“If someone doesn’t do something, there will be no public sector workers left in London – whether they are ambulance drivers, NHS or teachers.”
That is the dire warning from Sir Daniel Moynihan, the chief executive of the Harris Federation. He is among a group of senior figures calling for radical action to tackle the teacher housing crisis, including earmarking units for affordable housing when sites are purchased to develop free schools.
However, the government has been accused of acting too slowly and lacking a proper strategy to address the problem of teachers not being able to afford houses near the schools where they work.
Earlier this month, members of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) identified housing as one of the key factors driving the school recruitment and retention crisis. Committee chair Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, says a lack of affordable housing for teachers in her constituency is a “huge concern”.
One of the schools serving her constituency has 110 staff, of whom only 10 live in Hackney, she says. Hillier has met teachers who “travel an hour and a half each way everyday” on their commute.
Those who do live in the capital often find themselves stuck in shared housing, she says. “It’s not what they thought was going to happen when they entered the profession, is it?” In the circumstances, she says, you cannot blame those teachers who relocate to parts of the country where owning a house is more realistic.
But unaffordable housing does not only undermine retention. Hillier says that the ability for some teachers to live close to their school is important in itself.
“There’s a real benefit to having teachers local,” she says – for example, living in the neighbourhood can give teachers a better understanding of the complex challenges faced by the families they serve.
Call for radical action
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, who also sits on the PAC, agrees. A former teacher, she says the ability to live within a manageable distance from school boosts retention and helps to build a “long-term relationship” between the teacher and their community.
“There is value in having a teacher work in the same school for 20 years sometimes,” she says. “Someone who taught the parent and then teaches the child.”
With teachers increasingly priced out of London and other parts of the south of England, some people are now calling for radical action to secure affordable housing for those working in schools.
Moynihan says Harris, which operates exclusively in London, would like to work with a housing association to turn underutilised land on its school sites into affordable housing for its teachers.
“Housing is a big problem for our staff, they’re clear about that,” he says.
Key worker housing initiatives – where teachers and other public sector workers receive subsidised accommodation – are “not so prolific” anymore, he adds. “It’s heartbreaking. I get emails from teachers saying ‘can you help us?’ It shouldn’t be like that, because they’re essential people.”
As a result of the housing crisis, Harris has seen more of its teachers tempted by two- to three-year contracts working at international schools in the Middle East and elsewhere – countries “where they can go tax free” to “accumulate a deposit”.
But Moynihan says that even this often isn’t enough to get teachers on the housing ladder. “The way property prices are moving in London, you go away for three years you come back and what would have been a deposit three years ago isn’t anymore.”
Sian Carr, executive principal of The Skinner’s Kent Academy in Tunbridge Wells, and a past president of the Association of School and College Leaders, supports the idea of schools providing housing for their staff. When she began her career teaching in Haringey, London, she was offered a subsidised flat “literally five minutes from the school”. “It gives people a chance to save that money, to get on the property ladder.”
Some people argue the government is sitting on a solution to alleviate the teacher housing crisis. Earlier this year, the Department for Education launched LocateED, a property company with a £2 billion budget. Tasked with buying sites for free schools, it bills itself as “one of the largest purchasers of land in the UK”, and many of the sites it is searching for are in London. Hillier and Moran think it should look at providing affordable housing units for teachers when it develops sites.
“[The government] are chasing hell-for-leather this ridiculous numerical target for free schools, and instead of that they could be providing a subtler and cleverer approach that also provides housing for teachers,” says Hillier.
Moran says using LocateED could be part of a broader strategy to “aggressively bring back quotas for key worker housing”. Moynihan agrees that LocateED providing accommodation for teachers is “definitely” a good idea.
LocateED is funding a mixed use development, Ladbroke House in Hackney, which includes affordable housing. However, the DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater, admitted to the PAC this month that the department did not have a “comprehensive strategy” for housing “that definitely meets the level of need” among teachers.
For the committee, this is not good enough. Hillier accuses the government of being “slow to catch up” with a problem that was “predictable”, and lacking a joined up approach to the housing crisis.
“We should have people like Jonathan Slater and indeed ministers in that department banging on the door of the Department for Communities and Local Government, saying ‘these people are keeping our city running – they need to be close to work.’”
Moran uses even stronger language. She says that Slater’s response to the committee on housing was “rubbish”, and the DfE is doing “basically nothing” about the issue.
LocatED’s chief executive, Lara Newman, says: “We are looking at how best to advise and support multi-academy trusts and individual schools that have opportunities to use their land and buildings for key-worker housing.”