Government considers boarding schools for vulnerable children

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A plan to use boarding schools to look after vulnerable children
would be worth doing even if it helped only a few hundred children
every year, the Department for Education and Skills told Community
Care this week (News, page 6, 30 June), writes Haroon
Ashraf.

“We are not suggesting that boarding is the answer in all
cases, but it’simportant that where boarding can help, it
should be considered on its merits,” said a DfES
spokesperson.

The DfES is exploring the scope for making more use of boarding
school provision for vulnerable children with the State Boarding
Schools Association, independent boarding school representatives,
and local authorities.

“Discussions are still at an early stage and it is too
soon to speculate on their outcome,” the spokesperson
added.

Vulnerable children that might benefit from boarding include
looked-after children, children whose family circumstances are such
that without a boarding place they might become looked after, and
children who have been disruptive in mainstream education and have
been assessed as suitable for boarding.

The government’s plans, mentioned in their election
manifesto, have received support from school authorities and child
care professionals, who said the plans had economic, educational,
and social merits. However, it is too early to say how many
children would be eligible.

The Commission for Social Care Inspection’s provider
relationship manager Steve Briggs said boarding schools offered a
structured lifestyle with many activities which would suit children
whose lives were not structured enough for them to achieve and be
happy.

“The main issue would be for a school to be able to admit
a child at the right time in the child’s life for them to have the
best start and be able to settle. In other words the same issue as
for any placement of any child looked after away from home,”
he said.

Co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ children and families committee John Coughlan said
the embryonic proposals aimed to expand carers’ options.

“It is not directed at children in care as such, but is
intended as a potential family support option. For example, as one
of several other strategies to help families and even stop their
children coming into care.”

Independent Schools Council (ISC) director of communications
Richard Davison said for some children a mix of boarding education
and fostering would provide a more effective and more economical
alternative to current plans.

Davison, whose organisation also represents the Boarding Schools
Association, added that the economics of the plan could be enticing
to the government.

“There is no doubt that a judicious mix of fostering and
boarding would be less expensive than some of the care options
currently available to local authorities. But our contention is
that the educational security and continuity afforded by boarding
would also offer young people major personal
advantages too.”

AN OLD IDEA
Surveys have shown looked-after children are less likely
to succeed in the classroom compared with children who aren’t
in care.

* In England in 2003, 53 per cent of looked-after children
obtained at least one GCSE or GNVQ qualification compared with 95
per cent of all school children.

* Nine per cent obtained at least 5 GCSE A* – C compared with 53
per cent of all children.

* The national rate of unemployment for 16-17 year olds was 12
per cent but at 19 years old, 32 per cent of care leavers were not
in education, training or
employment.

But the concept of using boarding schools to help vulnerable
children is not new. Some state boarding schools already have their
own charitable foundations that can support vulnerable children to
a limited extent.

Some local authorities also have supported places at state
boarding schools. However, this is not common practice, and the
government is keen to explore the potential for more systematic use
of boarding to support vulnerable children with boarding need, said
the DfES spokesperson.

Partnerships between the state and private sectors are
well-established and a successful means of sharing knowledge and
experience between the sectors for the benefit of both, he
added.

However, Davison warned that boarding was not a sensible option
for all looked-after children, or all those who have been excluded
from mainstream schooling.

“Boarding schools can offer something distinctive to some
of these children, but only after their likely responses to
boarding have been assessed and only if they are referred young
enough for boarding to be effective,” he said.

REGULATION

Experts have suggested that the special needs created by having
vulnerable children in boarding schools may put a higher inspection
and regulation load on schools and authorities.

Currently all ISC schools are regulated and inspected on a
six-year cycle by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, under a
framework approved and monitored by Ofsted.

In addition, all boarding schools’ welfare provision is
currently inspected by CSCI using a standards framework drawn up
both by the sector and government departments.

However CSCI’s Briggs said if the school was registered as
a children’s home, it would be regulated by CSCI in the same way as
any other such establishment. If it remained a boarding school,
then CSCI would inspect on behalf of DfES. It would be up to the
DfES to consider whether any additional approval was needed.

“CSCI can inspect boarding schools announced and
unannounced as frequently or intensively as the circumstances
require,” said Briggs.

“We already ‘case track’ children’s
welfare records as part of our current inspection and speak to
individual children, in that respect there would not need to be
much difference. For the child, the less they stand out may be
forthe better, so we would not want to treat a looked-after child
in a less considerate way than other children.”

CLEAR APPROACH

Although experts have been supportive of the plans some have
expressed concern that the initiative might confuse an already
complex area of practice.

“We want to ensure that there is … a clear approach
to matching such a service to the needs of children (rather than
vice versa),” said Coughlan.

“But there is a view from within the sector and DfES that
there is a possible avenue of support here for a small group of
children and on those terms we are happy to assist in the
exploration of the idea,” he said.

Davison said he hoped the working group considering these plans
understood that boarding was not a universal panacea.

“But for some vulnerable children, if referred early
enough, it could be an educational and personal
lifeline.”

 

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