Special report: Children in care may be sent to boarding schools

The failure of children in care to achieve the same level of
examination passes as other children is a well-documented fact. In
an effort to improve looked after children’s educational
attainment – and their life chances – new education
secretary Charles Clarke is considering a plan to send them to
boarding schools, writes Anabel Unity

The proposal is based on allowing local authorities to purchase
places for children in their care in boarding schools instead of
buying them residential care beds or foster care placements. While
the fees at top boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow are by no
means cheap, they are a fraction of the £100,000 it can cost a
council to support a child in care for a year.

Department of education and skills officials have already
approached trade body the Boarding Schools Association about the
feasibility of developing such a scheme. A DfES spokesperson said
they are very keen to explore the option following the success of
Ryan Bell, who featured in the Channel 4 series ‘Second Chance’.
Although not in care, Bell had experienced difficulties at an
ordinary school and was sent to Downside boarding school in Bath.
He has excelled at the school and is now taking his GSCEs.

A DfES spokesperson said: “The case of Ryan Bell has shown that
independent boarding schools can offer sustainability and
continuity that allows children who have opted out of mainstream
schools to thrive.”

He added that the department believes local authorities need a
range of strategies for improving the educational attainment of
children in care. “We hope that independent boarding schools and
local government will continue their discussions and identify ways
to work together to improve both care and education arrangements
for children in care,” he said.

The idea was also suggested in Liberal Democrat social services
spokesperson Paul Burstow’s report ‘Set up to Fail?’ It calls
for a pilot scheme to be created to offer a number of looked after
children, aged 11 and over, the opportunity to attend a boarding
school. Its outcomes could be used to help develop a programme.

Clearly the government is eager to look at ways of improving the
education of children in care. But are boarding schools geared up
to meeting the needs of looked after children, who are often
vulnerable, and will their staff need additional training?

Dick Davison, joint director of the Independent Schools Council
information service, said the “professionalisation” of boarding
school staff means they were in a very good position to provide
care. “Boarding schools are very experienced at looking after
vulnerable children because there are vulnerable children in all
classes of society.”

Boarding schools provide a “stability and continuity” that is
missing from the lives of some children, he added, regardless of
whether they are in the care system or not.

Davison said his organisation has long since championed
extending places in boarding schools to young people in care, and
says the sector’s staff already has the necessary skills to
deal with them.

If the government does progress with the scheme it must ensure
that the needs of looked after children are considered individually
and the policy is not adopted on a blanket basis, argues Essex
council’s deputy director for learning and social care Liz

She said it is essential to consider “the fit” between the child
or young person in care and the boarding school they would attend.
“I could imagine where this would work, but it could also be that a
looked-after child is like a fish out of water if placed in a
boarding school that is not appropriate.”

Railton, who is also the Association of Directors of Social
Services honorary secretary, said all education and social care
staff working with a looked after children and young people in
boarding schools, would need to communicate regularly and

She added that social care staff from the placing authority
would also have to liase with the boarding school to make sure the
child had somewhere to go during holidays. Additional training may
be required to help the process, she said.

Chris Osborne, principal policy and practice manager at The
Children’s Society, agrees that plans must include what
happens to a child out of term time. She warns councils should not
consider a looked after child as ‘out of sight out of

She said: “One risk is that there would be no permanent
placement for a child to return to during the holidays. Local
authorities might not want to keep a foster placement or
residential place open for that child to return to during

Access to an independent advocate for a looked after child or
young person while at a boarding school is vital, Osborne urges.
She said: “If they are unhappy or concerned about an independent
advocate can be hugely important in the protection of a looked
after child and to ensure their good quality of life.”

‘Set up to Fail? Overlooking Looked after Children’ is available
from stokoer@parliament.uk

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