‘I’d rather he eats than gets to school’: The tough choices facing homeless parents of ‘ghost children’ | UK News
The room in the homeless hostel is so small that there is barely enough room for two single beds.
This is now home for 30-year-old Sammy and her six-year-old son Teddy after their world was turned upside down.
When the bailiffs came to evict them from their flat last month, all they could do was hastily pack a suitcase containing some of their belongings; clothes and some toys.
That was it.
“We ended up on the street waiting to be housed,” Sammy says.
“I thought: ‘What mum does this to her child?'”
But the eviction wasn’t her fault. The landlord wanted the flat back and that was that. They were out on the street.
“We waited until 8pm that night and they sent us here. At the time it was a safe haven. Teddy thought we were on holiday for a while. I thought we’d be here for a few days. That was more than three weeks ago.”
If losing their home was devastating enough, the knock-on effects for little Teddy in particular are potentially catastrophic.
Especially to his education.
The hostel is on the other side of the city from his school and he’s hardly making it into class at the moment.
“It takes about an hour-and-a-half to walk and I cannot afford the two bus fares either,” says Sammy.
“I’d rather he had something to eat than spend money getting him to school. I know that sounds bad.”
Manchester City Council says it has been working hard to rehome Sammy and Teddy. They’ve recently given her a bus pass to make it easier to get her son to school, but he is still missing a lot of classes.
He is now and is classed as “persistently absent”, meaning he’s not in for at least 10% of the time.
“He’s in one or two days a week at the moment. I just can’t get him in,” Sammy tells me.
And Teddy is not alone.
Absence among school children is now at crisis point. Some pupils are off sporadically while others – nicknamed “ghost children” – have vanished from class altogether.
New figures just released by the government show that rates of school absences are double what they were before the pandemic.
And the beginning of this academic year has been the worst ever for the number of children missing from class.
Teddy’s school is honest about how difficult it is to get kids into class these days.
Matt Foster, assistant principal for inclusion at the Oasis Academy Aspinal, says they have had to look at new ways to work with families, often with fewer resources.
“There are very few agencies we can go to for support, specifically around attendance at the minute. Everyone has suffered a lot of cuts themselves. So we have to plug those gaps.”
So the school has turned to a charity for help.
School-Home Support have provided a case worker to do the job once carried out by the school or someone from the local council.
“Councils don’t get enough money to provide the support that they once provided. And the way that funding and budgets are going, it’s something that we are looking to more and more,” Mr Foster says.
In fact, the government has actually increased spending on schools since 2019, but inflation and rising costs have largely cancelled out the benefit.
School-Home Support sent family support worker Clancey Chronnell, a primary school teacher for 17 years, to work with Sammy and Teddy.
She spends her days driving across Manchester visiting families of children who aren’t in school.
“We’ve got parents who have got chronic health conditions facing homelessness, eviction, fleeing domestic violence and very, very difficult home lives.
“They have so much going on that getting their child into school – on time, every day, is just too much.
“It’s heart-breaking that so many children are not coming in every day and getting all these opportunities.”
Every child of school age must receive a suitable education by law and parents can face fines for not ensuring their children attend.
The family support worker is seen as a way of avoiding legal action through gentle persuasion rather than the letter of the law.
But this kind of support is rare, and most parts of the country do not have access to a support worker.
The government says it’s setting up attendance hubs in the worst-affected areas.
But the Local Government Association says it is now time for a register of missing pupils to be created.
Louise Gittins, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Under the current arrangements, children not in school are invisible to councils and the services that keep them safe. This is why it is vital the government legislates for a register of children who are not in school.”
In Manchester, six-year-old Teddy is missing more and more school. He and his mum are still waiting to be given a new home – and they have no idea where it will be, or if Teddy will have to move schools.
Sammy has managed to buy him a Super Mario bed cover to make him feel a bit more at home. And as we chat, he wants to play hide and seek.
“Teddy said the other day about being homeless. He was talking about it. And I was thinking when he’s older and he realises what this actually was, is it going to affect him emotionally?
“I think it is affecting him because he’s making nowhere near the progress that the other kids are.”
I ask Sammy if she accepts the argument that parents are responsible for their children and by law must do all they can to get them into school.
She nods: “There is a risk of me getting a fine for his attendance because his attendance is just getting worse and worse and worse.
“I’m nowhere near his school. Nowhere near. I have no family nearby. I’m stuck.”