The needs of families that move can be overlooked. Philip Jones examines the importance of a thorough background investigation on mobile families, in order to effectively support the children involved

A family (some of whose details have been changed to protect anonymity) appeared at my school shortly after a holiday break. The mother had no birth certificates for the children and struggled to spell their names, although she was white English. She spoke with an out-of-area accent; her tone was insistent, as if she was in need of help and well used to demanding it. The two boys who accompanied her were docile. Each smiled, but neither spoke.

Their previous school was only about a mile away but in a district that was ethnically very different; they were moving from a deprived white estate into privately rented accommodation in a largely Pakistani neighbourhood.

The family clearly found some aspects of daily functioning to be a challenge. The children would arrive over an hour early, even before breakfast club began. They did not have the right money. At the end of each day their mother would come to collect them half an hour early. Even with considerable support, she was not able to provide them with correct uniforms.

After the children were enrolled, I was able to glean some information from the previous school. Both had special educational needs; the elder, in Year 4, was still working below Level 1 in English. The younger (a five-year-old) could only use unconnected words in his speech; although still a Reception child, he was starting his fourth school.

The previous school was professional and caring in the way it passed on information. I was alerted to poor attendance on flimsy health grounds, parental illiteracy, and a negative attitude towards the children displayed by the mother. The family had moved because of inability to pay the rent on their home. The children themselves were, however, described as ‘lovely’, and there were no known safeguarding issues, present or past.

Details emerge
Despite this assurance, there was much that left me uneasy. I decided to contact my local child protection unit to make doubly sure. What I discovered was a chain of referrals stretching back many years, and across different local authorities. Within my own area, the children had been on the child protection register most of their lives, for neglect and failure to thrive. Their names had been removed only shortly before their transfer to the previous school. During their stay at that school, social services and health had pursued a referral concerning a younger sibling following her hospitalisation, but the older children’s school had not been contacted and so staff there remained totally unaware of that incident and of the case history as a whole.

I contacted social services, who informed me that they had recently closed the case. The family was, however, being ‘monitored’ by a health visitor. What social services did not realise was that as the family had moved from their previous home, and left their GP practice, this monitoring had ceased to be effective.

The boys themselves presented as waifs. They demanded no attention through displays of bad behaviour; rather, they were desperate to ‘fit in’. They had had to learn to adapt quickly. The elder was skilled in making superficial friendships without making commitments, and signalling his needs, just as his mother did.

‘There’s one thing about me,’ he was keen to inform staff. ‘I can’t read.’

His new teacher tried to reassure him: ‘We’ll soon have you reading.’

The boy smiled; but I knew that he knew he wouldn’t be around long enough for this to come true. Indeed, within a week of their arrival in school, we began to hear reports that the family was again under pressure to move, as rent had not been paid to their new landlord.

Understanding the background
The needs of families that move frequently from home to home have been overlooked until relatively recently. A key practical reason for this is that they are not easy to study, and are only identified and described through longitudinal research. As a result, greater attention has been paid to more readily identifiable sub-groups within the category of frequent movers, such as Travellers or asylum seekers.

Richardson and Corbishley did groundbreaking research in the West End of Newcastle in 1999, and identified frequent movers as ‘more likely to be white, unemployed, and generally to lack a sense of purpose or ambition’ (see Joseph Rowntree Foundation summary). They concluded that ‘the cumulative effects of low income, parental unemployment, and an unsupportive environment lead to an early and ill-prepared transition from adolescence to adulthood’ and that ‘this difficult and often incomplete transition may set people on a path of frequent moving as they seek to find the support and love they desire. It is sustained by the break up of households (often through domestic violence) followed by the renewal of the search…’ (ibid).

This set the tone for further research inspired in part by governmental determination to address and challenge issues of social exclusion, feeding into the Breaking the Cycle report (2004), and Every Child Matters.

Further work for the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister led to the report Moving On: Reconnecting Frequent Movers, which was ultimately published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in July 2006. This is described as the government’s first look at mobility as a driver of disadvantage and aims to put the link between exclusion and frequent moving ‘on the policy map’ (DfCLG 2006: 1.3). It examines the impact of frequent moving on service providers, communities and vulnerable people.

It contains important messages for the services it highlights as front line in working with mobile families – education and health – but is only accessible online and classified as a ‘housing’ document.

I would like to think that the education departments of local authorities have looked closely at this report and given practical advice to schools to implement its lessons. However, I have yet to find evidence that even one has done so, and I fear that it is another example of excellent analysis that has fallen into the chasm between well-meaning governmental imperative and local overload. I have also yet to read any detailed study of the impact of frequent moving on a child, from the child’s point of view.

This is clearly vital from a safeguarding perspective; it is also critical for those of us who work in schools, and I make some suggestions in the section of this article headed ‘Some implications for schools’.

Frequent moving and disadvantage
Anyone reading this journal is likely to be familiar with the different categories of child abuse. It is evident that simply moving a child’s home is not in itself abusive; ‘on the whole, population mobility is desirable and positive’ (DfCLG 2006: 1.1) and it should not be forgotten that most families move for good reasons – for better jobs, better schools, better homes, better quality of life.

Yet for families that are already disadvantaged, moving can compound problems.

