I recall a headteacher telling me in the first few weeks of my role as CEO of the Coop Academies Trust that the strongest negative impact on children’s lives in the area beyond poor teaching and poor parenting, was poor housing. He explained that, in his opinion, the temporary nature of rental agreements and the overcrowded nature of some properties led to some children moving to a new address every few months, and for a few having to regularly move school. He drew attention to the squalid conditions and the true struggle some families were facing.
Five years later, I was sitting in a restaurant, the week before the Christmas break, with the attendance and pastoral support team from the secondary academy that is fed by the primary school I had previously visited. I was so impressed by the dramatic improvement in attendance levels at the school during the year I felt I should personally reward the team. During the meal I asked them to tell me of the most troubling visits they had made in their dogged attempt to ensure regular attendance. In unison they explained that it was the visit to a three-bedroom house where over 30 people were living! They explained they reported the incident and the council intervened, but they were clear this was not an isolated incident.
During the lockdown television news broadcasts regularly interviewed families at home to better understand how they were coping. I was struck by the beautiful kitchens and heavily laden bookcases that appeared as a backdrop. These images were far removed from those I was more familiar with for families in many of the Trust academies.
The lockdown correctly highlighted the social and economic challenges many families faced. It also possibly changed the relationship between schools and its families. There appears to be a more complete understanding of the challenges families are experiencing by school staff.
I am reminded of a social messaging image I had seen posted from a Coop sponsored secondary school during lockdown. Two staff members had visited the home of a student, something they were doing on a regular basis, to check that all was well. The relationship between the teachers and the family had changed significantly during lockdown. It had become much closer and supportive. The school had organised food parcels and additional support for them. The family asked if the teacher could take a photograph of the family standing on their front doorstep and whether it could be shared on social media so that their friends and family could see that they were ok. The teacher agreed and posted the image.
It is often said that a picture paints a thousand words and that photograph certainly did. It was an image of love and care, but it also showed levels of poverty and hardship that shock. It made real the broader challenges that go beyond broadband connectivity and laptop availability for home learning for children. It pointed to the struggle some families are facing and why it was not always possible for their children to achieve their full potential despite the best efforts of teaching staff.
At the start of the lockdown the Northern Powerhouse Partnership (I sit on its education committee) started campaigning for additional government funding for laptops and broadband connectivity for families without them. We approached many northern businesses who stepped up to provide either 2000 new or reconditioned laptops. My former Trust paid for 1000 laptops for Year 5 and Year 10 students. This level of commitment was amazing but sadly it was a drop in the ocean. The government’s programme of laptop and broadband provision followed and has been welcome, but it is a sticking plaster on a much larger problem.
I suspect many families coped with lockdown…. just. Economic and social advantage kicked in for those lucky enough to have them but for some of the most vulnerable the impact of poor housing and associated disadvantages the challenge has been much greater. If there is an upside to Covid-19 it has drawn attention to inequality in a stark way. I hope politicians and policy informers don’t lose sight of the negative impact of poor housing on our most vulnerable children. Providing catch up funding for all and laptops for some doesn’t go close to addressing the fundamental inequalities.
Schools are continuing to go the extra mile to support families as pupils return to full time education. But we need to make clear that for some improving education is only one aspect that supports a child’s learning and life journey. There are some issues, such as housing, that are way beyond the control of schools that seriously affect the progress some children make. If we don’t improve housing then much valuable resource will be wasted and children’s lives impaired.