The often-devastating impact that moving homes multiple times can have on the lives and education of disadvantaged young people was one of the strongest themes to emerge from a study of what it means to grow up in poverty.
A three-year research project run by The Children’s Society and the University of Bath followed the lives of 60 children in an attempt to give a “child’s-eye view” of the affect poverty has on their lives.
The resulting report, entitled Understanding Childhoods: Growing up in hard times, gives an insight into the barriers to wellbeing and education faced by these young people.
These include young people often forced to make long journeys to school, having to stay indoors in unsafe neighbourhoods and struggling to sustain important friendships after moving area or school.
Children in the report also regularly went hungry as their free school meals (FSM) allowance “fell short of their needs”. Children also faced being punished for breaking school rules on things like uniform and other equipment when these infringements were solely down to their family not having enough money.
The report comes shortly after official government figures confirmed that four million children are now considered to be living in relative poverty in the UK after housing costs (meaning their family’s income is below 60 per cent of the median income for the UK).
The research project began in 2015 with a sample of 60 disadvantaged young people – from rural towns as well as small and large cities – who are being interviewed annually. The children are aged 9 and 10 (year 5) and 11 and 12 (year 7).
This report shares preliminary findings across four themes: residential transience, experiences of school, neighbourhoods, and money/material things.
The report’s findings in this area are notable not least due to the fact that the authors “never set out to research residential transience”. Indeed, in selecting the 60 children, schools were asked to specifically filter out highly mobile youngsters to prevent attrition from the study.
However, the issue of residential transience emerged “nevertheless” with the report finding that “frequent house moves can be a striking and problematic feature of life, albeit one that is normalised”.
Of the children in the study, some had moved between three and (for one nine-year-old child in the study) nine times in their lives.
The reasons varied widely, including those who moved into the UK in search of a better life, family separation, to escape harassment by ex-partners, to escape neighbourhood violence, or due to eviction.
The report states: “Whatever the reasons, the issue of poverty seems ever-present, sometimes in obvious ways – in cases of eviction, of living in properties that were unfit for human habitation, and of living in temporary accommodation. In other cases the links between poverty and residential transience were less transparent but present nonetheless, determining when and where families were able to move, or necessitating excessively long journeys to school.”
The research warns that for some children, moving home frequently was seen as normal: “However participants experienced moves, their narratives suggest a sense in which residential transience had become somewhat normalised – a fact of childhood for some, communicated candidly and with little sense of the how it highlighted the shortcomings of the policy and political context in which they live.”
The report finds that for those experiencing transience, a sense of control can help to mitigate the negative effects of housing instability – even small actions such as controlling bedroom decoration or helping to pack.
Experiences of school
School food, uniform and equipment proved common themes when it came to the children’s experiences of school.
The report points to previous research from the Institute for Social and Economic Research showing that a third of all children eligible for FSM prefer not to take them and it warns that for some of these 60 children, the way FSM were being provided was stigmatising.
It was not such an issue at primary level, but problems with FSM emerged at secondary school because the point of purchase moved into the canteen. Also, the amount of funding often limited choices for pupils at secondary level – for example, one pupil received £1.85 for a FSM whereas one drink could cost as much as £2.30.
Of the 15 boys in the study at secondary school, seven were spending their allowance on food at the beginning of the day when they felt hungriest. Many left home before 7:30am and may not have had breakfast.
The report also notes how the cost of school for those in poverty can be prohibitive of certain learning and enrichment opportunities. Costs of school trips and some extra-curricular activities, including music lessons, were prohibitive for many of the children in the study. Even trips to a see a pantomime (costing £8) were too much for some.
Cost of uniform was a particular issue, especially at secondary level where rules and regulations seem to become more complex and uniform demands greater. Additional rules and requirements about sports kit made matters worse.
Some schools help with uniform costs, but not for replacing lost, stolen or worn-out clothing and children in the report spoke of being forced to pay for things like new ties or getting into trouble.
The report adds: “Not having the right school uniform made it difficult to fit in with peers, but it was also treated as a behavioural issue and resulted in the same sanctions that were incurred for behaving badly. In the first year of secondary school some children already felt marked and in breach of rules and expectations.
“Avoiding trouble was something all the children wanted to do, but when there were so many ways of being in trouble it seems like a struggle, particularly when not having basic equipment or uniform was dealt with as a breach of the rules.”
The report also explores the children’s experiences of living in deprived areas, reflecting common concerns around safety and violence, noise and traffic, aggressive adults and neighbours, bullying and gangs, and animals, rubbish and mess.
A key issue seems to be having safe spaces to play, including parks and green spaces. The report states: “Many voiced concerns about not being able to access such good-quality spaces to play. Having access to safe green places to play in has been shown to be particularly important for children’s health and wellbeing.
“Without safe park space children were often playing in the streets, and street space was considered to be extremely unsafe by children. In the discussion with classroom groups it was evident that many children knew of, or were related to, children who had been knocked down by cars.”
The report adds: “The children in this research were often living on very run- down estates where there was considerable transience.
This could create a tense and unsettled environment. Children’s accounts indicated that they were often very anxious and unhappy about fighting and swearing in the streets, aggressive adults and, for this younger group, the perceived danger of large groups of teenagers and gangs.”
The final focus of the report was on material things and money. It found that the 60 young people had a “keen awareness” of financial hardship but also had a “strong desire to fit in with peers, even though fitting in can come at a cost”.
Many children in the study were sometimes going without and sometimes contributing their own money to household budgets.
The report explains: “The children in our study were not old enough to be contributing their own earned income to the family finances, but many of them talked about spending their own money – which they may have received as a birthday or Christmas present, or from another family member – on essential items for the family.”
In one extreme example, one girl told researchers how she and her siblings would take it in turns to go begging – both from friends and family and from strangers.
The girl, aged 9, said: “We try to beg people for money because we only have £10. And mostly my dad picks whose turn it is to try to see if they can get someone to give us, like, £10 a month.”
This report marks the start of more in-depth research by the Children’s Society and Bath University based on analysis of the data and with the aim of producing clear conclusions to help us better understand the impact of poverty on children and young people and what governments and others might be able to do to make a difference.
However, alongside its insights for professionals into these challenges facing young people, the report also outlines a number of recommendations for the school system. These include:
- Providing all teachers with training on childhood poverty and its impact on children’s education.
- Ensuring that Ofsted inspects schools on how they support the poorest pupils.
- Allowing children to have a say in how Pupil Premium money is spent.
- Ensuring schools make uniforms affordable.
The report, Understanding Childhoods: Growing up in hard times, can be downloaded at http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/understanding-childhoods-growing-up-in-hard-times