The housing experiences of children in Scotland

Growing up in good-quality, stable housing is important for children’s ability to thrive. Although most children have the chance to do this, some have more difficult housing experiences. Recent evidence from Tocchioni et al, 2021, for example, suggests that more and more children in UK are born in private rented housing, which is both of lower quality and more insecure. Poor quality housing (such as with no heating or poor ventilation) has been directly linked to physical health problems for children. Moreover, the high level of stress that parents experience due to living in unsuitable or unaffordable housing can spill over to their children. Children whose families are forced to move frequently in search of better and more affordable living situations often struggle, as moving home disrupt their friends and school networks.

In a recent study, Moving home during childhood: is it harmful?funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Francesca Fiori from the University of St Andrews used data from Growing Up in Scotland to investigate the impact of moving home on the socio-emotional and cognitive development of children living in Scotland.


According to her study, moving home during childhood is quite common, as 54.5% of children in Scotland moved at least once by age ten. For most families, the main reason for moving are housing or neighbourhood improvements; a need for a larger house; a desire to raise children in safer and more family-friendly areas; or a preference for owned rather than rented accommodation. For some other families, however, moving home is a response to adverse circumstances, such as relationship breakup, eviction or financial hardship. Moving home for unexpected or undesired reasons, and doing so repeatedly, occurs more frequently to children from disadvantaged families: lone-parent families, families in private renting, or families on low incomes.

Given the high rate of residential mobility of families with young children, and the link between housing instability and other forms of socio-economic and family disadvantage, we need to understand the implications of moving home for child development. Francesca’s research shows that, in Scotland, children who move home during childhood have more emotional and behavioural problems than children who stay in the same home. Children who move home also have lower vocabulary abilities, but only at younger ages. For school-age children, moving is not associated with lower cognitive performances, suggesting that school might be an equaliser for children with more complex family experiences.

The greater social, emotional and cognitive difficulties observed in moving children might not necessarily be the effect of the move itself, but rather the consequence of circumstances before the move, such as financial difficulties or parental separation. Francesca’s research shows that although these factors do explain part of the differences between movers and non-movers, they are not sufficient to account for the emotional and behavioural problems of children who changed home three or more times.  

These findings point out the inadequacy of the UK housing situation. Most children experiencing repeated moves do so within the private rented sector. And the number of children born and growing up in rented accommodation is growing, as young families have increasingly no other choice due to expensive house prices and lack of social housing alternatives. Housing instability compounds other forms of socio-economic and family disadvantage, and as such, policies aiming at reducing inequalities should tackle high rents and increase stability for those in the rented sector.

Scotland has already undertaken some positive actions on housing affordability and security of tenure but more remains to be done to ensure that every family has access to affordable, secure and high-quality housing. The next Housing Bill is an opportunity to take forward further reforms in the rented sector and increase the rights of tenants. Housing to 2040 provides the opportunity to develop a long-term strategy to improve affordability and stability across the private rented sector, as well as accessibility and standards across the social rented sector, offering homes that meet people’s needs.

Also in this issue

Other articles published in Spring 2022 newsletter.