It was inspiring to see the talent, commitment and enthusiasm for
learning shown by a boy who had been labelled unteachable, once he
was given excellent teaching, wise pastoral care and the space to
express himself at Downside public school, in Somerset, for the
Channel 4 programme Second Chance.
It is easy to see why education secretary Charles Clarke believes
young people in care could benefit from the opportunities on offer
at private boarding schools. The idea that those we find
challenging are more sinned against than sinning, and can rise
above the disadvantages of their circumstances is surely the
foundation for many vocations to social care.
Clarke’s idea is somewhat inconsistent though, from the government
that abolished the assisted places scheme which gave those with
academic aptitude but low incomes the benefit of a private
education. The government’s idea then was that public money should
be invested in improving services for all, rather than supporting
institutions that are fundamental to this country’s social
divisions and unease.
Striking the complex balance between personal advantage and general
principle, a passionate debate for so many parents, should perhaps
be the duty of corporate parents: elected members. If other
children and parents who can afford private education have the
choice, so should they.
But, as the Department of Health says, boarding school will only
ever be right for a minority of children in care. Furthermore, the
chief schools inspector said this week that one in five independent
schools fails to meet basic standards, particularly in police
checks for staff.
And for the majority, Second Chance provided a more
important lesson. It should have been called First Chance.
The child in the programme, labelled as having failed the
professionals and services provided for him by the state, had
actually been failed by them. At least he still had self-belief and
his family behind him.
For many young people in care, who need a stable, supportive home
and specialist care as well as a decent chance at education, even
the best public school will be too little, too late.