It is not uncommon, among Dan Morrow’s pupils, for eight and nine-year-old children to sleep in cots.
It is also not uncommon for the Kent headteacher’s pupils to move into homes where the mattresses are infected with bedbugs. In one family, this meant that the children ended up sleeping in an inflatable paddling pool on the floor.
This lack of proper beds is not unique to Morrow’s primary school. Increasing numbers of children around the country do not have a bed of their own. Instead, they end up sharing with siblings, parents or even step-parents, or having to sleep on the sofa or floor.
Buttle UK, a charity that works with disadvantaged children and teenagers, distributes beds to families in need. In the last decade, the number of beds that the charity has handed out has more than trebled: from 963 beds in 2006-7 to 3,217 beds in 2016-17.
And poor-quality or broken sleep takes a toll on children’s ability to concentrate, behave well and perform academically at school.
“Often, if they haven’t got beds, then they haven’t got bedtime routine and structure,” says Tracy Reynolds, a YWCA Yorkshire case worker who liaises between disadvantaged families and their schools. “Their lives are chaotic. If they haven’t got routine, then that’s when behaviour problems kick in.”
Bed purchases account for 27 per cent of the small grants handed out by Buttle UK; 10 years ago, it was only 12 per cent.
Extrapolating out this percentage on a national basis, the charity estimates that there are around 400,000 children in the UK who do not have beds of their own.
“I can’t say there’s an absolute reason why it’s getting worse,” says Gerri McAndrew, chief executive of Buttle UK. “But we do know the numbers of children living in poverty are rising all the time – the huge impact of austerity cuts and changes to the welfare-benefits system.”
'A huge issue'
This comes as no surprise to Morrow, who is headteacher of Oasis Academy Skinner Street, a primary in Gillingham. Many of his pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“A lack of beds has become a huge issue in the last two years, in a way it definitely wasn’t before,” he says.
Sleep experts recommend that children have at least nine hours’ sleep a night. But Dagmara Dimitriou, director of the Lifetime Learning and Sleep Lab at the UCL Institute of Education, says that simply spending the requisite number of hours in bed is not enough – a fact that can come as a surprise to parents.
“Sometimes, parents will say: ‘My child sleeps eight hours a night,’” Dimitriou says. “But it’s not just quantity – it’s quality as well. If you’re sharing a bed with somebody, your body temperature is increased. That’s not good at all. If you’re too hot, you will wake up at night quite a lot. And sometimes children will wake each other up.”
Lack of sleep has a range of effects, Dimitriou says: “Some children are sleepy during the day. But, for other children, it’s actually the opposite – they will be hyperactive and show ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] symptoms.”
And, says McAndrew, these effects often play out in the classroom.
“If children have a lack of sleep, they’re a bit more irritable,” she says. “There’s lots of lack of concentration. Symptoms go from being withdrawn and listless, not participating, through to behaviour problems.”
Morrow has seen this, too. “The children come to school shattered,” he says. “And I do mean shattered.”
He has restructured the Skinner Street school day so that lunch is slightly later than usual. “Our kids aren’t very good after lunchtime,” he says. “As soon as a large meal hits their belly, they want to go to bed. And not just the little ones – Years 5 and 6 as well.”
Lack of sleep can have longer-term impacts, too. “During sleep, children consolidate memory, so they learn better and perform better,” Dimitriou says. “And there’s growth repair of cells and neurons. All of this is going on at night.
“So if sleep is impacted negatively, that has an impact on brain maturation. The brain isn’t developing as it should be.”
Effects on mental health
Children who have a sustained period of interrupted sleep can go on to have sleep problems in later life. “And it can lead to depression in adolescence,” McAndrew says. “It could aggravate latent mental-health problems.”
It can also affect children’s self-esteem. Children tend to invite their friends home to play in their bedroom, McAndrew says. Those children who do not have a bed – let alone a bedroom – of their own are often embarrassed to bring classmates home, which can make it difficult for them to sustain friendships.
This same embarrassment also makes it unlikely that children will confide in friends or teachers about their lack of a bed.
“I assume many teachers in these situations don’t know,” McAndrew says. “Because why would they? Often, children don’t let teachers know because they’re embarrassed. And the parents wouldn’t own up, because they don’t want to talk about it publicly.”
But, Reynolds adds, all of these problems can dissipate almost immediately once a child has a bed and the potential for a good night’s sleep.“If they have a nice, clean bed, with their own, fun bedding on it – a little boy might have cars, or whatever – it’s like their own identity,” she says.
“They can make their own positive choices in life. Once they have a bed, everything else can fall into place.”