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Homeless mothers in England spend up to £300 per month on buses to get their children to school

When women with children are made homeless – usually by either rent arrears, after no-fault evictions or domestic violence – they are often moved into temporary accommodation. The latest figures from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities reveal there are presently 104,510 households and 131,000 children living in temporary accommodation in England.

Sometimes this lack of a permanent place to call home is not so temporary. In Greater Manchester, specifically, homeless families spend on average two years in temporary accommodation. During that period, they can be moved multiple times, at very short notice and across boroughs.

For children experiencing homelessness, school is often seen as the one steady, safe environment. And yet, being moved to temporary accommodation can often cause extensive disruption to schooling too. In 2023, the homelessness charity, Shelter, surveyed 1,112 respondents living in temporary accommodation. It found that almost half (47%) of families surveyed with school-age children had needed to change their schools due to being moved far from their previous home. One in five (19%) children had to travel more than an hour to get to school.

Our new report, published in collaboration with the Shared Health Foundation, shows that some homeless families are spending up to one quarter of their monthly income – as much as £300 – on bus travel. Gaps in eligibility criteria – or the inability to complete applications – mean that people living in temporary accommodation are often unable to access financial support for what the UK government calls “home-to-school travel”. Free school bus passes for compulsory school-age children are one of the clearest examples of this.

In uncertain times, maintaining stability at school is crucial for children’s wellbeing.
PA Images|Alamy

How homeless families rely on bus travel

Nationally, free bus passes are available to both children eligible for free school meals and those whose families are in receipt of the maximum level of working tax credit. But this eligibility only extends to children attending their “nearest qualifying school”. Oldham council, for example, defines this as the nearest council-maintained school or educational establishment with places available, that caters to the age, ability, aptitude and any special educational needs of the child.

There are exemptions to this, mainly on the basis of children attending schools further away on religious grounds. These exemptions, however, often do not apply to children who have been placed in temporary accommodation far from their schools.

In other words, the “nearest qualifying school” would be a school near to the child’s new temporary accommodation – to get the free school bus pass, the child would have to move to that school. If parents do not want to move children, out of concern that further disruption will be bad for them, the family – some of the country’s most vulnerable and indebted families – will have to pay large amounts of money for bus travel.

Between May 2022 and October 2023 we interviewed 13 women who all resided in Greater Manchester and had been made homeless with their children. They had lived in temporary accommodation and had experienced rental debt, council tax debt and other personal debts.

We also interviewed local frontline staff, councils, support workers and integrated service charities.

Our interviewees told us of the considerable logistical, financial and emotional burdens of maintaining stability in their children’s schooling. However, they all had little sense of how long they would be able to stay in their current temporary accommodation.

For homeless families, moving children to schools local to their current temporary accommodation is highly risky. They may only be in the area for a short period.

One woman we interviewed, Casho (not her real name) became homeless, with her three children, after experiencing domestic violence. Bus travel was crucial to ensuring her children stay in their existing schools and not miss out on education. But in order for each to reach their schools the family was forced to take multiple buses – 18 single bus journeys, daily.

Casho’s children were eligible for the free school bus passes. But to apply she needed to pay for passport photos and the wait between applying and receiving the pass could be weeks long. Casho did not have the money for passport photos so had not even been able to apply when we spoke with her.

A shelf in a foodbank.
Mothers worry about not being able to affordd travel, heating and food.
Maureen McLean|Alamy

For all the parents we interviewed, low income levels and debts owed meant that any additional payment – no matter how small – could be the difference between, say, getting the children to school, or being able to afford to put the heating on.

As Casho put it: “Sometimes food’s running out. But the bus, I need to buy a pass again.” Until she was able to sort out the free school bus passes, she was having to spend £280 per month on bus journeys: more than a quarter of her total monthly income on school transport.

Casho has started to bid for a permanent property. Ideally, this would be within walking distance of her children’s schools – though that is unlikely, given the extremely limited choice of social housing in the area.

No child should be expected to move schools simply because transport is unaffordable. And no borough in the country should be without formal provision for transport in place for those adults and children living in temporary accommodation. And yet, although under consultation in 2019, it is currently not government guidance to include free travel in a local authority’s home-to-school travel policy for a child who has been forced to move into temporary accommodation or a refuge.

Unless such guidance is made statutory, and the financial means provided to institute it, the country’s most vulnerable children will continue to suffer the consequences.

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