When there's no base like home

25th January 2008 at 00:00
They have nowhere to do homework. Some miss a quarter of their schooling. Biddy Passmore on a new scheme to help Britain's rootless children.

Louise Jordan knows all about the frustration of teaching children coping with fragmented home lives. She remembers only too well wondering if some of her pupils had no "home" at all.

As a high-flying Teach First graduate plunged straight into a tough inner-London comprehensive, she was expected to teach personal, social and health education and history, and to act as a tutor from the word go.

"I found it incredibly challenging," she says. "A large number of students very clearly had difficulties at home and I didn't know how to support them. I had to build up a relationship with them incredibly fast. And, as a beginner, I didn't know what I was allowed to ask.

"I did try to find out. I phoned parents. I even made home visits, although it was discouraged."

Shelter, the charity for the homeless, estimates that there are 125,000 children living in temporary accommodation in England.

It runs five Keys to the Future projects in England and Scotland, offering professional support for families and peer education by young people for those at risk. Education is at its heart because homeless children miss out on so much of it.

Ken Kanu, co-ordinator of Shelter's national children's service, says: "Children who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation may miss up to a quarter of their schooling."

Ms Jordan is now Shelter's project manager for children's services in Newham, east London.

"There are close to 7,000 homeless children in Newham," she says. "The problem is, schools don't always know."

Schools have records of pupils' punctuality and attendance, their academic achievements, special needs and any child protection issues, but not necessarily of those in temporary accommodation.

"There's not one school in Newham that keeps that kind of information," Ms Jordan says.

The situation in primary schools may be slightly better, she adds, as they are more likely to know about housing issues among their pupils through closer links with parents.

That is why one of her highest priorities is liaising with schools to make sure they know what is going on in pupils' lives. She wants to compile a blueprint of best practice and also to educate pupils about the realities of homelessness.

Too many, she says, think the council will automatically hand them the keys to a house on their 16th birthday. And too many girls still think the surest guarantee of a home is to get pregnant.

Karen McVean, team leader of Shelter's children's services in Bristol, says: "It's relatively easy to get a homeless child into school - the problem is keeping them there.

"Quite often, homeless children say they feel they can't make headway. They might turn up after some time spent moving around and report to a school, kick chairs around, swear a bit, and get excluded. They can't make head or tail of it.

"They may move midway through the term and often to an area where there are no school places for them. Overall, homeless children are twice as likely than others to leave school without any qualifications."

Shelter workers try to ensure that children who have to move get school places as soon as possible - and that the school is not an unreasonable distance away.

The charity is trying to provide the missing links between a council's housing department - doing its best with limited housing stock - and children's services - concerned with pupils' educational and social welfare.

LIFE WITHOUT A ROOF EXPOSES OUR YOUTH

- Surveys show that badly housed and homeless children are not only much more likely to be ill or depressed than others, but also miss out on large chunks of education.

- A Shelter survey of 400 homeless families found their children missed an average of 55 school days through accommodation moves.

- In 2006, Shelter's report Against the Odds found that badly housed children were five times more likely to lack a quiet place to do homework and twice as likely to be excluded.

- Only just over half of badly housed children achieved the passport five or more A-C grades at GCSE, compared with 71 per cent of other children.

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