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'A free place at boarding school can transform the life of a vulnerable child'

The leader of a national children's charity explains why her organisation is offering free boarding school places to vulnerable children who will start Year 7 in 2017

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The leader of a national children's charity explains why her organisation is offering free boarding school places to vulnerable children who will start Year 7 in 2017

Offering a place at a boarding school to a child on a Child Protection Plan or assessed as a Child in Need may not seem the most obvious solution to his or her problems. But for the right child, at the right time, I believe very passionately that it can be exactly the right intervention. Indeed, it can be transformational.

Buttle UK, a national children’s charity, has been offering funding for vulnerable children to attend boarding school during their secondary education for over 60 years. We have found, time and time again, that the impact of boarding can completely change the direction of a child’s life. In many cases, it prevents them entering care.

At what is a time of incredible pressure on the budgets of our statutory services, a more creative and effective approach to meeting the needs of vulnerable children clearly must be found. But the case still needs to be made to persuade those involved in supporting these children through schools and statutory services. That is why Buttle UK is embarking on the most comprehensive research yet conducted into the impact and cost-benefits of the use of boarding in this way.

Let me try to address some of the most common concerns:

1. “If you haven’t completed the research, how do you know it will be good for a child in my school?”

Buttle UK has been doing this for a long time. We work very closely with boarding schools in both the independent and state sectors. All have “good” or “outstanding” Ofsted inspections, or the equivalent with the Independent Schools Inspectorate. And the results we get are consistently impressive. Last year, 72 per cent of the young people we supported at boarding school gained 5 A*-C grades at GCSE. This compares to only 15 per cent of children in Local Authority care. The due diligence we have in place ensures that the “drop out” rate is always very low. This research is about providing definitive evidence of the impact that this experience has for this particular group of young people ─ something that we will use to persuade the whole educational and social care sectors to adopt the practice more widely.

2. “It picks a few children and leaves others behind.” 

This approach is not about educational preference or advantage. Our focus is on the social and developmental needs of the child, where the home environment is impacting these adversely. For children living with chaotic or disruptive home lives, boarding school can offer stability, security and a level of aspiration that is missing at home. Excellent individual pastoral care and support is available to help address a child’s complex developmental needs. This increased support from trained professionals in and out of class does often result in better academic attainment, but the children have not been offered this chance in order to give them an advantage in terms of social mobility. It is to address issues that, if not tackled, might otherwise result in them entering the care system.

3. “It alienates children from their home situation and community.” 

We do not find this. Instead, we find that a little time apart can actually strengthen relationships between the child and family that were otherwise declining. One mother wrote to us recently to say that her son “and his brothers actually miss each other during the week and have now started to rebuild and repair their relationships...I couldn't put a price on this”. This is just one case and there are many more like it.

So, Buttle UK is offering up to 50 places at boarding schools across England for those starting Year 7 in September 2017 and is inviting primary schools and charities working with children and families to refer eligible pupils. We will follow the journey of these pupils in terms of their wellbeing and academic outcomes. The researchers will carry out in-depth case studies on families and explore if the intervention is cost effective. 

The Education Endowment Foundation is funding the evaluation and has appointed independent researchers from the University of Nottingham to conduct the study. The Department for Education is also supporting the project. Each young person, at the point of referral, must be in Year 6 and have either a Child In Need status, or be on a Child Protection Plan with a local authority.

We need your help. If you are working with children who could benefit from this potentially life-changing experience, then we really want to hear from you. Please do get in touch with Jane Edwards (, to discuss the opportunity in more detail.

Gerri McAndrew is Chief Executive of Buttle UK

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