A 200-bed hostel is no place for students like Fahmida (centre) and Vincent (right) to prepare for their exams. Jo Shuter (left) plans to set up a charity to house her school’s 16- and 17-year-olds
Just as they prepare for their exams, 16- and 17-year-olds can find themselves homeless. Camilla Pemberton reports on a school with a bold solution
Like most students on the morning of an exam, Vincent Griffiths-Williamson is anxious and bleary-eyed. He hasn’t slept much, he has barely eaten and he’s worried he will under-perform.
But, unlike most A-level students, 18-year-old Vincent has been preparing for his exams in a chaotic, 200-bed hostel full of drug addicts, and infested with cockroaches and rats. The talented student – he achieved straight As in his GCSEs – has been homeless for nearly a year.
After a family row last June, Vincent, a pupil at Quintin Kynaston school in north-west London, arrived home to find the locks changed and his belongings in bin bags. In the five months it took his local authority to house him, Vincent slept on friends’ floors and park benches. The hostel he was finally placed in, where he still lives, is only marginally more comfortable.
“There was no heating in the winter so I was always freezing and I can’t keep food because of rats and cockroaches. The cockroaches get everywhere: my bedroom; the bathroom; the kitchen. Once I opened a packet of onions and loads of cockroaches came crawling out,” he says.
His experience is symptomatic of a problem that has frustrated Jo Shuter, head of Quintin Kynaston (QK). Although standards at the large comprehensive have improved dramatically since she took over in 2002 – once failing, QK is now rated outstanding by Ofsted and, for the past three years, all year 13 students have gone to university – teenage homelessness is a significant issue.
Seven of Shuter’s sixth-formers live in hostels and, she suspects, at least 10 more are heading the same way. “Sometimes they or their parents can no longer cope,” she says. “Sixteen-plus is a dangerous time for kids because councils don’t take them into care. They’re usually placed in hostels for under-25s which are so inappropriate.”
Infuriated by this, Shuter devised a plan to buy a property near the school which, set up as a charity, would provide homeless students with a safe, nurturing home.
“QK House will mean all our kids can finish their education in a caring, family-type environment,” Shuter says. “I thought of my own, incredibly well supported, 18-year-old son and the idea that he could cope in a hostel, while finishing school, is a joke. So how can we expect a fragile 16- or 17-year-old from a dysfunctional background to do so?”
Vincent knows only too well how hard life can be in a hostel. “I’m failing at school,” he admits. “It’s so hard to concentrate or sleep in the hostel. The fire alarm goes off constantly, fights are always breaking out and other residents have tried to rob me. I don’t like being there so I try to get to school as early as possible and leave as late as I can. Having QK House would have been amazing.”
Shuter plans to employ two staff to act as house parents but QK House will mainly use the school’s existing resources. Its catering manager will visit twice a week to give cooking lessons, while learning mentors, school nurses and support staff will help too.
Buying the house will be the biggest challenge, she says – property in north-west London does not come cheap and she is looking for a “large, 10-bedroom family home with a garden” – but already there has been a groundswell of support, including from celebrities and Premiership footballers.
Following a £2m appeal in December, insurance firm Aviva gave £5,000 to set up a charity and offers of money, expertise and pro bono legal work have flooded in. A documentary about the project is already in production. “I expect fundraising to take two years but we’ve been so humbled by all the support already – from a company which is donating study beds for every bedroom to someone who may lend us a temporary property.”
The plans have also interested managers of children’s homes. One, who wished not to be named, said: “Homeless young people often end up in prison or on benefits. If local and central government invested in schemes like this, it could help vulnerable youngsters to finish school and get into further education or training. It makes financial sense.” He suggested children’s homes could join forces with schools to fill this service gap and create more business in the economic downturn.
But the charismatic Shuter, who has been awarded a CBE for services to education, points out that the reason she has turned around a notoriously tough comprehensive school into a thriving institution is because she is a “typical north London Jewish mother” who tries to run QK “like a children’s home without beds”.
“I was brought up in a loving, supportive family where there was no sense that you could ever fall through the net, and that’s what I try to create at QK,” she says. “I tell my staff that their first job is to be a parent in this school and their second is a teacher, site manager or school nurse. I want our kids to know that we care about them and that we want them to thrive, emotionally and educationally. The QK House is an extension of that ethos.”
COUNCILS’ LEGAL DUTY
Children’s services have a legal duty to assess homeless 16- and 17-year-olds and place them in safe and appropriate accommodation but, according to Jo Underwood, a solicitor in the children’s legal team at Shelter, many still shirk this responsibility.
On average, she has to threaten a council with legal action “once or twice a week” for failing to meet their duties. She says: “QK House is an innovative plan and highlights the gaps in social services provision, probably due to pressure on resources, but ultimately it should not be necessary.
“Councils have a legal duty to think creatively about where they can place a 16- or 17-year-old who presents as homeless, and this should not include hostels or B&Bs.
“Councils should look at a range of options, including children’s homes and foster placements.”
Fahmida, 17, feels QK House would have benefited her.
She moved into a hostel when social workers decided it was no longer safe for her to stay at home. “It doesn’t feel much safer in a hostel,” she says. “It’s dirty and full of scary people. But the worst thing is no one really looks out for you. I have a key worker but I still have to sort out my benefits, shopping, cooking, washing and cleaning on my own, as well as my school work and exams. It’s hard and lonely.
“Although QK House will come too late for me, it will mean other young people don’t have to go through what I have so I’m 100% behind it.”
This article is published in the 19 May 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Time for study as calm emerges out of the chaos”
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