The report lists nine issues under the heading ‘Frequent moving and disadvantage’ (DfCLG 2006: 4.11), and although originating from adult respondents to a consultation by the SEU, six of these also relate to children either directly, or by extension as expressed in italics here:

  • Losing contact with friends/family – less social capital.
  • Finding and accessing services (or support within a new school setting).
  • Difficulty in finding way round new area.
  • Feeling unsettled and isolated.
  • Losing possessions – including work tools (books, familiar schemes of work, computers and programmes, shared experiences, handwriting policies…).
  • Keep having to start from scratch.               

All this results in significantly lower attainment among pupils who often move schools (DfCLG 2006: 4.13). The situation can be exacerbated by low parental expectations, perhaps informed by their own low achievement. Even if the parents are broadly supportive of educational advancement, almost by definition, for some, ‘making and maintaining contact with key services, such as a school… is a lesser priority than finding suitable accommodation’ (DfCLG 2006: 1.2). Moreover, as the perennial newcomers into an area, children from mobile families tend to find themselves at the bottom of every waiting list for admission, and are more likely to end up in undersubscribed, unpopular, and failing schools. We can imagine the cumulative debilitating effects of frequent moving on a child, and how hard it must be to retain any sense of motivation. In place of qualifications and other key outcomes from the Every Child Matters framework, the child acquires the characteristics of a frequent mover to take into his or her own adult life. Lacking purpose, skills, or commitment to relationships or community, the child’s life opportunities may suffer significant narrowing: ‘one risk factor re-enforces another leading to increasingly restricted outcomes in later life’ (Bynner 2003: 1.2).

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to persuade a hard-pressed social services manager to take on a case on the grounds that a family’s frequent house moves were jeopardising a child’s future economic and social wellbeing. Even very low school attendance, which can be another indicator of a family struggling to cope with the most basic demands of life, is rarely accepted as putting a child at risk. Compared to a child who is battered, a child who goes uneducated might seem to have it easy.

It is possible that strategic multi-agency working under the Common Assessment Framework could allow underlying issues to be addressed and improve outcomes, but families that move frequently tend to be reluctant to engage with agencies except insofar as they meet immediate short-term needs. In any case, their propensity to move on continually disrupts attempts to make an assessment.

Some implications for schools
Moving On recognises that ‘frequent moving can pose particular challenges for those providing services. Most services are designed to be delivered within a geographical area and few are set up with mobility in mind’ (DfCLG 2006: 4.1). This situation is made worse by institutional blindness and parochialism. Few professionals, particularly if already overworked, will actively pursue a ‘difficult’ family that has moved on. Whether in schools, social services, or health, the tendency is to breathe a sigh of relief and refocus attention on the next pupil, client, or patient.

I would contend, however, that dogged pursuit is entirely the correct course of action. Families that move frequently do tend to flag themselves up, but we need to choose to see the signals and act upon them.

What ought we to do?
Ideally, many mobile families would benefit from an in-depth review covering such areas as health, housing, finance (including debt counselling), drink/drug abuse support, training/adult literacy, and job finding. With limitless resources, such intensive input would afford the brightest prospect of breaking the cycle of social exclusion.

Realistically, even very modest aims would be a step in the right direction.

In schools, the first target is often to identify the problem and, as the case study here indicates, this is not always straightforward as information disappears when families move. Rightly or wrongly, this is compounded by professionals’ concerns over matters of confidentiality, data protection and open access to records, which leaves much information buried in ‘working notes’ or in people’s heads.

In lieu of other effective systems for the transfer of information, schools are well placed as potential hubs of communication. When a family moves in, it is essential to collect together as much information as possible, as quickly as possible. When it moves out, the information needs to move on too. This not only assists monitoring, it helps enormously if the risk to children shifts into a category of abuse which necessitates statutory intervention.

A guide for schools dealing with frequent movers
Here is my seven-step guide for schools dealing with frequent movers.

1. Read the signals. There are too many to list here, but the case study reveals a number.

2. Be proactive in seeking information. For example, this could include making direct contact with previous health visitors as well as previous teachers.

3. Be proactive in informing others and setting up links. In the case here, social services had no idea the family had moved, and though health services were aware they had gone, the family had left their GP and failed to register with another.

4. Recognise the importance of procedures to welcome and induct new families. The parents may need higher than usual levels of support with school routines and expectations, and a degree of trust has to be built very quickly and against the odds. The child is placed under a huge strain by each move to a new school, the effect of which is likely to be underestimated by the parent. It falls to the school to create a welcoming ethos and supportive framework to minimise anxiety.

5. Don’t make empty promises. Assumptions that the child will stay in your school are probably false. The child is acutely aware of this and medium or long-term plans will be regarded as akin to empty promises. Targets need to be short term; a target for today gives a chance to deliver success, while tomorrow the child could be elsewhere.

6. When the family moves on, make sure that information about them moves too. This can be especially important if a family is moving to try to avoid monitoring by agencies concerned for children’s welfare. I dealt with one case in which a family disappeared overnight. After following up a number of leads, I managed to get the name of a road in a distant city. Direct phone calls to the police and social services confirmed both the address and a high level of risk. As a result, I was able to make an initial contact with the new local school even before the family arrived to register the children, passing on relevant information after they had done so.

7. Keep notes. Secure archiving is obviously important, but it can be invaluable to retain information for several years before shredding it. Not only is it possible that a family will return to the same school after several years, it can also happen that future incidents trigger detailed investigations into a family. I was once contacted by a social services department 350 miles away about children who had been at my school for a fortnight two years previously. Since then, they had passed through a dozen schools leaving no trace other than their dates of entry and departure. The archive yielded a wealth of information and the child protection officer was delighted.

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council.