The Government's Charities' Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech, has reopened the debate over widening access to independent boarding schools.
The Bill will compel independent schools to prove that they benefit the community if they want to keep their charitable status. Private schools are already looking at proposals for means-tested scholarships and for boarding places for "looked after" children.
The issue of boarding for pupils from troubled backgrounds was highlighted recently when Ryan Bell, a black inner-city teenager excluded from his state school, was whisked off to Downside, a Catholic public school, at a TV company's expense. He excelled at Latin and rugby. Unfortunately, after a string of misdemeanours, Ryan was expelled, although he is now happily settled at another boarding school well away from the cameras.
Ryan is only one of several hundred children from less privileged backgrounds who are already at public schools, largely subsidised by charitable trusts. The Boarding Schools' Association, (BSA) says that independent schools, with their reputation for pastoral care, are also ideally placed to take children in care.
"We are just waiting for government backing," confirmed Adrian Underwood, the BSA's director. "It is one way of bridging the divide between state and independent education and the schools are proud of what they can offer."
The State Boarding Schools' Association is also pressing the Government to provide coherent support for pupils who need a boarding place, according to Melvyn Ross, who is head of Old Swinford Hospital school and the association's vice-chair.
He believes that the schools save social services hundreds of thousands of pounds by providing security for children who would otherwise be in care, yet families are forced to rely on a hotch-potch of charitable funding to cover the boarding fees.
The issue of subsidising boarding places for children with difficult home circumstances was last aired in the 1960s, when the Wilson government ordered a commission to investigate public schools. It found that in 1967 local authorities were providing a huge subsidy to independent boarding schools, and 15 per cent of their pupils were at least partly funded by the state. The children included those from homes where both parents worked, where parents worked in the forces and from single-parent families.
The commission said that independent schools were divisive and the country would benefit if they admitted more children from poorer backgrounds. In 1968, it recommended that the public schools should lose their charitable status. They should also accept 50 per cent of their pupils from state primary schools and share teaching resources and other facilities with local state schools.
Marlborough College was one school which was originally eager to widen its intake. In 1964, it took 21 "Swindon boys" from the town's state schools into the sixth form, with mixed results.
"The fee-paying parents asked why they should go on paying when other people were getting it free or cheaply," recalls John Dancy, who was headteacher at the time. "It also imposed a pretty rapid culture shock on the new boys, which most found stressful."
Soccer was considered "ungentlemanly" by the college boys, and the state school boys found the experience was like "entering the army, university and some old firm, all at once", according to one academic who studied the experiment.
But some of the boys adjusted well. Three became heads of their houses and another edited the school magazine. Several went on to university.
Unsurprisingly, other public schools were less enthusiastic about the commission's proposals, and they were roundly rejected by the Headmasters'
Conference, the leading public schools' association.
Meanwhile, the advent of comprehensive schools, the escalating costs of boarding and the growing feeling that it was harmful to uproot children from their communities sounded the death-knell for the vision of "social" boarding.
So would the revival of boarding offer an answer to some of the problems of children from precarious families?
The Buttle Trust, set up 50 years ago by an enlightened clergyman to help children of single parents, says that providing boarding helps to keep families together. It supports around 270 pupils a year. Some have parents with alcohol or psychiatric problems, others are living with grandparents or adoptive parents.
"We have more requests for help than we can handle," said Gerri McAndrew, the director, who has a background in fostering. She says that boarding can strengthen an adoptive placement by providing respite for the parents, who may be struggling to cope with an emotionally damaged child.
Kingham Hill school, near Oxford, has a significant number of pupils who would otherwise be in care or with foster parents, according to the head, Martin Morris. He says there are many children from disintegrating homes who desperately need stability.
Founded by a Victorian philanthropist to rescue street children, 40 per cent of Kingham Hill's pupils get help with fees and all its scholarships are means-tested, although dwindling investment income has forced the school to take some day pupils and nearly 60 per cent of pupils are full fee-payers. Former pupils include Andrew Adonis, who is now an education adviser to Tony Blair.
Christ's Hospital, near Horsham, West Sussex, is another of the handful of public schools which remain true to their founders. It has nearly 600 years' experience of educating needy pupils. All parents are means-tested and 20 per cent of the pupils pay no fees at all. Although children have to sit an entrance exam, social need is one of the admissions criteria. In the past, the school has taken children in care who passed the exam.
The head, Dr Peter Southern, explains that even children from the shakiest home backgrounds settle in quickly. The school has a peer counselling system and staff are trained to deal with any problems that arise.
"The notion that pupils are carrying around enormous emotional baggage affecting them all the time is not true," Dr Southern said. "Children are remarkably resilient creatures who will flourish if they are just given the right opportunity."
Even if Dr Southern is right about the merits of a spell in boarding school for children from challenging backgrounds, many doubt whether proposals to increase the number of independent school places based on need will come to much.
Clive Griggs, emeritus professor of politics at Brighton university, says:
"I cannot believe that they would ever take large numbers of disadvantaged pupils from inner cities. The independent sector always chooses pupils who will bring kudos to their schools."
Yet Graham Able, chairman of the Headmasters' Conference and head of Dulwich College, is urging schools to fulfil their original foundation statutes. One option is to increase the number of means-tested scholarships and bursaries.
David Palfreyman, bursar of New College Oxford, who is a trustee of the Harpur Trust which owns Bedford school and Dame Alice Harpur school, says schools are beginning to look hard at ways of justifying their charitable status. He believes that the abolition of charitable status would lead to a 10 per cent rise in school fees.
He says: "The question is whether we spend charitable income to finance a few needy pupils or if it would be more effective to help seven state schools within a 50-mile radius."
He is cautious about prospects for change. Any new rules on public benefit must have teeth, otherwise schools will still think it is enough to "let the peasants in to play on the field", he says wryly.
British Private Schools - Research on Policy and Practice, by Geoffrey Walford, OUP 2003.The Buttle Trust: 020 7828 7311. email@example.com