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The State won't know how many homeless students will be sitting the Leaving Cert this summer

Neither the Department of Education nor the State Examination Commission keep those details.

Image: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

CURRENTLY, THERE ARE almost 4,000 children and young people in Ireland who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation. 

However, as confirmed to TheJournal.ie, neither the Department of Education nor the State Examination Commission will know how many children who are homeless are undertaking state exams this summer.

That’s because “candidates for State examinations are in the main entered for the Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate examinations by the school and the SEC has no information as to the residential status of examination candidates”, according to the Department of Education.  

Now, it must be noted that even if the State did record such information, at any given time throughout the year it may not be able to accurately know the true number of homeless students who will be sitting exams in the summer. 

For example, a student who is homeless now may not be homeless in June, when the exams take place, or visa versa. 

That being said, Tanya Ward from the CRA was critical of the lack of data. 

“The key problem is that no one is formally tracking these children and there is no specialised policy on their education needs in school,” Ward said. 

Services laid out to support students who may find themselves in such circumstances are often provided by individual schools or housing charities. 

Current figures

The homeless emergency accommodation figures for January show that there are now a combined total of 9,987 people homeless and living in emergency accommodation in Ireland, a significant rise of 234 people from December.

The numbers taken over the course of one week in January show that there were 6,363 adults and 3,624 homeless children living in emergency accommodation in the state. 

The overwhelming majority of homeless families and children are in the Dublin region. Most of these are either living in family hubs, or rooms in commercial hotels and B&Bs. 

Families – often with very young children – have had to share beds in single hotel rooms for months at a time. 

In many cases these hotels would have no cooking or cleaning facilities or suitable areas to study in. 

Drug use, abusive staff, bed bugs and rat droppings are just some of the issues that have been raised about this sort of accommodation. 

Being homeless during exam time

Studying for State examinations can be a stressful time for any teenager, but that stress deepens with a lack a stable homelife. 

There are two main issues facing homeless students in Ireland, according to Focus Ireland’s director of advocacy Mike Allen. 

The first being transportation, he said. 

It cannot always be guaranteed that emergency accommodation will be in the same area as the student’s school, which means that these students could end up spending ample amounts of their day travelling to and from school – time which could be spent focusing on homework or study. 

Focus Ireland’s family homeless action team project leader Niamh Lambe spoke to TheJournal.ie this week and provided examples of students they worked with who were homeless and in exam years. 

In one case, a teenag girl who was in her Junior Certificate year was living in a hotel room with her two parents and two siblings. Lambe said: 

There was no study space available, it was a quite difficult place to study in with the family there in the room with her, so her grades were starting to drop. 
One of the Focus Ireland key workers that had been working with that family contacted her school and the arranged for study sessions after hours. This did make a difference. 
However, she was displaced from her home of origin. She was already leaving the hotel she was staying in at around 6am in the morning to travel across the city to school. While the study sessions were great after school, it just meant that it was a significantly long day for her. 

The Department of Housing funds an initiative to provide homeless families residing in hotel accommodation and family hubs in the Dublin Regions with access to free public transport for essential school journeys. 

90414006_90414006 Focus Ireland director of advocacy Mike Allen Source: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

Echoing the words of Lambe, Children’s Rights Alliance (CRA) chief executive Tanya Ward noted that having to travel long distances to and from school can have an impact on school attendance. 

“Imagine having to wake your child as early as 5.30am to make the long journey across the city to school? Many are exhausted and some sleep on the bus journey to and from school. This can impact school attendance,” Ward said. 

Secondly, the lack of suitable accommodation poses issues, too, according to Allen.

As evident above, most homeless students are left without a suitable place to study once they leave their school in the afternoon. 

“Some of the hubs have study rooms or places which are suitable for that, but not all of them do and none of the commercial hotels, which is where most people are, have anything like that,” Allen said. 

You’re basically studying in the bedroom with the rest of the family, whoever that might be. 

Allen said that students who are homeless might face ending up with “significantly lower exam results” than usual as a result of their accommodation situation. 

Ward added: “Imaging trying to study for your Junior or Leaving Cert in the hotel room that you share with your entire family? This is the reality for children living in homelessness.” 

emergency homes The former building used by Bargaintown which has been converted into a family hub Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Over the past few years, children’s rights groups, non-governmental organisations and independent overseers have time and time again warned that long-term homelessness can have a devastating effect on children.

It’s not just the practical elements that are disrupted in a child’s life when they become homeless. It can have a serious emotional impact on a child or young person, too. 

A recent survey carried out by the Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN) stated that the top three challenges for children who are either homeless or living in direct provision are anxiety, family issues and neglect. 

The network said that the daily reality of families living in homeless accommodation and direct provision can often result in poor physical and mental wellbeing, low self-esteem, exhaustion and feelings of isolation. This would no doubt be a similar scenario for post-primary students, too. 

Mike Allen noted that these students face issues ranging from a lack of confidence, bullying, being singled out and losing friends as a result of their circumstances. These issues, it should be noted again, would coincide with the stress students are under when it comes to exam preparations.

In terms of their health and wellbeing, a Focus Ireland report in 2017 outlined that children living in emergency accommodation are living off frozen food and takeaways due to a lack of cooking and storage facilities.

Homeless families reported supplementing their diets with noodles, instant pasta, chicken, chips and pizza.

The research found that all families interviewed shared a bedroom, and just one of the 10 families surveyed were provided with breakfast and dinner in their emergency accommodation.

