully we can get sorted out with somewhere permanent in the new year."

Heather's 11-year-old son Ashbe is bouncing around the communal lounge, enjoying a Christmas party organised by the King's Cross homelessness project. His favourite subject at school is PE followed by drama.

"I like to do all the dangerous things, jumping around and doing flips, " he says. "I like English, too, because we get to make up our own stories and characters.

"School's important. I don't want to be unemployed when I'm older. I want to be a stuntman."

At their last hostel, in Essex, he had to get up at 5.30am to get to school on time. Housing shortages mean many homeless families are placed outside the borough where their children go to school.

It's a common situation, according to Deborah Youdell of the Institute of Education, who has researched the links between homelessness and education.

"Dislocation is the most serious problem," she says. "Once kids are in school that's great but it is accessing education that is so difficult for them, particularly in areas where there are a high proportion of oversubscribed schools either because they are popular or because there are high numbers of homeless families."

"Out-of-borough placements are very common. In one inner-London borough they account for 40 per cent of the authority's rehousing. Although guidelines say the council should be mindful of the proximity of existing services when rehousing it often doesn't happen.

"There is a lot of confusion about whose responsibility they are. Liaison between local education authorities and housing authorities is very, very ad hoc. And special funding for schools that are teaching homeless families is very rare."

Delegated school budgets make it very difficult to fund authority-wide provision for the education of homeless children, she says. "The majority of the LEAs we spoke to were not doing anything specific and felt that umbrella measures like free school meals would incorporate homeless people."

"Kids who miss coursework cannot do their GCSE exams and small children lose their basic skills. Teachers were unanimous in saying that some of these kids miss so much school that often they can't make up for the time they have lost. There is a massive workload for teachers, both academically and in terms of pastoral care."

Deborah Youdell says there is a subtle discrimination against homeless children in schools anxious to preserve good attendance rates and exam performance.

"Local management gives schools an incentive to avoid expensive pupils. And homeless kids are expensive: they need multiple resources to enable them to access the curriculum. There are massive administrative demands in chasing records of achievement. The worst-case scenario is that schools will not admit kids they think might damage their reputation locally.

"If somebody is placed out of borough it can take up to a year to get a bus pass which means a family on a limited income is having to spend to keep their children in the same school. Faced with that situation the family must decide whether to move their kids again or spend money on keeping them where they are.

"Kids and parents want educational continuity. The families we talked to were extremely concerned about what it was doing to their kids educationally and socially. They need some stability."

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