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Opinion 'Telling my child she'd missed a school place broke my heart'

Mum Margaret Lynch says she and her family are no closer to owning their home, after years of trying.

LAST UPDATE | 16 Jan 2023

LIKE MOST MILLENNIALS, I spent a lot of my formative years in front of the TV. This was where I developed most of my concepts around life and a highly irrational fear of the Bermuda Triangle.

Needless to say, neither has been particularly relevant to my adult life. The concept of a ‘successful’ life was always sold to me as college, job, house and kids. These were almost a given in life, the markers of adulthood.

I was watching shows like Married with Children or The Simpsons, where you have a standard family: few kids, pets, and a big house on a single income solely funded by one salary – who isn’t even a high achiever!

Although these shows were hilarious, they are entirely out of touch at this point. In fact, the idea of my entire generation owning houses, bought with a single income, is so wildly outrageous that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a more likely reality.

This lifestyle was portrayed as the basic standard, at the time, because it covered the bare essentials. It was almost seen as the least appealing option. And yet it is now unattainable. The current housing crisis has locked this generation out of our most basic necessities and will impact every generation that comes after.

Holding out hope

I wrote an article here at the end of 2020, musing about the strange year that had just passed and what the next year might hold. At the time of writing, I was very much still in a ‘baking banana bread at 3 am because time has lost all meaning’ haze. We had just spent 18 months living with my parents, as our landlord of the previous eight years had decided to sell.

As I wrote before, if you have never experienced the joy of moving back with your parents in your mid 30’s with a partner, two kids and five bunnies in tow, I am not sure I can accurately capture the magic for you.

By 90’s US sitcom standards, I was (am) a total loser. Back then, we were hoping that the worst was behind us and that we might buy in 2021.

When I read back over the article, I can’t believe how hopeful I sounded. I don’t remember being so optimistic at the time. I am blaming it on a Covid hangover. While 2020 was difficult, challenging and very frightening, there was also so much hope and goodwill. Countries sent PPE where it was needed. Doctors and nurses flew home from other countries to help our hospitals. Scientists across the globe worked together to develop, produce and issue vaccines. A friendly looking fox wandered across the ha’penny bridge. There was a strong sense of ‘togetherness’. I was sickeningly hopeful about what 2021 would hold for us. Sure, just look at what we had all just come through, we could do anything.

Then, 2021: like a shovel to the back of the head. We sat down with two different banks who both reacted as if we were a cough in a supermarket in March 2020. My partner is self-employed but had only been so for the previous year. We needed three years of statements before we could get mortgage approval.

This is despite the fact that we had 18 months of savings under our belt and had paid rent (which was someone else’s mortgage) for the eight years prior.

We had to wait for our industries to reopen, and it was the second half of the year before things began to settle. Our eldest daughter started sixth class and we were starting to look towards secondary. The primary school she was in was a feeder for a local community secondary just up the road. In Junior Infants, we were told that she was guaranteed a place, but somewhere along the way these rules changed, and now you had to be living in the catchment area.

I didn’t realise. I didn’t check. I just sent off the application.

Crushing disappointment

In early December 2021, we got a letter from the school saying she hadn’t received a place. It was like all of the air had been sucked out of the room. I felt like such a failure of a parent. It was the same gut-wrenching feeling as when we had to leave our previous home. I couldn’t believe that we were once again, going to have to explain something else that we couldn’t provide and that she should never have to worry about.

She had been in this school since she was five. All of her friends and most of her class were going to this secondary. I rang the school, and while they were very sympathetic, there was nothing they could do. They told us she was number 37 on the waiting list and gave me advice on how to appeal the decision. I immediately started the appeal process.

I also called the other local schools and the ones in the surrounding areas. All were full, and applications closed, but they could add us to the waiting lists (and advised they were very long). I felt sick at the thought of what was ahead of us.

Our options were so limited. We had always planned on buying in the catchment area anyway, but we had no way to speed up the mortgage process.

All of her friends started texting as soon as they got home from school and saw their acceptance letters, so she immediately knew something was wrong.

Telling her that she hadn’t gotten a place, because I didn’t read the fine print, because we didn’t live in the catchment area, because we were no closer to buying a house, is a conversation that will stick with me forever.

