Can boarding schools help prevent children being taken into care?

Professionals are being urged to consider boarding schools as an early intervention method for children on the edge of care, with Kent Council leading the way. Daniel Lombard reports

Professionals are being urged to consider boarding schools as an early intervention method for children on the edge of care, with Kent Council leading the way. Daniel Lombard reports

When one thinks of boarding school, idyllic scenes like this, from Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers, come to mind. What people might not realise is that boarding schools can actually be a useful resource for children’s social services.

Boarding school has fallen out of favour as an option for children in difficult family circumstances, as social workers have focused on keeping families together.

There are currently fewer than 100 “assisted boarders” in boarding schools whose fees are paid by local authorities across the country, according to the Royal National Children’s Foundation.

One authority is trying to revive the model, however, after an Ofsted inspection of Kent’s children’s services in 2010 highlighted poor levels of educational attainment and a high number of school exclusions among looked-after children in the county.

Kent Council will begin offering boarding school places for up to 30 children at risk of entering care later this year. The children, who have parents with mental health or substance misuse problems, are likely to be aged between nine and 12.

The council believes this will deliver a better standard of education and reduce the number of children entering care, which will itself relieve pressure from overstretched services for looked-after children. Kent has 1,400 looked-after children, and an additional 1,400 placed by other councils.

Family group conferences will be used to discuss the idea with families, and only children who give their full consent will take part. They are likely to be looked after during school holidays by grandparents and other relatives.

Kent’s assisted boarding places will be funded by a combination of local authority funding, bursaries from charities such as the Royal National Children’s Foundation and discounted fees offered by some boarding schools for vulnerable children.

Jenny Whittle, cabinet member for specialist children’s services at Kent Council, suggests the annual cost to the authority itself could be as low as £4,500 per child, which “would almost certainly be less than the cost of foster care”.

She explains that the traditional boarding school environment, “with the support of a housemaster or mistress would provide extra-curricular activities, a regular routine of bedtime, healthy meals and exercise, and discipline that is usually not seen in the home environment of the children who would be enrolled on this scheme.”

The use of boarding education for disadvantaged children was promoted under the previous Labour government by former schools minister Lord Adonis, an assisted boarder himself in the 1970s.

Traditional prejudices

However, the 10 participating authorities in the Pathfinder scheme, launched in 2006, only managed to persuade 17 children to enrol, with just 11 remaining in place by the end of the pilot.

One of the biggest barriers, according to Sonia Jackson, emeritus professor at the Thomas Coram Research Unit and who co-wrote an evaluation of the scheme, was the prejudice of social workers.

“In the current system, it’s down to the social workers to convince the child that boarding school would be a good move for them,” she says. “But local authorities were not putting children forward for consideration for boarding schools because social workers took the view that boarding schools were for the privileged few and were opposed to them in principle.”

But Jackson says for certain children, usually those without psychological or behavioural problems and with talents that could be developed, “it could be very successful”. Another common concern is that children might be “fish out of water” when mixing with pupils from different social backgrounds and having to learn a new set of rules.

But Colin Morrison, chairman of the Royal National Children’s Foundation, says many boarding schools “have a tremendous amount of experience in supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds” and use mentoring schemes to support children during transitional periods.

The Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Surrey, a state boarding school which has 50 “foundationers” – children from disadvantaged backgrounds – is in discussions about accepting children funded by Kent Council.

Helen Pollard, director of marketing and admissions, says the school would never disclose a child’s status unless they wished it to be known.

“What the foundationers really want is to be like every other child, to go out and do activities that other children take for granted. That’s what really works, being treated like other children, and they reap the rewards.”

Case study: ‘My boarding school gave me so much support’

William Bulman was an assisted boarder at Reed’s, an independent school in Cobham, Surrey, for eight years. His fees were paid by the Royal Wanstead Foundation (now the Royal National Children’s Foundation) and the school’s own foundation. Now 26 and a Cambridge graduate, he is studying for a PhD in child psychology at Manchester University.

“My mum was a single parent with income beneath a certain threshold and my family were concerned that I had stopped making progress at the local school. So I went off to boarding school as a foundationer shortly after my 10th birthday. At first I was homesick but soon adapted to boarding life and made friends with other children from different parts of society and different parts of the world.

“We played a lot of sport, had hot chocolate nights, pillow fights, watched films and went on at least one trip per weekend. It was more fun than being at home, and I opted not to go home at half term.

“The only disadvantage was when my mum moved house, it was difficult to get to know children in the local area.

“Boarding school really came into its own when my dad – whom I was still very close to – was diagnosed with a brain tumour five months before my GCSEs. Under traumatic circumstances, I found sanctuary in the routines, friendships and facilities of the school without even realising it. I got six A stars and four As in my GCSEs and the results gave my family a boost days after he died – easily the proudest moment of my life.

“The education was top quality, which showed in my exam results and right the way through school and since. The experiences gave me so much in those crucial years of my development.”

“Darrell looked. She saw a big square-looking building of soft, grey stone, standing high up on a hill. The windows shone. The green creeper that covered parts of the wall climbed up almost to the roof in places. It looked like an old-time castle.

“My school!’ thought Darrell, and a little warm feeling came into her heart. ‘How lucky I am to be having Malory Towers as my school-home for so many years.'”


£30,000 – annual fee for top independent boarding schools in UK

£10,000 – average annual fee for state boarding schools

£130,000 – average annual cost of children’s home placement

£26,000 – average annual cost of foster placement

Sources: Boarding Schools’ Association; Unit costs of health and social care, Personal Social Services Research Unit, University of Kent (2007)

(illustration: Pete Thom/Illustrationweb)

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