Boat children deserve equal access to education


We call upon Canal & River Trust to stop its distance requirement that is preventing boat children from attending school.

In the 19th Century, the authorities took steps to ensure that the children of canal boat families could go to school, by passing the Canal Boats Acts of 1877 and 1884.

But the Canal & River Trust’s recently imposed policy that forces boaters without permanent moorings to travel at least 20 miles before turning round is actively preventing children who live on boats from attending school.

The policy means that children who live on boats can end up having to travel up to 20 miles to school – which is not always possible. If the parents are unable to travel that far, they risk losing their home.

The enforcement policy adopted by Canal & River Trust in May 2015 against people who live on boats without a permanent mooring has vastly increased the distance that it claims boaters should travel to avoid eviction from its waterways. This enforcement policy is not supported by the law. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the children of boat dwelling families to attend school. There is a very strong correlation between boat dwellers who are threatened with homelessness (by having the renewal of their boat licences restricted to 6 months or refused) and those with children at school. At the very least, boater families with school age children should be entitled to reduce their travel in term time balanced by greater movement in the school holidays.

This is what the head teacher of a primary school attended by many boat children says:

“I feel very strongly that this is an issue concerning Human Rights. I do believe that the law is clear that children should be in education, and attending very regularly. Our children’s attendance is carefully monitored and by law children are only allowed to be absent for exceptional circumstances. I don’t think that any of the laws that refer to boating were intended to make it impossible for the children of parents who continuously cruise [ie. live on a boat without a permanent mooring] to attend a local school. This is the impact of the interpretation of the law by Canal & River Trust. I am very concerned about certain families where a very reasonable pattern of movement is being considered unacceptable because it is more limited in term time”.


Boats can be licensed to use Canal & River Trust’s waterways without a permanent mooring under Section 17(3)(c)(ii) of the British Waterways Act 1995. Out of a total of approximately 32,000 licensed boats on Canal & River Trust’s 2,000 miles of waterways, only around 5,000 are licensed without a permanent mooring.

Between May 2015 and June 2016 some 1,576 boaters without a permanent mooring were threatened with eviction after Canal & River Trust restricted their licences to less than 12 months. Boaters without permanent moorings who had had the same travel pattern every year and whose licences had been renewed without question going back as long as 20 years, were suddenly being told that they were not complying with the law and were being threatened with non-renewal of their licences, despite the fact that the law has not changed since 1995.

In June 2016, Michelle Donelan MP held a meeting with Canal & River Trust Chief Executive Richard Parry after a number of boat dweller families contacted her for help because Canal & River Trust’s enforcement policy was making it increasingly difficult for their children to attend school. The MP sent Canal & River Trust a proposal for reduced movement in term time balanced by greater movement in school holidays. Canal & River Trust has not to date provided a response, despite the Equality and Human Rights Commission also raising concerns about Canal & River Trust’s treatment of families later in 2016. Instead, the charity stated in November 2016 that it was seeking to “assist” boaters with school aged children establish “compliant patterns of movement” and that any request to relax its requirements in term time would be balanced against “a number of other legitimate aims” including “fairness to other boaters”.

This is a letter from a boat dwelling family:

“We are extremely concerned about the impact that the Canal & River Trust interpretation of the waterways act is having on families with school age children. Canal & River Trust’s policy of moving boaters further has far-reaching consequences for boat families.

When we were at our furthest point (15-20 miles from the school) the children and me were up at 5.30 in the morning and out by 6.30 to travel for two hours to get to school for 8.45 (they were 4 and 6 at the time). By the time I got home it was almost time to go again so I would often spend the day near the school. The children, especially the youngest were exhausted when they came out and their education and behaviour was dramatically affected. We then had a further two hours travelling back home, eating their tea on the bus or train then the walk to wherever we were moored, often having to negotiate dark uneven and muddy towpaths. They couldn’t go to friends’ houses after school or attend clubs as that meant getting home even later so their social lives were also affected, on top of that were the travelling costs.

I contacted Canal & River Trust several times trying to arrange a reduced cruising pattern but I was refused. At the present time Canal & River Trust’s policies actively discriminate against children and families. I’m not implying that this is deliberate, what I am saying is that it is a reality and is happening, action needs to be taken now to stop it becoming worse.

Boat families are not asking to stay in the same place or for special treatment or for a blanket rule. What I would suggest is that Canal & River Trust take reasonable steps to assess the needs of individual families and allow them reasonable adjustment where appropriate.”

Canal & River Trust is a charity whose charitable objects include “the improvement of the conditions of life in socially and economically disadvantaged communities in such vicinity [of its waterways]” and that “navigation” includes navigation by any ship or boat used also for human habitation. The charity’s 10-year strategy includes a vision of “living waterways – teeming with wildlife, heritage and people” with the aim to “enrich lives”. Canal & River Trust’s enforcement policy is actively undermining these aims as it actively disadvantages the children of boat families and clears its waterways of families and young people, who should be the lifeblood of the waterway community and would otherwise be the next generation of boaters.