In the national effort to close the attainment gap in Scotland, an important priority for teachers and schools is encouraging parents and carers to support children in their learning at home. Unfortunately, for a growing number of children, there’s a fundamental problem with learning at home: they don’t have one.
At the last official count, in September 2017, there were 6,581 children in temporary accommodation in Scotland. This is the highest number in seven years. Averaged out, that’s more than two children for every school in the country – although schools in deprived communities will see it more often.
Shelter Scotland believes it’s vital that teachers and the broader education sector – including health services – understand the wider implication of bad housing and homelessness can have on children and their education, health and life chances.
Most of the 6,581 children are in temporary furnished flats or houses. While they aren’t roofless, they don’t have the comfort of a permanent, safe and secure home. As our Commission for Housing and Wellbeing found in 2015, having a safe and secure home is fundamental to flourishing.
What those 6,581 children have instead is a collapsing sense of security. Their mental health can suffer. They may be tired from travelling further to school. They may miss days. One study found that up to a quarter of the school year was being missed by homeless children, in part because of temporary accommodation being so far away.
Last year, our colleagues at Shelter in England published qualitative research on homelessness as seen through the eyes of teachers. It talks about children with massive levels of anxiety, tiredness and anger. While living for long periods in B&Bs is much more common in England than Scotland, some of our councils are still dependent on unsuitable temporary accommodation. Even those lucky enough to move into a temporary furnished flat might see their own belongings put into storage or dumped altogether.
What all those children affected have in common is not knowing when they will next have a permanent home of their own. That gnaws away at people and makes it difficult to focus on longer-term ambitions, such as seeing their children do well at school.
Our report The Use of Temporary Accommodation in Scotland, published in 2017, found that the median length of stay in temporary accommodation for families with children was 20.1 weeks – more than half the school year.
The stigma of homelessness
In the past year, the City of Edinburgh Council has admitted that it is struggling with demand and has had families with children in B&Bs and hostels longer than the seven days the law allows.
This law is in place because it has been recognised that extended stays in B&Bs are detrimental to the children’s health and their life chances. There’s no access to cooking or laundry facilities, let alone any peace and quiet to do homework.
It is no wonder that these children aren’t always ready to learn and it is also hard to see how teachers can gain more engagement from parents under so much pressure. The stigma of homelessness can be so terrible that some parents and children won’t tell you if they are homeless.
Homelessness is triggered by many factors. It happens when couples break up and when people suffer ill-health, lose their jobs, or both. It happens because the rent becomes too high, their home is repossessed or their landlord wants to sell – people are priced out of their home and catapulted into the homelessness system.
Poverty plays a major factor. People who don’t have money they can save at the end of the month have a higher risk of homelessness. They can’t afford bad luck. This means that for children made homeless, the loss of their home is rarely the only challenge they will be facing, although it may be the one that consumes most of the family’s attention.
How to help
Young adults are at significantly higher risk of homelessness than other age groups. It’s one of the reasons we decided to work with schools to produce our own learning materials. The Shelter Scotland Schools Pack is free to download (www.shelterscotland.org/schools).
Teachers and pupils have helped us cover this social studies topic in age-appropriate ways. We hope it helps pupils to learn about housing and homelessness. We also know that some of them know about it all too well.
Scotland’s housing system is broken because of decades of under-investment in new affordable homes. Things are beginning to change, with a significant programme of affordable house-building planned during the current parliamentary term and hopefully beyond that. If the plans become reality, it will result in the largest expansion of social housing since the early 1970s.
Even so, it’s still just a start. Many more children are destined to experience bad housing and homelessness before supply for good quality affordable homes meets demand.
Ending the misery of families losing their homes and living in the limbo of temporary accommodation for months or years at a time needs to be part of the solution to closing the attainment gap.
We need greater awareness of the impact this has on children and their ability to learn and – most importantly – there needs to be action to support those going through the trauma of homelessness.
Graeme Brown is director of Shelter Scotland