No home, no school, no hope

Forty years on from the classic television film 'Cathy Come Home', a new documentary shows how homelessness ruins children's chances
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The Independent Online

Disturbing evidence of the often-overlooked disruption to the education of homeless children is documented in a BBC film to be aired next week.

Evicted, part of a BBC season to mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark drama Cathy Come Home, starkly portrays the way three girls, Sarah, Charlotte and Chloe, have struggled, and in one case failed, to keep studying.

Long journeys to school, bullying, the onset of troubling behaviour in a previously good student, difficulty in doing homework and a school system that allows children to slip through the net are all documented.

It is worrying evidence, given government statistics putting the number of children who are homeless or in temporary accommodation at 130,000.

And the homelessness charity Shelter warns that things could get worse. "We're forming new households at the rate of 210,000 a year, but only building up to 160,000 houses a year and selling three social homes for every two we build," says Shelter's director Adam Sampson. "This is now a crisis that is beginning to hit wealthier people, and inevitably there's a squeeze at the bottom where people get pushed off the ladder through no fault of their own. Unless it is checked soon, we could have a housing crisis dwarfing that of the 1960s."

The circumstances of homeless children are something schools need to understand and tackle. Yet what Evicted shows is that schools and local authorities, particularly those that don't have a regular problem with homeless families, are not always passing on the right information, or are "losing" children.

Eight-year-old Chloe's family was made homeless after their housing benefit claim took so long to sort out that they were evicted for non-payment of rent. The payment arrived the day they were evicted.

The story of Chloe's mother highlights all too well one of the difficulties faced by parents responsible for keeping their children's schooling going at the same time as trying to secure a roof over their heads - they're not always given the right information.

Unable to get her daughter into her school, Langley Mill Junior in Derbyshire, because the bed-and-breakfast hotel she was allocated was too far away, Chloe's mother phoned to ask for work to be sent. She was told that if Chloe was "absent for more than two weeks, then she's taken off our books anyway".

But Derbyshire County Council says that, while it does ask schools to notify the education welfare service and to post children on the Government's transfer database after two weeks of unexplained absence, heads can't actually de-register children until they've had permission from the education welfare service - after 28 days.

Langley Mill head Peter Clayton accepts that the advice may have been misleading, but points out that the conversation ended with agreement that Chloe should stay on the register, and that the advice was steered towards trying to get Chloe's mother to find a school near their temporary home, even if only for a short while. Chloe has now been able to return to the school, her parents having succeeded in renting a house.

But one source (who didn't want to be named) said that schools in the area gave misleading information about the two-week deadline "all the time". Derbyshire says training has been given to all schools, but "in the light of this, we will be issuing a letter of clarification".

Sarah, 15, is one child who has slipped out of the system. She should have been working towards her GCSEs when she was filmed by the TV crew, who found her playing with Chloe in the B&B hotel. Her mother said the family became homeless after her own mother died and the landlord refused to pass on the tenancy. The hotel was so far from school that it would have meant four buses a day - four journeys the family couldn't afford - so Sarah stayed out of school. Although her family has now found a house, she has missed the chance to study for her exams. "My brain's just stopped thinking," she says. "It's hard, because I want to learn."

Too young for college, she is filling in by attending a course aimed at those at risk of offending. She will do English, maths and other activities. Those who are helping her admit it is just a stopgap, but it is the best they can do.

Sarah says she left Long Eaton School in Nottingham in April, at the time she was evicted. But exactly why she was out of the system for so long is difficult to determine. Her account is disputed by the school, whose head, Richard Vasey, won't discuss it even with the permission of Sarah's family, saying he has been advised by his county legal department that he is not obliged to comment on a student who has left.

Whatever happened, the fact remains that Sarah, a well-motivated child hoping to do well, has spent around six months of an important educational year outside the system, beating an already dismal average by some way. When families are made homeless, on average each child will miss 11 weeks of school - nearly a whole term - before the family settles down.

Sampson says there are fault lines in the system nationwide. "By their nature, homeless families are peripatetic and move across boundaries, but many services like education and health are geographically specific," he says. "These children have no fixed advocate to look after them, and there is often a disconnect between housing, social services and education, with poor liaison.

"Schools also have to be much more willing to accept homeless children for education, even if only on a temporary basis. But research we've done shows they can be reluctant.

"They need to understand that things like getting uniforms or books may be a barrier to some, and to try to help with that," Sampson adds. "And Shelter asks local authorities who accept a duty to rehouse also to accept their responsibility to ensure that vulnerable people get the help they need. We can't leave them to find their way through bureaucratic thickets."

The third child in the film, Charlotte, 13, tells how she is forced to do her homework in the bathroom, is called "a dirty homeless tramp" at school, and wakes at 6am for a 90-minute bus ride to the school that used to be near by. We witness the strains on the family after the landlord decides to sell their house. They begin the move down the homelessness ladder, repeatedly packing up and moving, faced with sleeping on the streets, with their belongings in store.

Charlotte describes the changes in her own behaviour. "I used to be really quiet in school, but now I'm like all loud. If someone says something to me I don't like, like any of the teachers, I'll just snap back at them."

There are, of course, examples of schools and local authorities working sensitively and with enormous effort to deal with homeless children. Many schools have inclusion or family support workers. But even they face difficulties picking up on problems when families don't want to reveal they are homeless because of the stigma, or local authorities cut back on transport budgets so it's more difficult to bus children back to their schools if they have to move.

But what Evicted and this article show is that the system is not always able to handle the issue. There is confusion as well as Sampson's "bureaucratic thicket" to struggle through. And I'm speaking as a journalist. I wouldn't fancy my chances of sorting out the facts by phoning, like those in the film, from a mobile on a park bench.

'Evicted', a True Vision Productions film for BBC1, is broadcast on 29 November at 10.35pm