Few looked-after children attend boarding schools, but those who do attain some sparkling exam results and at lower cost compared with their counterparts in mainstream education. Is it time for councils to rethink their hostility towards boarding provision? Amy Taylor reports
Eton, Harrow, Winchester College. These are the high-profile, exclusive institutions that come to mind when people think of boarding schools. Few are aware that there are also 34 state boarding schools serving some 4,000 pupils. The question is, are boarding schools, whether independent or state, suitable places for looked-after children or young people who are vulnerable for other reasons?
Local education authorities fund 52 young people – including looked-after children – to attend boarding schools. However, leading figures in education are questioning why this number is so low, kick-starting a debate over the advantages and disadvantages of boarding schools for looked-after children. The Department for Education and Skills is yet to take a firm stance but is using pathfinder projects to explore the potential of boarding provision for vulnerable children.
The low educational attainment of looked-after children is a long-standing problem and is the main driver behind any move towards a boarding school education for this group. The most recent DfES figures show that, although there is a slight improvement with 11 per cent attaining five good GCSEs in 2005 compared with 9 per cent in the two previous years, this is far from the 54 per cent of their peers who reached the same standard.(1)
Christ’s Hospital in Sussex is a charitable secondary boarding school that provides subsidised or free education to most of its pupils, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Chief executive Michael Simpkin thinks the benefits they enjoy could be shared by looked-after children.
“It takes a child from an environment of emotional stress and brings them into one where they are all equal,” he says. “They get the stability of being here and fresh opportunities. It’s that stability and opportunity that’s taken with both hands and which would move them out of an environment which is holding them back from their natural development.”
Colin Morrison, chair of the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation, a charity which helps to support disadvantaged children at a selection of boarding schools, says the stability and care offered by boarding schools could improve the educational performance of looked-after children. The children that his charity supports tend to achieve grades that are as good as or better than the other pupils. “Children in these circumstances fight hard,” he says.
The average charge for state boarding schools is 7,000 a year, one-third that of foster care. And compared with the 50,000 charged by some independent fostering agencies and the cost of residential care, which can reach 100,000, boarding schools represent a bargain.
Generally, councils support measures that save them money but most do not place vulnerable or looked-after children in boarding schools. Morrison thinks the lack of interest is partly down to people’s image of boarding schools as being from a past era and for the upper classes.
He says: “There’s a strong instance of people who think of boarding schools as places of education and they misunderstand what it all means, how mixed a lot of boarding schools are and how good at pastoral care some of them are.”
Adrian Underwood, national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, says the left-wing thinking in the 1980s that dismissed boarding schools as elitist, the drive to keep families together and concerns about such establishments not being open enough are all to blame for local authorities’ lack of enthusiasm. He thinks boarding schools are often misunderstood when in fact they are similar to other schools and have a lot to offer looked-after children.
Not everyone agrees. The Association of Directors of Social Services opposes boarding schools for looked-after children arguing that it is in the child’s best interest to continue living near friends and family.
Paul Fallon, co-chair of the ADSS’s children and families committee, says: “We support the main thrust of government policy which is building local capacity and working together across health, education and social care to keep as many looked-after children as close to home as possible.”
He adds that the ADSS would still oppose sending a child to a boarding school, even if it were close to where the child lived. It views completely institutionalised care as bad for child development and thinks that looked-after children’s lives should mirror those of other youngsters. “That means living and being educated in different places,” he says.
Despite the ADSS’s views, new state boarding provision aimed at councils is on the horizon. Kinghurst City Technology College in Solihull, Birmingham, is due to become a city academy next year and its governors are considering a proposal to add a small state boarding wing as part of its conversion. Some of the places would be reserved for vulnerable children placed by the surrounding local authorities.
Sir Cyril Taylor, chair of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, is a strong advocate of the idea and has called for 10 per cent of all looked-after children to be placed in boarding schools within three years. He wants some of the 200 proposed city academies to have a boarding unit of about 100 beds, with 20 per cent reserved for looked-after children.
However, Morrison has concerns. “What makes boarding a special experience is they [the children helped by the Royal Wanstead Children’s Foundation] are going to schools where boarding is integral to that school. That’s important because we want as little distinction between those who are boarders and the others.
“If we are going to have 100 boarders in a school with 1,700 or 1,800 [non-boarders] you are almost constructing a minority group before you have even started.”
1 Outcome Indicators for Looked-after Children, DFES, 2006
Christ’s the redeemer
Susan finished at her local primary school and began life as a boarder at Christ’s Hospital when she was 11. She was a child with academic potential but had a disrupted home life – her mother was a single parent with an incurable illness as a result of alcohol and drug misuse, and was incapable of caring for her full time.
Christ’s Hospital assessed Susan based on her need for a boarding place along with her academic potential. She was awarded a place as a foundationer (one of the 820 pupils that the Christ’s Hospital Foundation supports).
Susan has prospered at Christ’s Hospital and, following completion of her A Levels, is aiming to go to university.
(1) Outcome Indicators for Looked-after Children, DFES, 2006