Private renting, children and schooling

During the recent debate in parliament on the private rental sector Jeremy Corbyn suggested that MPs should ‘ask primary teachers how their pupils suffer from unregulated renting.’ He is absolutely right.

Moving house for a child is frequently disturbing. When we moved from our 2 bedroomed council house to a 3 bedroomer after my sister was born, I vividly recall wishing all manner of bad things on the people we were swapping with. Their selfish decision to rob me of my lovely house, lovely garden and lovely bedroom was nothing less than evil. I may have been literally only moving up the road but still this move shook my sense of security and necessitated a change which I didn’t ask for or want. For a 6 year old that sucks.

The moving in and of itself was horrible but didn’t disrupt my education particularly as I could stay in the same school but just have a slightly longer walk in the mornings. Admittedly I never made the same kind of ‘at home’ friendships (shakes fist at Mum and Dad) but at school all remained the same. Worth noting that I was 6 when it happened and I didn’t move again until I was 14. Two moves before the age of 18 is not bad going at all, really.

For many in 2014 though, moves from one rented property to another can be distressingly frequent. Research by Shelter indicates that unmanageable rent rises and revenge evictions have helped to create a situation where a child whose family rent privately are 10x more likely to have moved within the last year than one whose parents own their own home. The chances are that those children, unlike me, will not have the good fortune to stay in the same school.

Children like Amy, a self-conscious 8 year old with a boisterous personality who took years to settle into her last school and now finds herself on the move again. This time older, she notes that her boisterous, adventurous, football-loving nature and shorter hair might make her stand out as being different. Better then create a new personality that will be less noticeable lest she get singled out. Better lose the comfortable trousers and practical short hair and morph into what she feels to be more ‘acceptable’.

Children like Isabelle, a hard-working, school-loving 6 year old who has built several strong friendships with children she’s been around since pre-school. She is confident enough and will cope but she is desperately sad because she really loves those friends. Every night she cries into her pillow because she misses them so desperately. She doesn’t cry in front of her mum though because she doesn’t want to make her feel bad.

And children like Ewan who at the age of 11 had made a conscious choice as to which secondary school he wanted to go to. He had to undertake special selection tests and was overjoyed to be offered a place. When he had to move again though, it was too late to select a school and so he was just given a place in the closest one with a space. No element of selection for him nor any friends to move into that next stage with.

Indeed no real element of selection for any of these three. They move ‘in-year’ so they go to schools where there are spaces. That can mean one of two things: a) they are lucky because there just happens to be a place at a local school (rare if an oversubscribed school and if a school is deemed ‘good’, it will be oversubscribed and have a long list of names for those who hold a ‘continued interest’ in the school); or b) they get into a school which tends to have places available because it is undersubscribed (and because of that it frequently has new children moving into the area who come and go).

Amy goes to an option b) and finds she is the third new girl in her class in 3 weeks. She joins a class who are fed up of new children and the responsibilities they bring. The teacher tries her best to smooth the transition but it is not easy when there is a roll-on; roll-off element to the class. At lunchtime Amy has sandwiches but the other girls have dinners. She waits for them to finish but worries they won’t want to play with her like yesterday. She doesn’t know what to do to make them like her. Amy has quite bad dreams about getting lost and losing her mum and dad. She stops asking and answering questions in class.

Ewan has a difficult time. He is a deep and complicated character who looks tough but is actually deeply sensitive. To hide any perceived ‘weakness’ he takes to pretending to be something he isn’t which is a huge stress. His teacher finds him difficult and resistant not knowing his history. She misinterprets his behaviour as disruptive when it is only defensive. A bright and capable boy, his grades drop significantly. He feels sad a lot but doesn’t really know why. He’s worried they will have to move again. He knows that landlords change their minds.

The effect on children of frequent moving has been carefully documented. The descriptions above could relate to children who have moved once but consider the devastating potential effects on mental health, grades, education in general if this pattern is repeated regularly. No, really stop and consider that. These children, quite simply, do not stand a chance.

When I recently voiced support for longer tenancies in private renting, I was shouted down. It was put to me that this was not a significant issue for renters and that is was unfair to force long tenancies on everyone when other factors such as revenge evictions and rent rises were more important. My response is that all 3 are important actually and in fact, they feed into one another. At the heart though are the young lives damaged through no fault other than being the offspring of people who need, for one reason or another, to rent privately. Where on Earth is the justice in that?

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5 thoughts on “Private renting, children and schooling

  1. This was a good read – thank you. It highlights the importance not just of available housing, but the security of tenure of that housing. This is why we NEED regulation in the PRS – revenge evictions are simply unacceptable practice, and we are, I believe, far behind much of Europe when it comes to offering longer tenancies.

    Further, it made me think of how often we overlook people who live in properties but are not the registered tenants. Property has an effect on everyone who finds lives in it, so why do we so often focus just on ‘the tenant’ when talking about housing. Oh, mention has been made of children in a welfare / care sense, but this post really highlights that children are active residents of property – that what happens to it affects them – and that they should, perhaps, have a greater tie to the home than merely being young charges to be looked after by the registered rent-payer.

    To quote the oft-lampooned cry of The SImpson’s Helen Lovejoy, won’t somebody please think of the children?

  2. I’m really encouraged by the thought that my post might draw attention to the difficulties faced by children when it comes to multiple coerced moves of the type we can see in the PRS. Thanks for leaving a comment, Neil-it’s invaluable to get some feedback on these thoughts. I’ve seen your blog too and find it incredibly informative and thought-provoking.

    I suppose our separate worlds of the PRS and Social Housing do collide every now and one of those issues of convergence is probably the effects on schooling of poor housing and living conditions. It would be interesting to find some point of collaboration perhaps?

  3. I’d be very interested in finding a point of collaboration, Fiona. I firmly believe that housing is the foundation on which everything else sits – without secure shelter, it’s very difficult to improve your health, education, career prospects, etc. How this impacts children is an important aspect of that argument.

    Happy to discuss this further – let me know if you have any ideas!

    1. Great. Will think about it a bit more and get back to you if I have any inspiration! (That may take some time…:-) )

  4. This post expresses my main current worries extremely clearly and poignantly. Thank you, Fiona.
    Our own experience is that we had to move nearly exactly a year ago – two adults and 3 children in a two-bedroomed house was no longer tenable, after 8 and a half years in that situation. So we moved to another rented house with a tiny third bedroom in a neighbourhood not too distant, but distant enough that we had to ask for places in different schools.
    It took eight months for us to be offered places for our children in a local school – eight months of a long (45 minutes at the very least) and complicated commute, on public transport (train and bus, or two buses) for the children and I to get to their “old” school, eight months of nobody in the family being able to really settle in our new neighbourhood, as the kids were hardly ever in it, eight months of an extra £120 a month spent on transport to get to school and back. Eight months is a very long time. It is enough to really drive you into the ground. Enough to make you consider any other option which might provide some stability and security, including emigrating to another continent altogether.
    And the worst part is that we know and fear, daily, that this could happen again absolutely any time. I honestly don’t think we could do it again.
    So, as somebody who has rented privately for well over 20 years, the children issue is really what has made me realise how profoundly unfair and scandalous the lack of longer tenancies is. The children have no say whatsoever and yet are the ones who will be affected most deeply by the insecurity that characterises the PRS in this country.

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