Her friends cried when they heard she hadn’t gotten a place – they couldn’t imagine school without her. These are not things that 12-year-olds should be worrying about.

Plan B

We immediately started to look for a place to rent within the catchment area, but there were only two rental properties in the entire area we were looking at. The entire area is a town with a population of 20,000 people. One of the places was so dilapidated you could barely see the front door through the weeds, and there was no furniture provided. The second was a duplex, but because both were in the catchment area for the school, like thousands of other people, we would have jumped at either, in a heartbeat.

I sent more emails than I care to admit for both and detailed our situation including how we had been refused a secondary place.

In an amazing coincidence, the owners of the duplex are a wonderful local family, who also had daughters in the same schools. Our story resonated with them and they kindly agreed to let us view the place. They said they had to take the advert down after an hour as they were inundated with hundreds of calls and emails (I know, I know. I am part of the problem). We were very lucky to get that viewing, and a week later we were signing the lease. The other property was being leased by an agency and we never had any response.

We moved out the week before Christmas, which was chaotically brilliant. Although renting a property was not in our plan, it was the most amazing opportunity and has given us all some much-needed space.

My parents have actual peace since we left, their box room is now a study, their one bathroom is no longer fighting for its life and my dad proudly tells everybody how much space he has in the wheelie bins.

The kids have their own rooms, and they are within walking distance of their friends’ houses. We all love this house, and although it may seem like something minor and is miles off our original plan, it has changed almost everything. We feel so incredibly lucky to have been given this opportunity.

While the relief of our own space was monumental for us, it did nothing to budge the school as their process took the address given on the date of application. We appealed to the Board of Management and then to local TDs, some of whom were very helpful, some who didn’t respond. I tried everything and the back and forth carried on into 2022. I appealed at every level up to and including the Department of Education, but nothing could be done. Eventually, our case was referred to TUSLA where I was told our only option was a school that was 55 minutes drive away, in a town I had never heard of, and in the opposite direction to where we both work.  Then there was talk of a home tutor. I don’t have the words to describe the disappointment I felt in myself, and for her at this point. I didn’t know how I was going to explain how few options we had.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to, because that same afternoon, the school called to offer her a place. The relief was staggering and we had many people to thank.

‘Hidden homeless’ 

Finally, we had found peace. We had what we needed. But, while it definitely was an ‘up’, should it be?

We spent months fighting tooth and nail to achieve what is a basic necessity. We had to take a step back in our plans. I work a 40-hour week and my partner averages 65-70 hours each week. We are heavily taxed.

We should be able to provide the bare essentials. Having a roof over your head, sending your kids to the local school, living around the corner from your friends and being able to call for them as you want are all things that we should be able to provide for our kids.

These are things I never gave a second thought to as I grew up. I don’t think my parents did either. My family and I are now part of the hidden homeless in this country. The generation that is rapidly approaching 40 and stuck in box rooms, the Irish equivalent of living in your mom’s basement, which was the ultimate burn until it became our reality.

Living with your parents as an adult is a stunted existence, for all involved, exacerbated by a collective sense of shame that we can’t take part in these basic parts of life, or provide them for our kids.

It continues to impact our lives in unexpected ways and will continue to impact the lives of every generation after us.

There are families in rented accommodation who can’t adopt pets, paint walls, or hang posters. You don’t know when you could be asked to move out, and there isn’t anywhere else to go. Our hotels are heaving with families and our parks are dotted with tents.

If you raise generations of kids who can’t relax in their own homes, you are setting up those generations to fail. If you don’t meet the basic needs of developing minds, they never go on to achieve all the things they might have. We are a nation of writers and poets, hidden away in box rooms, unable to create. The impact of this crisis will reach far beyond our generation.

Our story is only one, and it is a positive one for now. We have some respite to our housing situation with the rental, unlike many others. There are others much worse off, who didn’t get the positive outcome after putting up the same, or other, fights.

It doesn’t have to be this difficult to just exist in this country, but while those who make the policies continue to profit from a housing crisis, we can’t expect change.

Margaret is a busy mum, working, living and hopefully buying a house in Kildare.

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