Stability in Work and Play

By | 20 October 2006

For children in care, apart from all their other problems, education can be a nightmare. Start with the difficulty of paying attention in school at all if your life is in turmoil and you are crippled by anxiety about yourself, your parents, your family, your home. Add to that any difficulty you might have settling in to a new home, be it with foster carers or in a children’s home. And then throw in the possibility that your new home means a new school, so you lose track of mates who might have helped see you through the bad times. It’s no wonder children in care are, as Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, recently reminded us, five times less likely to get their GCSEs and 25 times more likely to end up in prison.
Could boarding schools be the answer? It is certainly a live issue for the Government right now, with boarding schools, even at more than £20,000 a year, half the cost of care. Educational standards are outstanding. Pupils are expected to work hard and play hard, and small classes with dedicated teachers ensure great value-added scores for weaker pupils and excellent grades for the academically able. Pastoral standards mean that boarding pupils have the best care 24/7. A vulnerable child could build the friendships and relationships which might make all the difference to a young life.
Would it work? Many boarding schools have a long history of helping vulnerable children, being founded as part of the charitable movement of previous centuries when benefactors opened schools where they saw the need.
Today there are educational trusts that may be able to help a child in need reach a place in a boarding school. Lord Adonis himself benefited from such intervention in his own childhood.
So, although it is not a new idea, will it work in its new incarnation? The idea in principle is certainly worth exploring further. The Government has expressed more than an interest and some local authorities and schools are signing up to work on the practicalities. Schools need to make clear what they are able to offer – the number of places per year, for instance – and to whom; some are more academically selective than others.
State boarding schools may be the Government’s first port of call, as they charge only for boarding, not for teaching. Their fees are dramatically lower than is usual in the independent sector, probably less than £10k a year rather than £22k. Not only are these fees more palatable to a local authority, but also state boarding schools may be the acceptable face of boarding for a Labour government which has not always smiled on independent schools.
State boarding schools differ in kind: some are selective, some comprehensive. There are 35, of which two are sixth-form colleges. One takes pupils from the age of seven, which may be the ideal age at which to catch a child in danger of falling through all the nets.
Whatever places schools are able to offer, uptake will then depend on local authorities presenting them as one of the options available to a family with problems. Much will depend on persuading their front-line officers to include this new option in the range of solutions they consider. It would be useful if the Government were to back the principle with dedicated cash.
If there is no immediately visible funding, it is hard to see social workers choosing boarding as the most obvious answer to a child’s problems.
A child in care may cost the taxpayer a great deal in the end; but that can be a long way down the line, and less important to the case officer making a decision now with the year’s defined budget stretching at the seams.
A major player in the decision-making today is the child. All schools depend upon the children within the gates wanting to be there. If they don’t, mayhem ensues, even in a standard classroom, let alone in a quiet dormitory in the middle of the night.
What about parents? Even if they see a boarding school as valuable to their child, they may be reluctant to let go, particularly if the move means distance and difficulty. A child, too, may turn down what would be a life-enhancing opportunity because of what is perceived as responsibilities at home.
With a will, the idea can work. It is very good news that the Government, local authorities and schools are working together to explore the possibilities. Offering a boarding education to vulnerable children could be the first step to a better childhood, good qualifications, and happy and productive adult lives.

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