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Bed, board and books for pound;15m

Academy aims to point the way to a new boarding role, reports Graeme Paton

A pound;15 million academy in south London is to be built with a residential wing, creating the first new state boarding school in 40 years.

Southwark council confirmed this week that boarding facilities are included in plans for a new academy to replace Aylwin girls' school.

Residential places at the school, which is being sponsored by Conservative peer and carpet millionaire Lord Harris, would be for vulnerable children with problems at home.

Cathy Loxton, the head of Aylwin, said: "We are in a hugely disadvantaged area and for many students the most stable thing in their lives is school.

We hope to offer respite care for pupils, accommodation for a few weeks or months, when their parents are having difficulties, have to go abroad or have a problem with housing."

Children would not be charged to live at the academy, which is due to open in 2008. Funding for the accommodation block, now the subject of a social services feasibility study, has yet to be secured. It could add anotherpound;2 million to the pound;15m bill.

The backers of other academies, state schools independent of local authority control, are also said to be considering boarding pupils.

The plans emerged as Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said she would support the expansion of state-funded boarding schools if Labour wins a third term.

Ms Kelly said children with family problems or behavioural difficulties would benefit from a boarding education.

Sir Cyril Taylor, head of the Specialist Schools Trust, has been asked to draw up proposals to expand the role of boarding schools. He said the Government should also consider sponsoring some children from broken homes to attend boarding schools.

There are 35 state boarding schools in England and Wales, accommodating around 4,000 pupils. In March, the Government announced a pound;5m grant for the sector, which may double next year, allowing schools to build places for an estimated 400 more pupils.

Melvyn Roffe, chairman of the State Boarding Schools Association, welcomed the extra investment and new-found interest from Ms Kelly, but warned that boarding schools were not a substitute for children's homes.

"We have been lobbying government to enable us to improve opportunities for vulnerable children but boarding schools are not borstals and a boarding education is not a panacea for the disruptive," said Mr Roffe, head of Old Swinford Hospital, a state boarding school in Dudley.

He said there was a risk that admitting more pupils with behaviour problems may damage standards at state boarding schools, where 75 per cent of pupils gained at least five good GCSEs last year.

Plans to expand boarding will be a central theme at the Boarding Schools Association annual conference in Grantham next week. Jonathan Hughes-D'Aeth, chairman of the BSA, said: "Schools are able to offer a caring environment for one or two pupils with behavioural problems, but expansion should be undertaken with caution."

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