Is boarding school the answer for vulnerable children?

Boarding schools are usually seen as a preserve of the wealthy. But while big name schools such as Eton and Harrow have retained their air of exclusivity, overall the elitist image has been slowly changing. Pupils are now coming from a broader range of backgrounds with some boarding schools opening their doors to vulnerable groups of children.

One of the reasons for this cultural shift is the government’s Boarding Placements Pathfinder initiative, launched in 2006. The scheme, initially run with 12 councils and then expanded to 16, offers children on the verge of being taken into care the opportunity to go to boarding school. The hope is that the structured environment will help keep them out of the care system, enable them to maintain contact with their families and have the opportunity to do better in education.


An evaluation of the scheme, carried out by the Thomas Coram Research Unit for the Department for Children, School and Families and due out in the new year, is set to state that 17 children have been placed by 10 councils under the scheme and of those 11 are still in placement.


Views about the scheme are mixed. The evaluation is expected to state that expectations from some quarters were wrong boarding school only ever being a realistic option for a small number of vulnerable children. Others, however, have been disappointed by the low uptake and success rates.

Central to the debate is the scheme’s eligibility criteria, which are said to exclude children who have learning or behavioural difficulties. Some argue that the low figures are due to the criteria, developed by the DCSF, being too restrictive – excluding most children on the edge of care. Others argue that children with higher levels of need should be catered for outside the boarding school system.

Norfolk Council has placed one looked-after child in a boarding school and is currently in the process of placing several others. None of the children are or have been placed under the pathfinder scheme but Sarah Hatfield, a senior educational psychologist at the council who is heavily involved in the work, says that this would change if the scheme widened its criteria.

“Two years into the placement there’s the feeling in Norfolk that the criteria need to be extended and we hope to work in conjunction with the DCSF in establishing any new ones,” she says.

More accessible

The criteria aside, Hatfield says the scheme is excellent and has potential in making boarding schools accessible to many more vulnerable children.

She accepts that the scheme won’t be suitable for all, but says some social workers have an unfounded distrust of the private sector and that this factor, together with low expectations, has led to boarding school not being considered as an option by many professionals. She argues that social workers need to ask “is this good enough for my child?” when considering the options available.

“When people have come up against a family that’s not coping, the boarding pathfinder is going to be used as an option. To me it’s a brilliant option,” she says.

Suffolk has placed five children as part of the pathfinder initiative, two of which have been very successful. John Harris, director of children, schools and families at the council, agrees with the research’s assessment that the scheme was only ever going to help a small number of youngsters.

“We only consider the placement in quite specific circumstances, not as a general response,” he says. “It’s for children who we think can benefit particularly from a boarding ethos and we have had very good results.”

Harris, who was involved in the development of the scheme, says the eligibility criteria are correct because the scheme was never meant for children with the most complex needs. He says that if the government decides the criteria need to be broadened it will also have to make a judgement about whether boarding schools are the place for that level of need to be met.

Placement success

Matching children and schools is crucial to placements’ success. Both sides need to be aware of what is expected of them and should be honest when they feel a situation isn’t working. Flexibility and willingness to adapt are also required.

King Edward’s School in Witley, Surrey has 10 children placed by councils. Some are in care and others on the edge of care.

Headmaster Kerr Fulton-Peebles says that, although none of the children have come through the scheme officially, a number have come as a consequence of it, their local authorities’ awareness of the boarding school option having been raised by the publicity around it. The school, which has a history of working with vulnerable groups (40% of its pupils receive financial assistance), is now interested in becoming involved in the scheme.

Fulton-Peebles says that placements work best when the child’s state school teachers help to match children to the right boarding school because they will know the young person’s character, strengths and weaknesses. He says social workers’ input is key.

“Our experience has been positive,” he says. “Each authority has been realistic about the matching process, which is absolutely critical. Where the input from the existing school is included in that matching process it is a better kind of success.”

The children placed by councils will have different backgrounds to most of their boarding classmates. This is where the school’s pastoral support plays a vital role, it being essential that the children are helped to assimilate and not left to cope on their own.

Increased self-esteem

Fulton-Peebles reports much greater self-confidence, a better ability to build relationships and increased self-esteem among the children at his school. He says the school does all it can to help the integration process through initiatives such as peer mediation and regular group and individual tutorials.

He also recognises that the scheme is only for specific children, but still believes more should have benefited.

He blames the low uptake on the small sums of money involved, (councils receive a flat payment of only £5,000), the expectation that placements will be funded by councils and charities, and scepticism about the model by some social workers.

“It would only ever have been suitable for a small number of children but if you think of the numbers in care and on the edge of care I would be a little embarrassed that more haven’t come through,” he says.

The DCSF is believed to be considering how to increase the numbers of children on the scheme. A spokesperson said the government was not aware of any problems with the eligibility criteria but emphasised that the purpose of the evaluation was to highlight possible improvements.

Many see the scheme as a positive initiative and believe more action is needed for it to reach its full potential.

Community Care articles on the pathfinder :

More Community Care articles on the pathfinder


More about the scheme

Financial support and help with finding suitable placements is available from:

Frank Buttle Trust

Royal Wansted Children’s Foundation

Joint Educational Trust

Information about the schools involved in the Pathfinder from:

The Boarding Schools’ Association

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