Michelle Share, one of the authors of the report, outlined some of the living conditions homeless families face:

It makes it harder for children to develop good eating habits as they have to eat in socially unacceptable circumstances, like dining on the bed, or on the floor, lined up at a counter and sometimes even under CCTV surveillance.

On a practical level, emergency accommodation can impact other important parts of children’s lives such as free play and completing homework, according to Share. 

8679 Leaving certificate exams_90514203 Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

State data

The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI) has pointed to the reasons behind the lack of information on homeless students on behalf of the State. 

“It is important to note that in Ireland, the Junior and Leaving Cert examinations system provides anonymity to students so that they can be assured of objective and fair assessment procedures. This should remain the case for all students, including students who experience homelessness during an exam year,” ASTI education and research officer Moira Leydon said. 

She said the best way to help these students “during this difficult period in their lives is to equip schools to support them”. 

Likewise, Barnardos CEO Suzanne Connolly thinks it is understandable for the Department of Education not to keep such data. 

“Young people really value their privacy and they don’t necessarily want that type of data gathered on them,” Connolly told TheJournal.ie, adding that students who are homeless still need support from their schools. 

So, with all those issues in mind, what provisions are in place to support homeless students who are undertaking exams?

The Department of Education has said in a statement that a range of resources are available to “support schools in dealing with identified additional educational needs, including needs which may arise for children who are experiencing homelessness”. 

“This includes the National Educational Psychological Service who work through a problem solving and solution-oriented consultative approach to support schools to meet the needs of individual pupils,” it said. 

DEIS also provides additional supports to schools from disadvantaged communities.

“Schools use these additional resources to meet the identified needs of their pupil cohort, including the additional needs that may arise for pupils experiencing homelessness,” the Department said. 

It added: “Schools designated as DEIS can also avail of Home School Community Liaison and School Completion supports provided by Tusla’s Educational Welfare Service to assist with school attendance, retention and progression, which can be areas of particular challenge to pupils experiencing homelessness.” 

8763 Action Plan for Education_90565922 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Education Joe McHugh Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Despite the provisions the Department of Education says it has in place, many teachers still feel under pressure and “ill-equipped” to support homeless students. 

Speaking at the launch of a CRA report last year, Maeve McCafferty of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said that teachers are “very acutely aware and concerned about the escalating homelessness crisis”.

“They see it every day in from of them in their classrooms as it manifests itself in many ways in people’s punctuality, attendance, academic achievement, interactions, engagement, the list just goes on,” McCafferty said.

As the report suggests, teachers do feel helpless, they feel powerless and they feel powerless and they feel that they’re ill-equipped to effectively support children and their families, but as the report also shows is that they’re doing their best despite the lack of supports and resources.

“Despite advocating on behalf of families in writing letters and that, they do feel very frustrated that it has little impact.”

Solutions

Aside from providing teachers with better resources and wrap around support to assist homeless students, it seems a vital aspect of helping those who are undertaking exams is providing them with suitable study spaces and accommodation. 

Over the past two years, the government has begun to move away from hotel accommodation towards the family hub model. However, after being introduced, these hubs quickly came in for strong criticism. And, as noted by Allen, not all hubs may be suitable for studying. 

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has previously indicated the placement of families in hubs is a priority, previously referring to the move as “the preferred first response” for those who enter emergency accommodation. 

However, others have complained that the hubs ‘normalise’ homelessness, comparing to the direct provision system for asylum seekers.

1109 New Homes_90549948 Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Housing said that “agreements and contracts require that families accessing the hubs are supported to exit to an independent tenancy within a six-month period”. 

However, it noted that “it is accepted that in some cases, due to the accommodation requirements or preferences of some families, it may not be possible to facilitate their exit from the hub within a six-month period”.

And turning back to the education system itself, Focus Ireland’s Mike Allen, similar to the ASTI, thinks the Department doesn’t need to “keep a database” on homeless students.

He did, however, say: “If a teacher has a pupil that is doing exams who is in homeless accommodation, there should be a toolkit or a pack or people who they can speak to and say this is what such and such school did that worked and another school did something that didn’t really work so don’t try that one.”

You’d have to be critical both of Richard Bruton and the current minister [Joe McHugh] for their failure to recognise that this is part of their problem. Neither minister has ever agreed to meet [Focus Ireland].

The ASTI’s Moira Leydon said that schools must be able to “draw on additional financial supports to provide for the tangible needs of students experiencing homelessness, such as school books, uniforms, transport to school”. 

“Schools must be able to provide meals, homework clubs, supervised study, for these students,” she said. 

The Department of Housing aid that additional supports for families in emergency accommodation are available through the Department of Children and Tusla. 

It said that schools with home school community liaison coordinators are “engaging with the parents from homeless families” and that “children in homeless accommodation are being prioritised within the school completion programme for services such as breakfast and homework clubs”.

Suzanne Connolly said that a school’s ethos and approach to dealing with homeless students is “really important”.

“All schools need to do is think of the young person. It’s not rocket science. It’s about very sensitively talking to the young person and saying how can we support you?” Connolly said. 

“When it comes to homelessness, I actually think how [teachers can] support a young person is talking to them. It’s making allowances, so if they’re late that you recognise they might have spent two hours trying to get there by bus,” she said.

“If a young person is arriving in late, if they’re tired, if suddenly … the way they are has changed, check out if homelessness might be an issue. Just be sensitive to that possibility.”

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